On The Air

Being a late baby boomer, I can still remember radio shows and the phrase, “On The Air.”  In fact, I still listen weekly to “A Prairie Home Companion” and a few other live radio shows on NPR (National Public Radio). Some of the announcers still say that at the start of the show.  

But, that phrase means something very different in this age of cell phones and other wireless devices with 4G LTE, WiFi, BlueTooth LE, RFID, GPS, DSRC, NFC. I can appreciate the guy behind me last night that kept a group of middle-schoolers posing for an extended period of time as he took a picture with his smart phone, saying, “I’m not good with technology.”  

But OTA means something different now—and it’s extremely important to trucks and trucking.  While I live in Oregon and we have the Oregon Trucking Association here, OTA generally refers to Over The Air updates to software for a computer.  Many of us do it already—almost ad nauseum—with our smartphones and repeated updates to apps.  I’m beginning to wonder how much time I spend each day updating some of the hundred or so apps that I use regularly.  

We already have some of the fleet management systems capable of handling over the air updates.  Zonar recently introduced the capability; PeopleNet has a patent for their Over The Air Programming (OTAP); Omnitracs has it; Telogis has it.  But, the computers on the truck that control the engine, brakes, radar, instrumentation and more do not yet have this capability.  They would very much like to have it.  It would save lots of money when large numbers of electronic control units need to be updated in the field to fix a software issue.

Fleets would like not having to route their vehicles to a dealer to get a software update, since it takes precious time out of the revenue producing freight hauling activity of the vehicle and adds overhead with the logistics of it all.  So why don’t we have it?  

Well, updating the fleet management computer using the wireless connection that they control is easier.  Updating a computer that is not safety critical is easier.  Updating a computer that sits on the data bus in “listen only mode” is easier.  Ever updated a program on your computer and found it was incompatible now with another program?  Ever had your computer crash in the middle of an update and have to re-install from scratch?  We can’t have that with our trucks.

This seems to be the kind of activity that calls for cooperation between the many suppliers of ECU’s and a standardized way of doing it.  I’m not aware of any such activity as part of SAE, ISO or our Technology and Maintenance Council of the American Trucking Associations.  I’d suggest TMC at least establish some expectations for OTA from the fleet perspective, that the suppliers can use to create a standard process.


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