Trucking is becoming accustomed to using data, and lots of it, to help guide business decisions or even to trigger automated responses to certain events. Is a delivery going to be late because the driver doesn’t have enough hours left to finish the trip? Is a tire underinflated? Is there cheaper fuel along the assigned route? Is one APU more cost-effective than the other?
Today a fleet can see it all, make decisions, and act day in and day out on the information flowing through the organization. So far, that information has been largely based upon proprietary data about the workings of the individual business and the environments in which it operates. What happens, however, if data from a huge number of carriers is combined into much larger data pools that can also be mined for actionable information?
According to some industry suppliers and watchers, that is exactly where trucking is now headed. The jury is still out, though, on what that might mean for the industry as a whole.
Not every company is prepared, at least not yet, to set aside privacy concerns and splash into the common data pool, either. After all, it takes a certain level of trust just to begin the process of confidentially sharing your data with a telematics provider.
Telematics suppliers occupy a unique spot in the information technology ecosystem, according to Mike Scarbrough, CEO of Nextraq. Using data to drive decisions involves three basic steps, he notes, collection, transformation and communication. “Telematics providers are the operators of all this data, the transformers who turn raw data into information that other can use to guide important business decisions,” Scarbrough says.
“In order to do this, you need to have a business partner you really, really trust,” he adds, “because underneath the covers, we are making lots of small decisions about data [that can make a big difference to you in the end.] For example, suppose I tell you that one of your drivers has gone over the speed limit twenty times. What will you do? What if I tell you that the average for all drivers was one hundred times? Or two times?
“Adding context changes your view rather dramatically,” he continues. “I could give you just the raw data, the fact of one driver speeding twenty times, knowing that you may be misled to a poor decision, but none of us want people to make bad decisions.
“There is a natural human resistance to sharing information, such as on social networks,” Scarbrough notes. “Data helps to take that reluctance away. It lowers our resistance to sharing information. Everybody would like things to be less subjective and more fact-based in order to make better decisions. Everybody appreciates that.”
“There has been a remarkable growth in databases and in the technology to analyze that data,” says Corey Catten, CTO of inthinc. “With a small IT staff, we have access to thousands of processors for short bits of times. Parallel processing means that 250 servers can be working for 15 minutes [to analyze data] instead of using eight servers running all night to do the same thing.”
Think about what happens if you combine data from many carriers and many sources, Catten asks. Insurance companies today take all their actuarial data and give it to an organization that combines it, sanitizes it and gives it back to the insurance companies so that they can compare themselves to others. How would this model work for trucking? What would a fleet gain if they put their data into the pool?
“We are just in the data collection phase right now,” he adds. “We can say to a customer (without violating any privacy policies) ‘we know you can do better because others are doing better.’”
Big data benefits
PeopleNet is also exploring the benefits of looking at larger data sets for information that can benefit its customers, according to Rick Ochsendorf, senior vice president operations for PeopleNet. Like other telematics providers, the company processes enormous amounts of data everyday for fleets. “We are looking at tools that analyze all this data, creating different pools of data that fleets are willing to share,” he says. “Customers would like to know ‘How efficient am I along a certain lane? What do I have to do to improve?’”
“Big data is here,” Ochsendorf observes. “You have to be willing to share to get something back. In the past, there were so many variables baked into the numbers [that it was virtually impossible to get an apples-to-apples comparison].
“There is so much data, big data, at our fingertips, but you have to really parse it down to make sense,” he adds. “[Otherwise, you can misunderstand what you are seeing and make some bad decisions as a result.]”
Tom Fansler, president of Vusion, also sounds a cautionary note when it comes to talking about data and advanced analytics, as exciting as the potential benefits it can deliver are. “This is an interesting time,” he observes. “People use the term ‘analytics’ in all sorts of different ways.
“One of the current trends is data aggregation, but simply having silos of data connected does not necessarily make it actionable or useful because much of the data is just not designed for statistical rigor,” he explains. “You have to describe things in a similar manner even if they have not been described that way before to get beyond simple groupings to the depth required to make predictions you can act on.
“For example, Fansler offers, “There is a very strong relationship between improper lane changes and accidents, but you have to go one step further and ask how often lane changes were the cause of accidents. You also need to determine how often drivers were cited for improper lane changes not tied to accidents before that data becomes useful as a predictor.
“If you are doing predictive analytics around driver behavior across several companies, the same thing applies, he continues. “You have data on a collection of driver behaviors, but there is also a collection of variables around the carriers that has to be taken into account. If I describe my fleet as a ‘regional hauler,’ is that the same as what other carriers [in the data pool] are saying when they describe themselves as ‘regional haulers’? Or is there some other metric we can use to identify type of fleet that will sidestep the problem?
“Working to standardize data is a precursor to predictive analytics,” Fansler says. “Lots of companies talk about data integration, but what they are really doing is just grouping together things that have the same field name. How fleets describe sudden accelerations or stops is a good example. While companies may all track those events, what a sudden deceleration or stop really means depends upon how the recording device is configured to capture those events.
“The same is true for speeding,” he continues. “One fleets may call 65 mph speeding, while another sets the trigger at 68 mph. All those events show up in the data bucket called ‘over-speeding,’ but they are not all identical. In each of these examples, you end up looking at apples and oranges as if they were the same. Ninety percent of analytics is data preparation.
“In order for analytics to work, you also need a partnership between the provider and the carrier,” Fansler adds. “The client has to be invested in the process or we are stuck. Companies that want [to use predictive analytics] have to be committed if they really want to dive into even just the data about their own equipment or their own drivers.”
Opting in and opting out
“The challenge with analytics is always ‘How do we make it consumable and acceptable?’” offers Christian Schenk, vice president product market development and product marketing for XRS (formerly Xata). “We will still have customers who want to hold onto their own data and others who say, ‘If you can help me to do better [by sharing data] count me in.’”
According to Schenk, that means fleets need to be able to opt-in or opt-out of sharing data and that suppliers must make sure pooled data is anonymous and protects the privacy of the companies participating. “Everything is connected these days,” he adds. “Google is a good example. They offer services to you for free in exchange for sharing your profile information with marketers who present promotions to you. It is a question of privacy versus convenience and cost-savings.”
And acceptability is not the only question. Even when the industry’s data collecting, data preparation and analytical skills have become still more precise and sophisticated than they are today, a string of other questions will remain to be addressed. Schenk ticks off a few of the most potentially industry-altering issues: “People are always looking for data,” he notes, “so the question becomes which data sets at what point become valuable and to whom?
Then you have to ask, who owns the data and who pays to see it?” Schenk adds. “Once you change who pays for specific information, you change everything. It all opens right up.”
If Schenk is correct, fleets may one day have another product to offer in addition to freight transportation and logistics --- their data. And who would want to buy bits and pieces of that? Think about regulatory agencies, companies building roads and bridges, service suppliers along interstates, equipment manufacturers or other fleets just for starters.
“As a manufacturer, I would want to know [as much as possible about how my equipment is performing],” observes Corey Catten. “I would want to collect that data for myself. I wonder if one day manufacturers will want data from fleets—if they will even buy it?” A darn good question indeed.
The ramifications of telematics for trucking
While it may be a long and daunting project, cataloging the list of capabilities and the resulting benefits of telematics for trucking is still (at least theoretically) possible. What is much tougher to do is to see how telematics and advanced analytics will eventually change the business of trucking as a whole—right down to the very basics such as driver pay, insurance, maintenance and operations.
“Broadly speaking, we view telematics kind of like electricity,” observes Newth Morris IV, president, Telogis Route and company co-founder. “What really matter is what you can drive with it. Telematics impacts everything already, even though we are really at the early stages.”
“Telematics give fleets a window into their operations that they never had before,” says Corey Catten, CTO of inthinc. “There are things fleets can now know that they don’t even have a way to deal with yet.”
Recruiting, screening, training, managing and even paying drivers has already been changed profoundly by telematics, and more changes inevitably lie ahead. “The pay issue is going to be paramount in the future,” says Norm Ellis, vice president of sales, service and marketing for Qualcomm Enterprise Services.
The driver shortage is serious and retaining good drivers is critical. “Pay is what will keep drivers in those trucks instead of leaving the industry for construction or something else as the economy recovers, Ellis says. “Frankly, better pay is long overdue. Drivers deserve a living wage, but instead, it has declined. They used to earn five times what a fast food employee is paid. Now, they make only two and a half times what a fast food employee makes.
“Mobil communications are already a help to drivers,” he adds. “They can make the job easier, safer and more pleasant, but drivers have got to make a living [and that is another area where telematics is helping to create positive change].”
All the metrics being gathered about driver behavior are giving drivers, for the first time, a way to document their contributions to a carrier in terms of productivity, efficiency, cost and safety. “A driver now has the ability to say, ‘Look what I was able to do; here is how I was driving,’” says Rick Ochsendorf, senior vice president operations for PeopleNet. “That creates an opportunity to ask for more pay and better benefits and it gives fleets a means to cost justify doing it.”
“We have drivers who have signed up for our system on their own in order to use the data as a resume,” says Christian Schenk, vice president product market development and product marketing for XRS (formerly Xata). “We are going to build a marketplace around that. Last week, we had an owner-operator sign-up, in fact,” Schenk adds. “We’ve created an application they can use to build a resume with data from our system. It really changes the value proposition when you can do that.”
Telematics was deployed first on the operational level and is only now being pushed out to drivers, according to Chris Oliver, chief marketing officer for Zonar. “Trucking companies are logistical experts, but the industry has been slower to take information out to the driver as well,” he says.
Now that is happening. Drivers can get alerts, via the Zonar system for example, to warn them that they are operating outside a safety parameter in time to correct their behavior before it causes an accident, says Oliver, or even goes against their driving record at the fleet.
“For instance,” he says, “suppose a driver is speeding. The system can send feedback right away via an indicator light in the cab. For the first time or two, a blue light tells the driver that he or she is speeding. Fail to correct the problem and the light turns red and also sends a signal to the fleet manager. It is all about getting data into the right hands at the right time.”
At Qualcomm’s Fleet Risk Advisor business unit, the team is working to push driver intervention back to before a driver even gets into the cab, using predictive analytics to give fleets advanced warning about which drivers are most apt to have an accident or most likely to leave the company in the near future.
According to Vikas Jain, vice president of business development for Fleet Risk Advisor, it is possible to use pattern-matching algorithms to help analyze data to spot behavioral changes that correlate with other issues, such as unsafe driving behaviors or leaving the job, before they occur.
We monitor some 3,000 different data parameters for shifts that correlate to other, potentially dangerous or undesirable behaviors, he explains. We’ve looked at several million models now over five years, considering everything from number of calls to dispatch in a given period to changes in pay. Things like over-speeding or hard-braking are not the predictors of accidents, we believe, they are the results of things that have already happened in the background---something personal, something health- or family-related, a financial worry, a professional concern.
“This is not an unnatural thing to do,” Jain adds. “It is Management 101. We are fortunate in trucking to be able to use data analysis to gain insights that can be used to proactively trigger interventions.”
Using telematics and analytics to improve driver performance and hence improve safety is also garnering the attention of insurance companies, which are working more closely than ever with fleets to help deploy technology to manage risk and even reduce insurance premiums.
“Insurance companies are all about data and understanding the nuances of risks,” explains Mark Lucca, second vice president Travelers Enterprise Auto for the commercial automotive group of Travelers Insurance, which has a working relationship with Telogis. “Telematics can help us understand the specifics, the uniqueness of a given fleet,” he says.
“When we look at telematics at a fleet, we ask ‘how is the fleet currently using technology?’” adds Chris Hayes, director of transportation services Travelers Risk Control. “How a fleet is using the available data is more important than the actual data itself. Like airbags, having onboard telematics has no value unless it is activated, used. We see telematics most often in larger fleets, but we have also been surprised by smaller fleets with very sophisticated telematics systems.
“As a part of our risk control process, we make specific recommendations to address various issues, including telematics,” he notes. “We focus on how do you take information and incorporate it back into your operation to improve safety?”
“Unfortunately, there are no uniform standards yet for telematics and data derived from telematics systems,” adds Lucca. “Privacy concerns are also a big issue. If those problems did not exist, it would help us to target our markets better.”
According to Lucca and Hayes, Travelers does research on what it takes to put together a good telematics program as well as on the obstacles to success. As a result, they have thoughts to offer fleets hoping to better utilize technology to improve safety and perhaps reduce insurance costs in the bargain:
- Take time to move in a very thoughtful manner. Make it clear to drivers and other employees what a new telematics initiative will do.
- Remember that telematics is not a safety solution. It is a tool to improve risk management.
- Also remember that, although safety at a fleet is often tied to regulatory compliance, it is not exactly the same thing.
“Initiatives that clearly reduce cost, such as driving at slower speeds, often also improve safety,” notes Hayes, “and the resulting data gives safety directors ways to quantify that correlation, that benefit. The initial impetus to get a new technology is often to reduce costs or improve operating efficiency, but then fleets can see from the data that it is also tied to safety. We can help them do that.”
When it comes to equipment, telematics is also triggering sweeping changes in what fleets are able to know about their vehicles and what they are coming to expect from their equipment 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 C.J. Driscoll and Associates in their latest report on telematics. “Today, PACCAR, Volvo, Ford, Navistar, Isuzu and Hino are also offering optional factory- or dealer-installed telematics solutions…”
“People are asking us for more data about their equipment,” says Newth Morris of Telogis. “They want to know if they are specing the right equipment for the job, or if there is a value in using synthetic oil. They tell us what they are evaluating and we help them.
“We also work with various truck makers, such as Ford to help them with continuous improvement programs,” Morris adds. “The Ford Crew Chief is factory-shipped with our device, for instance. As a result, we get exclusive access to eight to ten data points that can be used by Ford dealerships be more proactive with their service programs.”
Equipment leasing company, Fleet Advantage, is also helping customers make better, more proactive decisions about their vehicles by analyzing a long list of metrics, including factors such as cost per mile, depreciation, interest expense, fuel prices, maintenance costs, driving patterns and even climate and geography to determine the point at which it becomes more cost effective to replace a vehicle. Their EXchangeIt solution was designed to provide a separate profit and loss (P&L) statement for individual vehicles.
“We are making a difference – literally saving our clients millions of dollars by micromanaging fleet cost metrics in an eco-efficient way that delivers the lowest cost of ownership throughout the equipment life cycle,” says Fleet Advantage CEO, John Flynn.
None of this is easy to do, of course, but the progress of telematics and advanced analytics is steady and gaining speed every day. “The challenge for technology is to take what is complicated and make it simple for the customer, so that they see a return, a benefit,” notes Norm Ellis of Qualcomm. “So the more complicated, the better, as I see it.”