As a discipline or science, telematics, which encompasses the combined use of telecommunications and informatics data, has been applied to trucks and other fleet vehicles regularly since at least the early 2000s. In one form or another, this is taking information like engine and vehicle codes, diagnostics and geolocation data from onboard computers and mobile devices and doing a heap of useful things with it.
Telematics these days is a little like working with petroleum: At its most basic, it’s fairly crude and rudimentary, but when properly refined and mixed with just the right additives, you’ve got high-octane premium. Like other areas of the trucking industry, this familiar discipline is seeing evolutionary change through creative new thinking. It’s being driven partly by necessity as trucking companies, which have made significant gains over the last decade in efficiency, safety and other measures, seek next-level, subtler improvements to maintain their edge going forward in an environment of stiff competition and thin operating margins.
“In 1980, the cost of a new truck was around $80,000 and trucking companies got around $1.50/mi. to haul freight,” says Chris Hines, executive vice president at fleet management technology firm Zonar. Today, a new truck costs around $130,000, according to Hines, yet trucking companies are getting roughly the same $1.50/mi. “It is technology and telematics that still allow trucking companies to be hyper-competitive and make money.”
While telematics has already helped fleets achieve performance improvements like better fuel efficiency, lower emissions, fewer collisions and streamlined maintenance, further operational gains are hidden in the data if used in the right ways, says Brian McLaughlin, president of fleet management systems provider PeopleNet. “A connected truck today has already gained some very significant increases across the board.
“So where do we go in the future? We feel we can double down on [gains that have been made]: 50-70% increases in each and every one of these areas just by deploying the technology capabilities we’re going to see in the next five years,” McLaughlin predicts.
There are farther-reaching milestones in store with telematics, such as the development of autonomous vehicles. But there are also telematics developments that allow fleets to improve their bottom lines right now. And there are four main drivers, Hines says, “that will push further development in technology and telematics: uptime, safety/compliance, fuel savings and operational efficiency.”
Paving the way
Wireless communications and technologies—and the computers and devices that use them—have made additional gains possible. That has brought possibilities that “didn’t really exist 10 years ago,” says Tim Taylor, chief client success officer at fleet management technology company Telogis. “Then, the mobile devices were clunky, the network connections were haphazard, and the user interfaces were mainly just touching buttons with a pen.
“Now you’ve got these great tablets with cool [user interfaces], and we can have them and the truck connected in real time or close to it; it’s fast,” he continues. “And if we can create a more efficient economy through what we do, that pays for itself in many ways.”
It’s not simply that trucks can be connected or can utilize faster, more user-friendly devices, telematics companies point out; that’s been the case for years. It’s that more and more of them actually are being connected through better, more reliable wireless networks. A number of fleet management technology firms are turning trucks into mobile hotspots so telematics data as well as information from onboard sensors and systems can be piped through that connection into corresponding fleet management systems or platforms.
“The mobile devices that need high-speed Internet can all connect through the vehicle as a central hub,” Taylor tells Fleet Owner. “That’s how we see it. That way, the vehicle is not only providing telemetric data, but it’s also this sort of ‘connected node’ for multiple devices. You might have a laptop, you might have an iPad, you might have a smartphone, you might have sensors. From a telemetric standpoint, the truck itself can be connected by a single 4G modem.”
Once trucks and other commercial vehicles are connected and providing data in what approaches real time, Taylor notes, it opens up new possibilities for using the information. “This idea of the truck as a hub connecting multiple devices to the other functions in the company and the company ecosystem is really powerful. We see it more and more,” he says.
Another growing trend is that telematics companies are partnering or otherwise working more directly with truck OEMs, which is resulting in telematics and fleet management systems being installed in trucks at the factory. An example of this is Daimler Trucks North America’s purchase several months ago of a minority interest in Zonar; another is global truck OEM Paccar’s relationship with PeopleNet, where Kenworth and Peterbilt Class 8 tractors now have a standard option to come outfitted with a PeopleNet 4G modem/connectivity hub. Thus trucks themselves are becoming more like mobile devices: All a purchasing fleet needs to do is activate a service plan.
Fleets and their employees have been exploring what can be done by gathering and processing telematics data in close to real time. Modems and system hubs used by trucking data analytics company Traffilog America, for instance, are “boosting data to our servers whenever an event happens in real time and generally every 4-10 seconds,” explains Rudi Slochowski, vice president of business development. “You can now have near real-time analysis—all the time.”
As more data streams in from fleets’ vehicles, it’s created an increasing need to present information in more meaningful, streamlined ways to managers and drivers. “One thing we’ve learned is ROI comes from ease of use,” says Stuart Kerr, senior vice president for global enterprise sales at telematics and fleet management software provider Fleetmatics.
“People have stopped looking at telematics like, ‘Gosh, did Fred come in late today?’” he adds. “Of course you can do that, but if you’re a manager with 15 drivers reporting to you and you’re going to look at what’s called a ‘travel and stops’ report that might be two pages on each driver, that’s a 30-page magazine you’ve got to read every day.
“The next generation of telematics is, ‘Give it to me on one screen,’” Kerr tells Fleet Owner. “‘Give it to me in one image. Give it to me color-coded so that instantly I know who started late, who finished early, who’s idling too much, how much time of a driver’s day is spent on the stops I’m planning for them, and how many other stops are they making that I didn’t plan for them to do.
“When you do that, companies are realizing very quickly there’s a tremendous amount of slack in [operations],” he continues. “If we start to tighten that up, it can mean equally tremendous benefits, savings and profitability.”
Likewise, “a key part of what we’re doing [with telematics] is being able to display mission-critical information elegantly so that drivers don’t have to think a lot about that,” says Mark Kessler, general manager for trucking at PeopleNet. This can involve using geofencing or location data to trigger operations events when a truck reaches a certain proximity to its next destination.
“Because we geofence it, our system automatically pops up with a message when a driver arrives near a location saying, ‘Here’s what you’re delivering, here’s how many crates it is, here’s how much time you have to deliver this before getting back on the road.’ And when he gets back on the road, it gives him turn-by-turn directions to the next location,” Kessler explains.
“So we want to serve the driver ‘get-in-your-face’ messages that say exactly what they’ve got to do, while also handling driver logs all the time,” he notes. “If a driver is doing his pretrip electronic vehicle inspection report, for example, he can go around with the [in-truck tablet computer], look at things, mark them off, and take pictures right there with the device.”
Along with streamlined workflows has come a major shift in driver behavior coaching and modification. For the most part, the old directive of spotting problem driver behaviors by flagging data showing things like hard braking or excessive idling is ancient history, according to Telogis’ Taylor.
Telematics companies are finding they can get drivers to change more with honey than vinegar, so to speak. Rather than a reprimand, fleets are making it a game for drivers to be able to compare their performance to others in the organization and across various metrics. Drivers in many cases can get bonuses and become more invested in their job performance, Taylor says, while their companies see improvements in areas such as safety and fuel economy.
“It’s like a Fitbit for mobile workers,” Taylor explains of his company’s “driver scoreboarding” functionality that’s fueled by telematics data. “You have this ecosystem or community of information and people, and you make it a game to see [who’s getting better or worse],” he notes.
“This is a good way to connect telematics data to the mission of the enterprise and the mobile workforce,” he continues. “It’s been a huge game-changer. Customers are using these scoreboards to achieve goals such as behavioral change, fuel savings, on-time services, or better utilization of vehicles. And fleets don’t have to whack drivers—they don’t have to reprimand or bully them.”
According to Taylor, getting drivers in on the game is one way to get them more excited about and engaged in their jobs. “We see the mission as creating mobile executives rather than just giving work to mobile workers,” he says. Fleetmatics’ Kerr agrees. “This is no longer a pernicious thing. In the old days, telematics was ‘catching you guys doing stuff that was bad’; the current thinking is to help mobile workers be more effective at their jobs.”
Telematics data is being packaged and processed in more elaborate ways to give companies new insight into operations. For example, PeopleNet’s parent company, Trimble, looks to acquire other companies such as benchmarking and analytics firm Vusion, which can add additional services that expand on the uses of telematics information.
“When we acquire companies, we’re looking for those that have deep domain knowledge and specific verticals,” PeopleNet’s Kessler says. That knowledge is then integrated and offered as add-on services through the PeopleNet fleet management system. In the case of Vusion, that can involve providing benchmark data by company size, type and region to make data more meaningful for fleet managers and executives.
However they’re provided, additional layers of data combined with telematics make for “the number-one difference in the next generation of telematics: context,” Kerr says. And Taylor emphasizes that database interconnectivity has made telematics much more powerful. “The idea of telematics has really grown in our view into ‘connected intelligence,’” Taylor says.
“We’re making companies that have mobile workers run more efficiently, and they’re connecting the various components of their business. A big part of this is APIs, or application program interfaces, which allow multiple applications and databases to connect.
“This connectedness between databases is really what makes connected intelligence powerful; I say it’s like 2 and 2 equals 7,” he continues. “If you can allow multiple databases to be connected, you’re really allowing an enterprise to be one organism rather than a bunch of separate IT applications.”
Telematics is being used to make other systems in commercial vehicles smarter and more manageable. Fleets might be looking to add a video system to their trucks, for example, and “doing video right” means managers will have to spend time reviewing footage, according to PeopleNet’s Jim Angel, vice president for video intelligence.
But that’s potentially very time-consuming. To make better sense of the process, PeopleNet uses telematics data to monitor for potentially relevant events and automatically sends video clips to fleet managers. “It has to be operationally efficient,” Angel says of making video work well, explaining that a truck having a lane departure or hard deceleration event can trigger the company’s video system to create and send a video showing a certain amount of time before and after such an event.
“That’s automatically generated and then sent back through the cloud to the web portal for you to see,” Angel says. “So you’re going to get videos for those events along with the existing [onboard event recorder] reports. The trigger from the onboard computer goes to the [video system’s] DVR, we bundle up the footage before and after the event, we send it to the cloud, and the cloud sends it back for you to view.”
Traffilog America’s Slochowski says telematics is continuing to aid in optimizing maintenance in more sophisticated ways. “Preventive maintenance is a thing of the past—at that point, you basically already have the problem,” he says. “Our focus is on predictive maintenance and diagnostics, being able to alert you to [parts] failures ahead of time” while helping maximize the life fleets get out of each particular part.
A truck’s diagnostics information, for example, can paint a picture of the usable life essentially for every code-generating part of the vehicle, he explains. “When we see a trend occurring in things like coolant temperature, engine oil pressure, the diesel particulate filter, or battery level, we can monitor and track those components and alert companies of a trend that’s occurring in a specific truck almost in real time,” Slochowski notes. “We can tell the company to check out signs of an evolving problem, and they can tackle it before it becomes a problem.”
Predictive, proactive maintenance
Beyond potential trouble code and event monitoring, he says, telematics data can provide a closer look at a truck’s components and driver behavior to maximize parts life and maintenance intervals. “You need to understand how drivers operate your vehicles mechanically,” Slochowski contends. “Do they use the brakes correctly? Are they shifting correctly? Do they use the clutch correctly? We can monitor pedal positions over time and tell you more—if the driver is riding the clutch, for example, or the brakes.”
“Sometimes it’s important to use engine braking instead of the brake pedal,” he continues, citing an example. “We can differentiate those times and provide information to drivers and fleets. Maybe you’re at a traffic light and you’re in gear with your foot on the clutch, and it’s better if you take your foot off the clutch, put the truck in neutral, and put your foot on the brake pedal so you don’t wear out the clutch.”
Another layer is that predictive maintenance information can be shared with parts and service providers, notes Zonar’s Hines, to optimize processes on that end as well. “Say a dealership has 10 service bays. In the past you’d have to build two more if you wanted to capture more business,” he explains. “Now, dealers can tap into this telematics information and bid on repairs based on their current schedule.”
Across telematics and fleet management platforms, one big driver of innovation you’ll find is the fleets themselves, which are adapting telematics to their own particular situations. “It used to be one-size-fits-all with [telematics] technology; now it’s modular and can be customized to fit specific fleet needs,” Hines notes.
Kerr, who primarily deals with Fleetmatics’ largest fleets of 500 or more vehicles, contends that those large enterprise customers, since they have more vehicles to monitor, are a good bellwether for industry trends because they’ll often identify and seek operational improvements sooner.
“The big companies are really looking at how to stay on the edge with safety, how to stay on the edge with advancing operations and improving the brand,” he says. “We’ve got people thinking of advanced applications. The Apple Watch can read your heartbeat, for example. Could you find a way to connect that information and pull it in along with the telematics data to find out what was going on in a driver’s day when heart rates indicate greatest stress?
“That sounds like science fiction stuff, but it’s not,” Kerr continues. “Some of our clients are looking at those kinds of things and what they can do. The difference that adding event or location context can mean when you’re looking at a series of data is dramatic.” Also, he asserts, “the smart companies don’t go in there and try to do everything at once with telematics. They pick a few specific attributes they want to focus on—and they nail them.”
Taylor gives an example of client-specific innovation where one customer with about 1,600 foremen overseeing 25,000 workers discovered a correlation between how much time a foreman is onsite with workers and certain operational benefits. “If foremen were with their workers an average of 15 hours a week or more, those workers were significantly more productive and safer,” he says.
“Well, that’s intuitive. Here’s where the old adage ‘if you can measure it, you can manage it’ comes into play,” Taylor explains. “The foremen have GPS devices in their trucks and so do the workers, so we set up a whole program around collocation. We built a [key performance indicator, or KPI] on their system dashboard and a set of reports we can give to each of their regional managers.”
The company now gives out bonuses to foremen for being with their workers more than 15 hours a week, he says. “The productivity and safety improvements in their operations have been amazing as a result of this metric we’re giving them. Who would’ve thought? But now, it’s one of their most impactful KPIs and technology ‘levers’ they have in improving their operations.”