Let your engine do the talking

Jan. 12, 2012

The complexity of diagnostic codes has gotten tremendous – even technicians struggle with them. And there’s only going to be more of them developed over time.” –Tim Tindall, director of component sales for Daimler Trucks North America’s Detroit subsidiary

I always find the “back stories” about how a particular piece of truck equipment or technology came into being at times pretty interesting, as almost nothing in this industry ever follows a straight line from idea to development and on into reality.

Take the “Virtual Technician” real-time diagnostic system service that comes standard on all EPA 2010-compliant Freightliner brand trucks equipped with Detroit diesel engines (it’s an optional feature on Western Star trucks).

Tim Tindall, director of component sales for Daimler Trucks North America’s (DTNA) Detroit subsidiary (which makes not only Detroit diesel engines but heavy and medium-duty truck axles and possibly an automated mechanical transmission or “AMT” as well in the near-future) told me at a media event DTNA held here in Miami that “Virtual Technician” got its start back in 2008 as the company’s engineers struggled to find a way to keep tabs on the inner workings of the company’s selective catalytic reduction (SCR) emission control system during field tests.

So DTNA’s engineers took a software package developed by Zonar Systems LLC and modified it to record and transmit diagnostic code information from Detroit’s diesel engines so the engineers could track in real-time any diagnostic codes that might pop up to determine whether said codes were serious or not.

Over time, everyone involved realized such “real-time” transmission of diagnostic codes “could really benefit customers as well,” Tindall told me, so DTNA’s folks got to work figuring out how to package this information for fleets.

[Below, you can watch Tindall describe a new additional feature to the “Virtual Technician” system, called a “Visibility Package.”]

Formally introduced last April, “Virtual Technician” aims to reduce downtime and decrease maintenance costs by providing a technical “snapshot” of the engine’s status as soon as the Check Engine light comes on.

Tindall told me the information related to a particular “check engine” code – and as of now there are over 200 of them – gets transmitted to Detroit’s Customer Support Center, where a team of veteran experts wrinkle out what’s wrong.

“We’re capturing ‘evidence’ if you will at the scene of a ‘crime,’ which is in this case a fault code,” he explained to me. “We replicate the problem then relay that information to the provided contact to determine the exact issue, in addition to recommending what specific service needs to be done, how soon the engine needs to be serviced, as well as providing the location of the closest authorized Detroit service location.”

Detroit’s customer service team also alerts the dealer to the impending arrival of a specific customer truck along with the diagnostic information about the particular issue, so technicians can quickly line up any needed parts, arrange for service and thus speed up the repair process.

Tindall told me doing this kind of advance work helps shave serious time off repairs – anywhere for half a day to a full day in some cases – as technicians don’t have to go through the time-consuming process of figuring out what is wrong. That’s already been done for them via “Virtual Technician,” he pointed out.

Down the road, DTNA hopes to expand the use of “Virtual Technician” to other components as well, such as its new axle family and potentially proprietary transmissions as well, Tindall noted, for as both of those components are now increasingly electronically controlled, they too can provide diagnostic information on the fly.

[David Hames, DTNA’s general manager for marketing and strategy, talks about why integration is becoming more Important to the trucking industry in the clip below.]

As noted by Tindall in an earlier clip, DTNA is adding a “visibility package” to its “Virtual Technician” service to beef up the kinds of data fleets can tap into from their truck engines.

For example, real-time data streams on stoppage time, idle time, speed, location, fuel consumption and more can help fleet managers and drivers alike improve operational efficiencies, enabling them to ultimately enhance productivity, said Tindall.

Who knew engines could do all that and power a truck too?

About the Author

Sean Kilcarr 1 | Senior Editor

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