TELEMATICS, Trucking in a Digital Environment

June 1, 2004
Wireless data is a familiar technology for trucking. It's acquired a new name in recent years telematics but the benefits of combining remote vehicle communications with information technology have been well understood for over a decade by fleets using wireless systems to improve the routing, security and productivity of their drivers, trucks and trailers. Along with its new name, though, telematics

Wireless data is a familiar technology for trucking. It's acquired a new name in recent years — telematics — but the benefits of combining remote vehicle communications with information technology have been well understood for over a decade by fleets using wireless systems to improve the routing, security and productivity of their drivers, trucks and trailers.

Along with its new name, though, telematics has gained broad attention from some of industry's highest-powered researchers and developers attracted by the potential of connecting mobile data sources with broad information networks. The explosion of activity that has followed is just beginning to show practical results, but in the next five-to-ten years this rapidly developing technology is going to reshape basic fleet operations and business processes in ways even the researchers are struggling to identify.

Telematics is about to complete the transformation to a fully digital environment begun so many years ago when trucking started to explore two-way communications with its trucks and drivers. Some fleets will not only make that transformation, but thrive because of it. Others will hold onto business as usual and slowly fade away.

The timetable is relatively short. The most recent research on commercial vehicle telematics looked at Europe, but its findings are a good indication of how quickly things will move here in North America, a market that has shown an even greater appetite for wireless access to its mobile assets. Released just last month by Frost and Sullivan, the study forecast that within the next five years 5.4-million commercial vehicles will be equipped with telematics systems. By 2009, annual revenues from commercial vehicle telematics are expected to reach 4.7-billion euros, with two-thirds of that revenue coming from services and one-third system hardware.

Researchers offer theory and developers new products and services, but as was the case with the earliest wireless data systems, the transformational power of this potent new combination of communications and information technologies will only be unleashed by its practical application.

Some of those applications, like tracking and dispatch, are obvious and already well understood, but many more are still to be discovered. For fleets, that means success in this new environment is going to require some creative thinking and a willingness to look beyond traditional business practices.


Much of the new activity in practical applications for telematics revolves around asset tracking, especially trailers. In the late 1980s, truckload carriers saw a huge boost in productivity with the introduction of wireless systems for in-cab communications that could automate dispatch and some customer service functions. Today, most fleets can readily see that a similar productivity gain is possible if you can automate the tracking of trailer location and status. The one brake on wide-scale adoption of trailer tracking systems seems to be the cost of both the hardware and service, but many seem to be overcoming that initial hesitation, and basic systems are well on the way to being mainstream technology.

Still, “many trucking companies aren't allowing themselves to think outside the box,” says Craig Boddy, vp-mobile asset tracking for Teletouch Inc. “They're stuck with the paradigm of ‘Tell me where my trailer is.’ Some are using basic sensors to monitor what I call ‘The Three Sisters’ — doors, reefer temperatures and cargo volume — but they aren't thinking of trailer tracking as a basic information pipeline.

“Trucking hasn't risen to the challenge yet of demanding a more comprehensive breadth of information from this system,” he says.

Part of the problem is simply lack of experience with trailer tracking systems. But fleets are also being blinded because they're focusing solely on “the metrics that they know can pay for these devices,” says Boddy.

Eventually the pressure to provide greater visibility for supply-chain management will foster more imaginative uses for trailer telematics. “There's going to be a convergence of the shipper's need to generate more real-time information and the fleet's need to make the best use of its assets,” says Boddy.

“Webs of value will explode as we expand [telematics] beyond vehicles with motors to all mobile assets,” says Chris Wolfe, president of Qualcomm's Wireless Business Solutions. “The opportunities are going to be different in different vertical markets, but in general having the right equipment in the right place at the right time allows you to take advantage of opportunities much more quickly.”

Wolfe also believes that fleets need to look beyond the carrier-customer relationship to find the full value of data generated by telematics systems. Permission to selectively share a fleet's telematic information is a technology problem that's already well on its way to being solved (see sidebar); the key issue is uncovering the value that would make it worthwhile for all parties, he says.

“With RFID, Bluetooth or WiFi, your vehicle might be able to pull into a terminal and have complete visibility of every unit or RFID tag in the vicinity,” he speculates. “Even a cellphone in five years or so might ‘backhaul’ that information to the owners of those units without the phone user even knowing it.”

The electronic control modules (ECMs) on modern trucks also generate and capture a great deal of vehicle data that would be valuable to truck manufacturers and their suppliers. “If you think about developing predictive maintenance, for example, you can see a lot of value in that data for the OEMs,” says Wolfe. “Companies financing or insuring trucks might also see value in information delivered by telematics.

“At the macro level, aggregating fleet data would have a lot of value for people interested in traffic patterns, in planning for new highways or rest areas, for example,” Wolfe adds.


International Truck and Engine Corp. is one OEM that has already identified the value of a fully integrated telematics system. Developed with the help of IBM, International will offer its Telematics Solution system as a retrofit for its new medium- and heavy-duty trucks starting next month.

A “black box” with no driver inputs, at least initially, the International system will provide fleets with vehicle tracking and location information, “but the real differentiator will be vehicle uptime improvements through optimization of maintenance,” says Jeff Bannister, director of truck electronics.

When a truck is first put into service, the telematics system will provide the fleet with maintenance reminders based on actual miles driven or hours accumulated. After about a year of collecting data, the system's sophisticated back-end applications will be able to use that information to optimize service based on the truck's actual operations.

“Out of the box, we're looking at a 20% improvement in service intervals with our solution,” says Bannister.

As more information is collected on vehicles in the International system, the company will be able to begin to accurately predict failures for individual trucks based on comparisons to those with similar operational characteristics, allowing users to extract the maximum life from components and still schedule replacements or repairs before an on-road failure. Prognostics also become more practical with access to such good data.

“By aggregating information at International, we can leverage the full data set for all users and create economies of scale for everyone,” says Bannister. Since International's new High Performance trucks use a multiplexed chassis electrical system, the new telematics can also be integrated with mounted bodies and equipment. “Telematics also gives us a cost-effective way to capture that chassis information,” he points out.

Further down the road, the empirical data captured from trucks in real-world operations can help a manufacturer develop the most effective specifications for a particular application, which will have a major impact on life-cycle costs.

“Today an OEM only has a two-year window into a vehicle's performance through warranty,” says Bannister. “Now we'll have a lifetime view. With more information, we'll see a real evolution in product development that will lead to better trucks for the exact applications they're being used in.”

From IBM's perspective, the International telematics project creates “value networks,” or “an ecosystem evolving around the data stream that will be used by all to create value for themselves and their customers,” says Jim Ruthven, program director for IBM Telematic Solutions.

For example, telemetric data could be used by an insurance company to create preferred rates, while the fleet could use the same data to monitor and refine asset productivity, the OEM could use it to develop better equipment designs or prognostics, and the shipper could use it to feed supply-chain management systems.

“Just having data from the vehicle — how it's performing and where it's located — and getting that data into the hands of all the people who can use it is transformational in and of itself,” Ruthven says.

Although it introduced a relatively simple wireless system a few years ago, Volvo Trucks North America (VTNA) is also believed to be ready to re-launch that system as a full-functioned integrated telematics product in the very near future, one that will provide both fleet and vehicle operational data that can be used by a wide array of back-office applications.

While there's been no official word yet on the new Volvo telematics system, fleets and OEMs “won't be able to afford to do business without [this technology],” says Skip Yeakel, principal engineer for advanced engineering at VTNA.

Certainly the data will enable development of prognostics and have a major impact on both vehicle design and operations. “Statistics from lots of vehicles could be used to do things we only dream about now,” says Yeakel. “It would give us enough data to identify trends in vehicle performance, and allow us to provide real-time exception reports based on aggregate vehicle performance.”

It could also be “a partner in the sky” for drivers, identifying equipment problems and alerting those who could help a driver deal with those problems based an entire range of parameters such as current location, fleet business arrangements, load requirements, and maybe even the driver's food preferences, he says.

“The industry's advanced thinkers are definitely onto telematics, and the early adopters are already here,” Yeakel says. “It's not going to happen before I retire, but it's not too far fetched to talk about telematics allowing autonomous vehicles without drivers, or maybe one driver leading a platoon of 10 trucks. I know that's far out stuff, but there have already been demonstrations of that technology.”

One of those advanced thinkers is Dr. Joseph Salvo, manager of the Pervasive Decisioning Systems Laboratory at GE Global Research. Initially, he says, telematics sources such as GE TIP's new trailer tracking system are providing users with location and the ability to generate alerts based on exceptions and a fleet's business rules.

But once people develop confidence in telematics as an efficient method for highly automated machine-to-machine communications, they can begin exploring other ways to use that information and to create what Dr. Salvo calls “local value pools,” or values that exist just for a short time.

“In the past, we've had the capability of looking for those temporary opportunities by hand, but you couldn't afford to do that routinely,” he says. “For example, you could send someone out into the yard to see if a trailer is empty or full, but you couldn't afford to do that with every trailer every time.

With telematics, “you have a network, devices and systems interacting with very little human intervention,” Dr. Salvo says. “You can check all of your trailers at almost zero cost and capture value that might otherwise have been ignored.”

When fleets understand the value of that kind of data, they will begin looking at both internal and external business processes for similar opportunities. “Changing those processes means moving to new interactions between partners and providers,” says Dr. Salvo. “It means fleets move from managing assets to managing knowledge.”

Dr. Salvo points to logistics, which he calls the heart and soul of the economy, as one opportunity for this type of evolution. “As we've built out connectivity from logistics to other systems, supply-chain management has become more prevalent,” he says. “The next level is knowledge management, where you embed manufacturing, finance, sourcing and other business functions with up-to-the-minute, highly reliable, high quality information [generated by telematics]. That makes rapid decisions possible and allows strategic thinking in real time.”

That's quite a leap from locating a lost trailer, but it's the kind fleets will have to make if they're going to succeed in an environment where telematics are the norm and no truck or trailer is out of reach. As Dr. Salvo says, “The digital revolution is not in the future any more; it's here.”

What's mine is yours, sometimes

Modern trucks with their sophisticated data bus and multiple electronic control units (ECUs) can provide a fire-hose stream of data, especially if you add driver inputs and cargo information on top of the vehicle data stream. Everyone agrees that the true value of telematics comes from sharing that torrent of information with as many people as possible.

The problem is that different parties need different parts of that data stream. Fleets, for example, want information about vehicle operations and locations to monitor and manage asset utilization. Shippers want load status and location information to feed supply chain management systems. Truck manufacturers want to know how equipment is performing in the real world. And researchers want information that can help them spot trends and plan infrastructure investments.

More importantly for the fleets generating that information, there are both business and security reasons to allow each party to view only relevant portions of that data and restrict access to the rest.

Concerns over the disclosure of too much or inappropriate information to the various users could actually hold back wide scale development of telematics, says Dr. Paul Moskowitz of IBM's Watson Research Center.

A data protection and sharing “framework” developed by Dr. Moskowitz and a team of IBM researchers addresses those concerns by offering a flexible way to control confidential data that both secures it and allows owners of the data to set policies on who can access the various components of that data and when.

The framework Dr. Moskowitz proposes sees all identification, location and operational data generated by the truck flowing over wireless networks to a telematics service provider (TSP). The TSP would then be responsible for sharing that data with the entire gamut of possible users, filtering it by business policies, preferences and profiles determined by the fleet. The TSP would also be able to sell portions on a subscription basis to help recover additional value from the system.

Fleets, for example, would get access to all of the data from their vehicles, while a truck OEM might only get selected diagnostic or performance information. Rules could be set to dynamically change the types of information sent to road-service providers, for example, giving them full location and diagnostic data only when a vehicle requires roadside assistance. Aggregated data with identification information removed could be sold to traffic reporting services without compromising fleet confidentiality needs.

“The key is that it be flexible, but effective,” says Dr. Moskowitz. “For example, a trailer rental company shouldn't routinely have your location information, but if you've rented it for domestic use and the trailer crosses into Mexico, then they should know that. With this framework, you can change both the amount and type of data on the fly.”

Maybe, maybe not

No one's sure just yet how telematics will change the trucking business, but there are a lot of ideas floating around. Since radical change usually rewards original thinking, here are some creative suggestions from some highly qualified sources.

  • Smart cellphones will capture and send location and cargo information to multiple shippers and carriers as they pass by RFID tags. — Chris Wolfe, Qualcomm Wireless Business Solutions

  • Like telephone service, freight pricing will be based on volume of use rather than miles moved. — Craig Boddy, Teletouch Inc.

  • Trucks will diagnose problem, notify nearest dealer, check inventory for parts, negotiate price with fleet, schedule repair and then notify driver with directions to waiting technician. — Jeff Bannister, International Truck & Engine Corp.

  • Insurers will be provided with telemetric data for vehicles in return for preferred rates. — Jim Ruthven, IBM

  • Trucks will be operated remotely without drivers, or one driver will lead a convoy of 10 driverless trucks. — Skip Yeakel, Volvo Trucks North America

  • Instead of one-size-fits-all security systems for telematics data, security levels will be set by the value of knowledge being protected. — Dr. Joseph Salvo, GE Global Research

  • Fleets will sell real-time, but anonymous information on vehicle speeds and location to traffic reporting services. — Dr. Paul Moskowitz, IBM

About the Author

Jim Mele

Nationally recognized journalist, author and editor, Jim Mele joined Fleet Owner in 1986 with over a dozen years’ experience covering transportation as a newspaper reporter and magazine staff writer. Fleet Owner Magazine has won over 45 national editorial awards since his appointment as editor-in-chief in 1999.

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