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The connected truck

March 7, 2016
It’s been around for a quarter of a century, but you ain’t seen nothing yet

The connected truck  is nothing new. Twenty-five years ago, trucking became the first commercial market for the then-revolutionary service of wireless mobile data over satellites.

Today, those short text messages transmitted over faraway satellites seem quaint, and they are. As wireless data speeds and capacity increased in giant leaps and new technologies like GPS and electronic engine controls became commonplace, the capabilities of the connected truck expanded exponentially.  From geofencing to remote diagnostics, connected trucks are now actively shaping fleet operations, impacting everything from asset optimization and regulatory compliance to customer service. With estimates that nearly 30% of all Class 3 to 8 trucks are now connected in some fashion, you could say commercial vehicles are being transformed into yet another mobile device.

As impressive as all that may seem, we’re actually just in the early phases of an evolution that will deeply impact the way trucks are designed, how fleets will manage their operations, what drivers will experience in their workdays, how shippers will access services, and even how freight will be distributed. Or as a recent report from the research firm TU Automotive puts it: “Connected fleet and data services … [are] moving from an era of incremental improvements to one of technological, business, and societal transformation.”

Big claims, but not unrealistic ones.

Let’s look at the many ways trucks are connecting today. Start with handheld devices, which are carried by almost every driver for personal or business use.  Then there are the common add-on devices that make it possible to bypass weigh stations and pay tolls without stopping. And standalone GPS receivers deliver optimized route instructions and real-time traffic reports.

While important, accessory devices like these are probably just a bridge to the fully connected truck integrated into the businesses of equipment manufacturers and shippers as well as the fleet. 

Telematics services have evolved into sophisticated fleet management tools, either through proprietary software, integration with third-party systems, or some combination of the two. They capture vehicle operating and location information essential to optimizing asset utilization and productivity. And they satisfy coming requirements for electronic logging devices (ELDs) to capture and store hours-of-service records.

A more recent development in connected truck features is the rapidly expanding deployment of remote diagnostics services by truck manufacturers. Not only are these services important productivity tools that can minimize downtime, but they represent a major step in the evolution of the connected truck because the enabling hardware is integrated and built into the truck by the manufacturer.

“By starting with our own embedded telematics box, it’s really part of the vehicle infrastructure,” says Conal Deedy, director of connected vehicle services for Volvo Trucks North America. “That means it can connect to all the different data busses, including access to proprietary data. It becomes an integral part of truck operations and customer access to that data. It means we can remotely pull diagnostics data over the air to get the information that leads to a better outcome for the customer.”

And it’s not just the truck owners who benefit. In the past, OEMs had to rely on warranty repair information to identify design and manufacturing problems, data that dried up once the warranty period was over, says Paul Menig, president of Tech I-M and a former OEM engineer. Now they’ll be able to continuously monitor faults and issues well past warranty periods.

Building the connective infra­structure into the truck’s control architecture also has huge implications for advanced safety systems, systems that are providing the platform for autonomous or semi-autonomous trucks.

Clearly, connectivity is already an integral part of trucking. Given all the benefits it’s delivering, where does it go from here? 

According to TU Automotive’s Connected Fleet and Data Services Report, “The rapid advancement of in-vehicle technology, cloud computing, and data analytics is enabling commercial vehicles to be fully integrated business tools driving an enterprise’s business success as opposed to simply being a means of transportation for people or goods.” 

Before you dismiss that as researchers’ hyperbole, listen to those on the front line of advancing truck connectivity who are just as bullish.

“I see a time when all trucks will be connected, and we will wonder how life existed without it,” says Matt Pfaffenbach, director of telematics for Daimler Trucks North America. “The type of connectivity I imagine is a two-way communication of a stream of data— some  of which will be acted upon immediately and some of which will be used to make later business decisions. … I expect that this stream of data will help a fleet optimize the operation of the vehicle, it will help OEMs make advancements in product development, and it will further increase the efficiency of service networks to keep trucks in operation.”

In the bottom-line reality of trucking, any advance in connectivity will have to bring improvements to costs and tight margins that more than offset additional investments in this technology. That was the key to the rapid adoption of those early satellite communications systems 25 years ago, and the clearest path to ROI for future connectivity technology follows the same map-productivity improvement.

Some of those gains will come from improvement in vehicle uptime. Not only will component designs be refined for reliability based on real operating data, but repair times should be greatly reduced by a more efficient service experience driven by remote diagnostics with optimized access to parts and technicians when necessary as well as streamlined processing of approvals and notifications.

As mentioned earlier, connectivity will enable autonomous vehicle technologies that rely on instant communications with other vehicles on the road as well as to the road infrastructure itself.  Improved truck safety will decrease time lost to even minor accidents.

But perhaps the biggest productivity impact of the connected truck lies beyond the truck itself.

“Today, as I visit with customers, I see people struggle with the manual processing of data so that decisions can be made about daily operations,” says Pfaffenbach. “As an OEM, I see that my responsibility is to provide reliable access to data in a form that reduces the ‘processing waste’ of data consumption and analysis… Through connectivity, I believe we will begin to put more information into the hands of customers and allow them to increase their efficiency.”

TU Automotive sees even deeper synergies arising from the evolution of the connected truck.  “We are now moving into an era of massive, near real-time collection of data from vehicles, combined with data analytics and the correlation of information from the full lifecycle of individual vehicles, as well as the total operating and business history of the fleet and all its drivers ...  creating new and exciting opportunities for existing industry participants as well as new entrepreneurial entrants.”

With its long history of harnessing connectivity for competitive advantage, trucking is well positioned to take its connected trucks into that era. 

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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