Telematics: Weaving the future

Nov. 8, 2012
Trends in telematics foretell trucking's future

Following the development of telematics today is like watching a robotic machine weave an enormous carpet of many colors and complicated, interlocking designs. Skeins and skeins of yarn (or data streams) wound onto countless shuttles (telematics devices) fly back and forth across the software loom forming intricate, interwoven patterns of blended shades and tones—nuanced information, surprising insights, subtle distinctions, and endless possibilities.

Telematics, like that carpet, is an amazing transformation of many small, individual elements into a dazzling, almost magical whole that, in the case of transportation, can take companies to places they have never been before—as long as they don’t get tangled up in the process.

“Both the telematics providers and users have evolved so much,” says Dyan Finkhousen, mobile resource intelligence strategy leader for GE Capital Fleet Services. “There have been big changes in just the past five years. People are thinking in terms of ‘telematics-based business intelligence.’

“We are seeing lots of investment in telematics solutions, more than ever. Companies also have more choice and more leverage with providers,” she adds. “Some buyers are already very focused on using advanced analytics to help support decision processes. Others focus on various telematics feature sets. At GE, we try to deconstruct those feature sets to help prospective clients see how telematics functions can support their business goals and guide organizational change.”

“Today, you really can’t compete anymore without telematics,” observes Norm Ellis, vice president of sales, service and marketing for Qualcomm Enterprise Services. “Telematics makes the impacts of various things (like delays) visible. Telematics information has already had a profound effect on trucking—on areas such as safety, driver retention and efficiency.”

TREND: Data Integration

Talk with almost anyone in the telematics business and it won’t be long before the subject of data integration comes up. The theory is that by combining different data streams from a variety of sources, companies can discover valuable information that would have been much less useful or even invisible without the interweaving of other, relevant data.

“Everybody wants information now, not data,” says Jason Koch, a founder and president of Telogis Fleet. “The goal is to bring all the data together from vehicles, handhelds, fuel cards, sensors, diagnostic systems, GPS devices, everything…”

RAIR, a division of DriveCam, helps DOT-regulated companies comply with safety regulations. The ability to combine disparate data from multiple sources is making that a whole new ballgame. Think about holistic evaluations/scoring of drivers, offers RAIR spokesperson Stephanie Wagner. “We can combine equipment usage data (mpg, idling, rpms), productivity data (on-time deliveries), responses to emergency dispatches, safety data (like hard braking and speeding) and compliance data (HOS, accidents and citations) into a single picture.”

“People want more kinds of information,” notes Henry Popplewell, senior vice president and general manager of SkyBitz, which was recently acquired by Telular. “Medium and large customers don’t want to have to go to a SkyBitz user interface page either to get the information we provide. They want to have us interface with the fleet management systems they already use—with McLeod Software or with TMW Systems or others. The very large companies just want us to push the data to them. And everyone is asking, ‘What else can you tell me from the devices I already have?’ ”

“Information is the product in some senses; that definitely rings true,” agrees Christian Schenk, vice president-product market development and product marketing for XRS (formerly Xata). “But the decisions that are driven out of that information will be what really matters. Customers are looking for information in order to make a decision. That means our job is to generate decisions. Our strategy is to produce the answer based upon real data and deliver that.”

One thing enabling this automated decision making is the expanding ability to “flow” data automatically from all sorts of disparate systems and devices to the people who need to see it. “Business process automation frees users from monitoring by automatically routing documents to appropriate queues based on defined rules,” says Cindy Nelson, vice president-marketing and business development for EBE Technologies. “To put it another way, established thresholds [for various functions and outputs] automatically initiate standard sets of responses. The system is managing the data for you.”

TREND: Constantly connected

Delivering decisions, at least timely decisions, requires that companies be virtually connected all the time. “You can’t run a business like a black box where you put decisions in the top and just hope everything comes out all right,” Koch notes. “Today, you have to know what is going on all the time and constantly optimizing to deal with changes. What if a truck breaks down or a driver gets sick or a customer changes his mind? All those things used to be handled manually by a dispatcher [and a driver over the telephone]. Now we can identify problems and re-optimize automatically.

“I still like the ‘war room’ analogy,” he adds. “Even if you are not in the military, you still have to run your business that way. You have to be looking at the most relevant information all the time. I’ve often heard that having a war room or control room changes the psychology of a business. Something positive happens when you post actual, mission-critical information where everyone can see it.

“Lots of utilities, for instance, have a central control room and they like to show it off to visitors,” he illustrates. “It says, ‘We know what is going on. We know what we are doing.’ ”

Making sure that everybody in the company has a window on that “control room” is also an emerging function of telematics. “It is absolutely correct that information is becoming the product of telematics,” says Rick Ochsendorf, senior vice president-operations for PeopleNet. “The challenge we all have is how do we disseminate that information throughout the organization to the people who need it when they need it?

“The big push now, of course, is getting information to the driver in the cab,” he adds. “We have to make sure, for instance, that what the driver sees and is held accountable for is the same thing that the back office is measuring and evaluating—whether it is customer service, driving habits or out-of-route miles. Everybody has to be on the same page at the same time regarding how the driver is performing.”

Trend: Specialized and customized

Ah, but what needs to be on that “same page” is not the same for every fleet, and that is the genesis of another trend in telematics—creating systems that provide fleets with job-specific information.

Different markets have very different needs, notes Norm Ellis of Qualcomm. “On the private fleet and vocational side there is even more variety [than among for-hire carriers]. We have a ‘learned standards’ capability for private fleets with pretty regular routes, for instance, that helps to constantly improve performance along lanes. Fuel management, on the other hand, is a concern common across all markets.”

Telematics providers are taking at least two different approaches to the challenge of specialized needs. The first is to offer job-specific tools. The other choice is to offer standardized telematics platforms designed to take care of the common basics, but also make it relatively easy for fleets to customize some data fields in order to capture and analyze data specific to their own operations.

GPS Insight, for example, is committed to the customization course, according to CEO Robert Donat. “We created a product that meets the needs of typical GPS users, but we made it ‘abstract’ on purpose,” he says. “Nobody needs the exact same thing.”

Say you are a lumber company with 100 various class trucks operating on five lanes, Donat illustrates. You need to know things about board feet and weight and have a vehicle deployment hierarchy that a packaged dry goods carrier probably doesn’t worry about. “The key really is how easy you make it for people to slice and dice their own data,” he says.

TREND: Advanced Analytics

If there really is magic in telematics, then advanced or predictive analytics is where it quietly resides. “We got into this business [of predictive analytics] because there were just too many data silos,” says Tom Fansler, president of Vusion. “Information that might be useful elsewhere was just not visible. Broad data integration and the use of predictive tools are really the way forward. It is a major telematics trend.

“Trucking companies are sitting on a mountain of answers,” Fansler observes. “Our job as vendors is to unlock the secrets of the mountain. There will be as many or more opportunities down the road [as we have discovered so far]. There is a lot of modeling going on in fleets now, for instance, around letting drivers use their time more efficiently. Inefficiencies create dissonance for drivers [and contribute to job dissatisfaction not to mention adding cost].

“Over the past several months, we have also used advanced analytics to help fleets better manage fuel purchasing,” Fansler adds. “To do that, we pull more data from the J1939 data bus on a truck, including fuel tank levels. Then we bump that figure up against the fuel purchase history, actual fill events, and other factors. This allows us to tell the fleet how much fuel the truck could take and how much should actually be pre-authorized for a particular purchase.”

Zonar, which just released its own telematics tablet, is also a big believer in the power of advanced analytics to transform the trucking industry. “We are using advanced analytics to deliver new value to customers,” says Mike McQuade, chief technology officer for Zonar.

“For example, we can tell a fleet why the fuel economy of a particular truck equals X,” he illustrates. “It requires analyzing data from the engine control module, velocity data, data about the driver’s habits, maintenance data and vehicle specs, along with data from other outside sources. We have a patented method to do that,” he adds, “and a whole farm of servers to blend and analyze the data. We use parallel processing—multiple threaded processing—like Google or Facebook does. That allows us to get answers much faster.”

The team at Qualcomm’s Fleet Risk Advisor business is also deploying advanced predictive analytics to give fleets new insights, in this case concerning which drivers are most likely to have an accident in the near future.

“Today, we can build models that look at historical data versus what really happened,” says Vikas Jain, vice president of business development for Qualcomm’s Fleet Risk Advisor. “We can know what a baseline safe driving behavior looks like and then we can spot even subtle changes—higher speeds, poor shift timing, hard-braking—the things that lead to accidents.

We are looking for patterns. [The goal is] to see who is apt to have an accident and why and we want to see that in time to intervene.”

TREND: OEM-installed telematics platforms

Some fleet executives will tell you that they can’t wait for the day when truck OEMs provide standard, open architecture telematics systems that can interface with just about anything the aftermarket develops while still protecting the integrity of the electronic and computer systems the truck itself depends upon. Many telematics providers view that as the ultimate goal as well.

Less than five years ago, that seemed like a very distant possibility. That has changed, according to the latest report on telematics from C.J. Driscoll & Associates. Truck makers are becoming much more involved in the telematics revolution, generally in partnership with trusted telematics suppliers.

“In late 2011, [Daimler Trucks North America] began providing its Virtual Technician solution [developed with partner Zonar] as standard equipment on new Freightliner trucks with Detroit Diesel engines,” notes Driscoll. “Today, Paccar, Volvo, Ford, Navistar, Isuzu and Hino are also offering optional factory- or dealer-installed telematics solutions.

“The primary focus of truck OEM telematics solutions is currently on vehicle diagnostics and maintenance,” Driscoll adds. “However, some OEMs indicate that they plan to offer a broader range of fleet management features in the future.”

Making it all happen

Like the warp threads on that imagined carpet, there are a number of other, very significant changes taking place in the telematics space that provide the framework for other developments, including the rise in the number of handheld devices, improved and simplified user interfaces and a movement (some of it regulation-driven) toward greater standardization in order to achieve greater integration.

Perhaps most importantly, there is an explosion of cooperation and collaboration among suppliers, truck makers, fleets and others. That includes a growing number of mergers and acquisitions, but also a growing number of partnerships.

The user group conferences sponsored by many telematics providers are an acknowledgement—no, a celebration— of the power of team effort to achieve things through telematics beyond what an individual supplier or fleet could do alone. The energy crackling around telematics today is palpable—and it is highly infectious.

Trends in telematics: the thumbnail version

1. Integration of all the data a fleet generates from various sources, human and machine, into a single, comprehensive view of the entire fleet operation, in close to real time.

2. The blending of additional information, such as weather, traffic, historic performance profiles, market data and customer data with the streams of operational data to create a multidimensional, real-time view of a fleet operation set within a larger context.

3. Increased specialization of telematics solutions (or solutions that are relatively easy to customize) designed to provide job-specific information, even for vocational fleets and specialized haulers.

4. A movement toward the use of more open-platform, agnostic telematics hardware that can integrate with a wide variety of user interface devices and software systems.

5. The use of increasingly sophisticated analytics and processing capabilities to help “make sense” of the big picture now available to fleets with the goals of automating certain routine business decisions; moving from quick-response models to predictive/proactive models where possible; enhancing collaboration along supply chains; and creating new businesses based upon providing specialized service to sub-groups of customers with shared needs.

6. Expansion of the role of truck OEMs in the creation of the “always-connected truck.”

7. Simplification of the human interface with telematics systems.

8. Consolidation of telematics suppliers via mergers, acquisitions and partnerships.

9. Greater than ever user input concerning which new applications and functions should be developed by telematics suppliers. The customer really is helping to determine the trajectory of the telematics industry.

10. Dramatic growth in the use of mobile handheld devices, particularly to automate business functions such as the management of mobile service workers, inventory control, driver training and signature capture. There is also, however, a corresponding increase in regulations regarding the safe and appropriate use of handheld devices in vehicles along with new solutions designed to enforce those restrictions.

11. The use of data from vehicles to inform other kinds of decisions, from where to build bridges or widen roads, to forecasting local weather patterns or fine-tuning insurance rates.

About the Author

Wendy Leavitt

Wendy Leavitt joined Fleet Owner in 1998 after serving as editor-in-chief of Trucking Technology magazine for four years.

She began her career in the trucking industry at Kenworth Truck Company in Kirkland, WA where she spent 16 years—the first five years as safety and compliance manager in the engineering department and more than a decade as the company’s manager of advertising and public relations. She has also worked as a book editor, guided authors through the self-publishing process and operated her own marketing and public relations business.

Wendy has a Masters Degree in English and Art History from Western Washington University, where, as a graduate student, she also taught writing.  

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