Aaron Marsh/ Fleet Owner
Omnitracs CEO John Graham discussed emerging and future truck technologies and how the company is considering not only how they can be applied practically but working to ensure its products can meet more demanding needs and challenges going forward

Looking to the future of future truck technology

March 1, 2017
Omnitracs says it's considering tomorrow's applications of emerging tech and systems

PHOENIX. The new and emerging technologies in trucking today — from platooning to advanced driver interfacing products to drones — are written and read about frequently in this rapidly changing industry. Fleet management systems provider Omnitracs says it's looking even farther ahead in developing its products so they'll be ready to handle changes to come.

"We are looking downrange," John Graham, the company's CEO, said at the open of Omnitracs Outlook 2017 user conference here this week. "We're not just thinking about here and now and what's happening every day, which we are, but we're also trying to make sure we're providing value for many, many years to come."

Part of that is "overbuilding," essentially, and putting more computing horsepower into products like Omnitracs' Intelligent Vehicle Gateway, or IVG, which was rolled out last summer. At last year's Outlook, Chief Technology Officer Dan Speicher called it "the baddest telematics box ever built," saying it "blows away the hardware capabilities" of the company's earlier telematics products.

Another part of future-proofing is to not only "oo and ah" at the latest technologies, but figure out how to apply them in boosting safety, efficiency and profit for fleets in real terms. That's the case with self-driving and driver-assisting trucks and other technology such as platooning, which links two or more trucks electronically to allow them to travel much closer together and save fuel by drafting. The following truck benefits more, but the lead truck also sees a significant fuel economy gain.

Omnitracs' flagship in-cab terminal, the IVG or Intelligent Vehicle Gateway, was featured at the Omnitracs Outlook user conference this week. Click to enlarge. (Aaron Marsh/ Fleet Owner)

"You can go read the paper today or this week and you're seeing the future of our industry evolve in front of our eyes," Graham said at the conference. "Our industry is accelerating right now as we go forward — with new technology, new capabilities and with a whole focus of being able to manage that supply chain effectively in a tighter and tighter fashion and a more efficient fashion."

"When you think about the capabilities that we have working with you each and every day, our technologies and our innovations should plug into this future vision as it evolves," he added.

Near or far tomorrow

The Omnitracs CEO ran down a list of emerging tech and how it might be used in trucking, whether that'll be two, 10 or more years from now. First was autonomous trucks, which have become a media darling but most agree are still years or even decades from mainstream use.

Graham noted that the technology in trucks today will enable that self-driving future. "Think about telematics, or connectivity, or routing and dispatch: those are things that are still going to be necessary in this environment, making drivers' lives easier as they sit back possibly monitoring, much like a pilot would do in an aircraft," he contended. Also keep an eye on government activity in this regard — 10 states now have laws and twice as many again have them in the works to allow autonomous vehicle testing.

And autonomous trucks will likely move forward, Graham contended, since they offer safety and fuel efficiency gains — again, real-world benefits likely to pique trucking companies' interest. He also pointed to platooning as a bridge to self-driving trucks, and Omnitracs just before the conference announced a new partnership with Peloton to offer that company's two-truck platooning system to fleets this year (don't miss a more in-depth look at this in a Fleet Owner interview with Omnitracs and Peloton to come).

"It's here today being tested, and just recently I was riding in a truck 40 ft. behind another truck going 65 mph and going through a hard-braking event," Graham said. "It's interesting to watch that happen when you're in a truck — it's actually kind of frightening. But think about it: this is really about efficiency and fuel savings as it starts. It has more applications downrange."

Further, Graham noted that companies like UPS are testing out platooning "as we sit here and speak" and that the new platooning product will "start to be deployed, actually, in the next 60 days in Texas and in Tennessee." While all fleets may not benefit from platooning, he said, some traits that indicate fleets can use the tech effectively are those with "standard routes, standard lines and a lot of vehicle distribution."

Think London

Graham segued to another type of technology for trucks: the "fog." This one's being fueled by that growing family of sensors and Internet-connected devices appearing on trucks and driving new functions and possibilities, and fleets know it as the Internet of Things, or IoT.

"The term 'fog,' it's kind of a new one," Graham told the audience. "We've been talking about the cloud for many years and our [software as a service] operations, but really, there's a 'microcloud' or 'fog' around that vehicle. It's sharing information at a growing and faster pace, and it works up into information that we see" giving greater visibility into the operating environment of the truck.

"That truck has an incredible amount of information that's flowing from it constantly," Graham said, which is creating an environment of intelligent systems. "Being able to put a connection point on a sensor and putting it on a brake or other assembly, it's really creating a smart environment around the truck. And when that truck gets smarter and it gets more connected and also connected to the infrastructure — think about smart cities and smart transportation — this is real," he contended.

Further, the fog is helping the more familiar, larger cloud — or at least its various uses — overlap and complement each other. "These [IoT devices] will all be connected to a cloud that goes across not just our operations but into maybe clouds of other providers as they want to look at the equipment and how it might operate," said Graham.

Drones on trucks

Drones used as a possible link in the supply chain, particularly in last-mile delivery, are another often-hyped technology that, to some, can seem like a gimmick. Not so fast, according to Graham.

"This is also real; It's not just Amazon," he noted. "DHL in Europe is delivering packages with their particular drones. The U.S. Army and Marine Corps are using drones to look at how to resupply troops in the battlefield environment." Other companies testing out and making news with their use of drones with trucks include UPS and Workhorse.

"A drone is actually just a component," Graham argued. "If you think about that local last-mile [delivery], which is where a lot of execution is happening in our environment today, this really does change the game." And once again, part of "changing the game" requires that the technology has tangible benefits and practical applications.  

"That [delivery] truck's not driving multiple stops around that last mile or dedicated delivery site," Graham explained, "it could be driving to a spot, stopping, two people get out, one person operates a drone, one person puts the package in and works around a subdivision [of the area] or what have you."

"There are good savings around that," he continued. "It takes delivery costs out and it adds efficiency. But it's also being driven by consumers and demand; that's really changing how people are thinking about this." On that note, drones could also factor in with companies like Amazon's well-known innovations with ultra-quick delivery windows.

New possibilities with wearables

The most common wearable technology today is health and fitness-type devices like Fitbits, and Graham discussed more complex biometric uses of wearables in trucks to increase driver safety and protect fleet assets.

Coming from Australia, one such application that's been getting attention in the United States in recent months is EEG brainwave analysis of fatigue levels with a product from SmartCap. "They've got really fascinating technology that you put in the brim of a cap, and it can help monitor the driver and help that driver be alert; it can make them safer and help them realize, 'Hey, maybe I need to stop,' or maybe they can keep going," he said.

Just less than half of truck drivers say they've fallen asleep at some time behind the wheel, according to Graham. "Not good. That includes risk," he pointed out. "When you look at this and you use it, people improve — they get more efficient and safer. Alert drivers also operate more efficiently [in terms of] fuel efficiency and brake efficiency and can actually extend the productivity of that vehicle."

The extreme environments of racing have a long history of innovations that've filtered into the trucking and automotive worlds. Graham noted the use of wearables in racing, such as by Brazilian race driver Tony Kanaan in the Indianapolis 500: "He was actually wearing a wearables shirt. That shirt right now is being used by drivers going 230 mph around the track and monitoring things like heartbeat and G-forces."  

Could such wearables find a place in trucking? "Who knows where it might go," Graham mused. "But the technology's there, and it's really incumbent on Omnitracs and all of you to be working together to find where this can actually provide value as we go forward into the future."

About the Author

Aaron Marsh

Before computerization had fully taken hold and automotive work took someone who speaks engine, Aaron grew up in Upstate New York taking cars apart and fixing and rewiring them, keeping more than a few great jalopies (classics) on the road that probably didn't deserve to be. He spent a decade inside the Beltway covering Congress and the intricacies of the health care system before a stint in local New England news, picking up awards for both pen and camera.

He wrote about you-name-it, from transportation and law and the courts to events of all kinds and telecommunications, and landed in trucking when he joined FleetOwner in July 2015. Long an editorial leader, he was a keeper of knowledge at FleetOwner ready to dive in on the technical and the topical inside and all-around trucking—and still turned a wrench or two. Or three. 

Aaron previously wrote for FleetOwner. 

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