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Made to Measure: Advances in telematics

Posted: August 11, 2016 by John G. Smith

There was a time that trucks essentially disappeared into a black hole between fleet gates and customer loading docks. Nobody really knew where equipment was at any given point in time. The only person who knew a fault light was shining on the dash was the driver.

Telemetry and telematics changed this dramatically, capturing and streaming data for drivers, vehicles, and operations teams alike. And there is plenty of data to be had. A typical truck’s Electronic Control Modules (ECM) now generates about six terabytes of data per year, observes Kate Rahn, Shaw Tracking’s director of national sales and marketing. A number that large is tough to comprehend, but if one minute of recorded music soaks up a single megabyte on your computer, this would be enough data to record 1 million minutes of song.

“It’s kind of mind boggling,” she says. “What do you do with that data? How do you take that data the truck generates, and match it up with other pieces of data like, for instance, a -company’s HR records, and a company’s maintenance records, and a company’s accident records and traffic information and weather information, and try to provide more predictive -analytics for fleets?”

The potential applications clearly extend well beyond tracking Hours of Service alone. Original Equipment Manufacturers, for example, have begun to monitor individual engine fault codes to refine and schedule maintenance activities of every sort. The idea is to identify problems before they lead to breakdowns, and refine processes inside dealership service bays where the work is performed.

“They know their trucks better than anyone, so that plus their proprietary capabilities position them the best to leverage the fault codes and other engine performance data,” says Michael Riemer, vice president – product and channel marketing at Decisiv, which provides cloud-based Service Relationship Management software. “Aftermarket telematics players have dipped their toe into the maintenance space – mainly around automated reporting of miles and engine hours for Preventive Maintenance schedules – but their attempts to get into remote diagnostics have typically not been very successful.”

Telematics tech is not even limited to equipment that leaves the fleet yard. Glasvan Great Dane recently partnered with PinPoint GPS Solutions to install telematics gear in Autocar shunt trucks, informing users about ignored regen warnings and outright abuse alike. “There is no reason for an operator to be making three-quarters of [a] G when cornering in a yard.  It’s unsafe and it prematurely wears out tires,” says George Cobham Jr., Glasvan’s vice president – sales and -marketing. Event logs generated by this system can tell if – drivers are slamming into king pins, idling excessively, or braking -harshly, too.

Granted, there can be too much of a good thing. Kirk Altrichter, vice president – maintenance for Crete Carrier learned this the hard way when he asked for alerts about any monitored fault codes. “We ended up turning it off quite quickly,” he said during the recent Canadian Fleet Maintenance Summit. It wasn’t too long before his team began focusing on codes that required immediate attention, and differentiating them from the codes that could wait for scheduled Preventive Maintenance.

“There is no such thing as too much data,” stresses Jean-Sebastien Bouchard, vice president – sales at Canadian-based Isaac Instruments, which offers systems that monitor everything from Hours of Service to Driver Vehicle Inspection Reports and fuel-efficient driving techniques. “But we want to avoid sending the wrong information to the wrong person.”

That means fleets need to set priorities, and consider the individual Return on Investments that they’re targeting.

It’s not uncommon for fleets to demonstrate “aggressive appetites” when they hear about everything telematics can realize, says Michael Ham, general manager and vice president of Canadian operations at Omnitracs. But he also knows that trying to monitor too much at once can lead to missed deadlines, and choke operations teams with data before they are prepared to act on the information.

 “When you want to get into modeling and making decisions from it, you probably want at least three years [of data],” Rahn says. From there, the information can be matched to the experience of other customers. Fleets don’t have to limit comparisons to their own experience. 

Where to begin

When it comes to selecting and using  telematics system, the most valuable Key Performance Indicators will vary from fleet to fleet. “They may have different priorities, they may have different timelines, they may have different customer-facing issues,” Ham explains.

Bouchard also warns against -low-cost options that might fail to offer the insights that can generate bigger financial returns, suggesting instead to consider a system’s Total Cost of Ownership over five years.

Equally important is deciding which data should be pushed out to fleet managers in things like emails, and which can be pulled out for reports as needed. “Emails are still good because I don’t have my nose in my laptop all day,” Bouchard says. “If there’s an emergency, I want to be told.” Details about fuel economy might be able to wait. A notice about a crash or the -rising temperature that could spoil goods in a reefer? Likely not.

“Once you know what you’re looking for, it’s easy to get the correct tools,” Yves Maurais, Group Robert’s technical -director – asset management, purchasing and conformity, also said during the Canadian Fleet Maintenance Seminar. A small -operation might begin with a focus on compliance, particularly when it comes to the pending ELD mandate, but available data can support any number of operational needs.

Consider the way data can be crunched to identify drivers who could benefit from extra training in defensive driving. A telematics system can identify those who are involved in more than their share of hard-braking events or sudden accelerations. A system that generates a video clip whenever Roll Stability Controls or Lane Departure Warnings are activated will offer the complete picture, says Jason Gould, director – Canadian operations at PeopleNet. It is not all about assigning blame, either. These are the details that can help to vindicate a driver who says he was cut off.

Even readings about fuel economy should consider more than a truck’s miles per gallon (or liters per 100 kilometers, if you prefer) when deciding if a driver is as fuel-efficient as they can be. “A driver can’t control what vehicle he’s driving. He can’t control what he’s -hauling. He can’t control where you’re sending him,” Gould says. Comparisons need to be made to benchmarks including individual results, or at least those hauling similar cargo and traveling similar lanes.

No single sensor does it all, either. Bouchard stresses that a true look at a driver’s influence on fuel economy includes everything from applied horsepower to pedal positions, shift points
and accelerometers. 

Collecting data

A fleet’s ultimate goals can even influence the way different data needs to be collected. A simple GPS reading can be used to set up a geofence, and note when a truck passes a certain point along a route. Shops, however, might need the more exacting mileage data generated by an Electronic Control Module when planning Preventing Maintenance activities.

Accuracy will matter, too. Employees will quickly lose faith in an entry-level system that generates too many false positives, Riemer says. That’s where hardware considerations often come into play.

Many telematics systems don’t connect directly into an engine’s Electronic Control Module, and instead tap into the truck through the electrical system or a Y cable. “These can become loose or have other connectivity issues if not installed correctly,” Riemer explains. Not all OBDII dongles are created equal, either. And Bouchard stresses the need to check that devices meet SAE J1455 standards, ensuring that they will stand up to the ongoing attack of heavy vehicle operations.

No matter how the data is gathered, meanwhile, its true value emerges when the underlying telematics are integrated into a fleet’s Transportation Management System, helping to guide operations and maintenance activities alike. This is where the GPS signal used to inform dispatchers can automatically trigger an email message for a customer, letting them know that a shipment is just an hour away.

 “The more integrated we can get into a customer’s back system, into their dispatch, into their payroll, into any type of back office that they’re using, the more value,” says Gould.

As the data begins to build, fleets also have the chance to establish the benchmarks for best practices. “All that data pumping through the system provides an incredible amount of information,” says Ham. Predictive analytics can spot those who are falling into bad habits. Individual events are important to know, but the real knowledge comes by looking at the data a driver accumulates over several days. “I can tell the next -driver who will have a problem,” he says.

Of course, integrating new technology into a legacy system involves more than flipping a switch and replacing the green screens of a longstanding AS/400 system. Third-party support might be needed to tap into Excel spreadsheets, FTP sites, and custom codes, and tie everything together.

As data and applications shift off -company servers and into the cloud, fleets also become more reliant on suppliers, Ham says. That will require a close look for those who can promise reliability or even fit the company culture. “Try to understand them,” he says, referring
to the choices of vendors. “Make sure they make sense.”  

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