Diagnosis from afar

ADV Monitor, a feature included at no extra cost in Aether’s MobileMax system (shown above), connects to the J1708 datalink to monitor vehicle and driver performance in real time. Fleets can use the system to send pre-programmed messages to drivers that explain fault codes and to alert them when their performance falls below accepted standards.

Technicians have long been able to tap into engines and other vehicle systems electronically to diagnose problems and routinely monitor key data. An engine’s electronic control module (ECM), for example, captures a wealth of data on vehicle and driver performance. It transmits this data via the J1708 serial-data protocol – an agreed-on format for the bits and bytes coming from electronics on engines, brakes and other components. Until fairly recently, downloading this information required a connection to the J1708 datalink via a cable and scan tool. So the maintenance department couldn’t monitor data without standing near the truck.

“In the past, we had no good way, unless we downloaded the engine data, to monitor idle time by unit and by fleet,” says Foodliner’s Tim Stoeck. Downloading data from the fleet’s 500 trucks proved difficult because many trucks are “remotely domiciled.” To calculate fuel economy for each driver, the bulk-food carrier used the mileage from drivers’ trip sheets and fuel receipts.

“We had a lot of inherent issues with the accuracy of that data,” says Stoeck, controller for the Dubuque, Iowa-based company.

Today, Foodliner and a growing number of fleets use wireless technology to tap ECMs for purposes of monitoring and improving vehicle maintenance as well as driver performance, which often creates maintenance problems. Remote diagnostics isn’t limited to monitoring trucks hundreds of miles away, however. Some fleets use short-range wireless to download vehicle data automatically when drivers enter a yard. (See “Watching the yard.”) And communication isn’t necessarily one way, either. Some applications let you change vehicle and engine parameters remotely, such as adjusting top speed and even shutting the engine down.

Finding fault
Although most carriers got into mobile communications so they could communicate with drivers or track vehicle location, many fleets have learned to leverage their wireless capability to improve maintenance and maximize uptime. The most basic method is reporting of fault codes.

John Cheeseman Trucking (JCT), a 150-truck carrier based in Fort Recovery, Ohio, uses ADV Monitor, a standard feature in its MobileMax mobile communications from Aether Systems. JCT uses ADV Monitor to report on the top 25 fault codes that require attention, such as the anti-lock braking system and “anything wrong with the engine” such as oil pressure, a misfire or loss of coolant, says JCT mechanic Paul Dircksen. Fault codes are displayed in a PC-based program through an Internet connection with Aether. MobileMax also allows JCT to pre-program a message for each fault code that is sent automatically to drivers through their in-cab messaging unit.

“It sends [the message] right to the driver as well as for dispatch to read,” Dircksen says. “Drivers really appreciate that. Otherwise they just get a ‘check engine’ light.”

About 12 years ago, Qualcomm Wireless Business Solutions released a product called JTracs Pro that works with its OmniTracs system for real-time management of vehicle data including fault codes and other J1708 data. Currently, only carriers using AS400s can use the JTracs Pro feature, but Qualcomm plans to make the system Web-based as well, says Jeff Waterstreet, the company’s senior manager of business development.

Even systems that don’t report fault codes can help carriers improve equipment maintenance. Foodliner uses PerformX, a real-time evaluation tool in its PeopleNet g2x wireless fleet management system that monitors vehicles’ performance by communicating with the engine’s ECM.

Every week, the maintenance department at Foodliner receives a PerformX report, via e-mail, that includes current odometer readings and fuel economy for each truck. The report is used to determine which units are overdue for preventive maintenance (PM) services and potential problems that may be developing.

“We have caught some units that have had engine problems because of low mpgs,” says Foodliner’s Stoeck. To use PerformX, PeopleNet customers pay a one-time application fee of $200 per vehicle for the hardware (a cable from the onboard computer to the J1708 datalink) and to activate the online interface and reporting tools. Currently, the PeopleNet system does not report fault codes, but the company plans to make this feature available by the first quarter of 2005, says Brian McLaughlin, vice president of marketing for PeopleNet.

JCT also uses a daily mileage report from Aether to maintain its PM schedules. Mileage is downloaded from each vehicle into a spreadsheet database.

“It has an option where you can export mileage right into an Excel program,” Dircksen says. “You print reports on which trucks are due for service and when it was last serviced. It is a real labor saver versus going out and checking every odometer. You don’t even have to see the truck to know when they are due.”

Driver performance
Savvy fleet executives recognize that driver performance is central to vehicle condition, safety and profitability. Speeding, hard braking, excessive idling and other undesirable actions all can be monitored on a real-time basis.

Every morning, managers at Four Truckers, a 120-truck carrier based in Morganton, N.C., go online to look at a PerformX report to review key benchmarks from the previous day such as idle time, moving time and average fuel economy.

“It enables us to be in touch with our business and makes us better operators,” says Four Truckers President Eric Clark. Before using PeopleNet, the company was downloading data from trucks when they returned, about once a week, with software from an engine manufacturer installed in a laptop. “Sometimes it got downloaded, and sometimes it didn’t,” Clark says.

With daily reports organized by fleet, Clark says he quickly can identify trucks that continually fail to meet performance standards on a daily and weekly basis. Four Truckers also uses the system to monitor some parameters in real time, such as excessive speeding. The Web-based PerformX application sends an e-mail to the safety director when drivers exceed the threshold.

“It has far-reaching effects,” Clark says. “You really have to have more than one or two people involved.” The system identifies drivers who consistently fail to meet company standards before their actions dig into the bottom line.

Monitoring a driver’s speed remotely doesn’t require a connection to the J1708 data bus, however. By using the Global Positioning System, AirIQ, a Toronto-based provider of wireless fleet management solutions, uses an onboard computer to calculate a vehicle’s speed. When drivers exceed a pre-selected speed, the computer automatically forwards an e-mail to fleet managers in real time.

In cases where more than one driver uses a truck, fleets can use logins or other forms of access control to ensure they are tracking metrics for the correct driver. Penske Truck Leasing, for example, now offers its leasing customers an optional Web-based fleet management tool called FleetIQ. The system starts at $50 a month for the basic package that gives fleet managers the ability to receive daily, Web-based reports on vehicle performance. The premier package requires drivers to log in and provides daily operational profile reports on each driver for fuel economy, idling and start/stops, says Mike Flynn, Penske’s onboard technology product manager.

Exception management
A potential downside of wireless vehicle and driver monitoring is information overload. With too much data, managers may choose to ignore some problems rather than take corrective action. For this reason, onboard computers use exception-based reporting to notify managers only when events require immediate action based on company-defined parameters. Aether’s MobileMax is configured to report fault codes, such as a drop in oil pressure, only if they persist for a certain period of time.

“That helps get rid of the garbage that comes over J1708,” says Mike Brown, Aether’s vice president of marketing. “Once [a fault code] expires a certain time and becomes a persistent fault code, we send that in wirelessly, in real time.” Similarly, parameters such as speed and idle time can be programmed to alert certain people when predetermined thresholds are crossed.

But even exception reports can lead to data overload. Foodliner’s Stoeck e-mails reports to different fleet managers once a month to ensure that the information creates an impact. Foodliner began using PerformX to monitor hard stops in real time, but that became overwhelming.

“We had way too many e-mails, and no one was looking at them,” Stoeck says. “We discontinued that process. Field managers only have so much time on their hands.”

Advanced applications
Wireless reporting of ECM data can help fleets diagnose problems before they even become problems through prognostics. A fault code might indicate, for example, the start of injector wear or low tire pressure long before the truck returns to base. Fleets may use the information to send the truck for maintenance on the road.

Coast Plumbing, Heating and Air Inc., which operates a 28-vehicle fleet in Orange County, Calif., uses a Web-based GPS tracking and diagnostics monitoring system called Networkcar. Coast’s nearby Chevrolet dealership services the fleet by logging in directly to Coast’s Networkcar website to determine which vehicles have trouble codes, recalls or decreased fuel efficiency. The dealer’s service department can procure parts in advance and pinpoint problems remotely, which leads to quicker service.

“Our service provider knows exactly when our vehicles are due for scheduled maintenance, and they let us know which vehicles to bring in. They can spot vehicle problems at an early stage, which helps us maximize our warranties,” says Jerry Herrington, Coast fleet supervisor. “By repairing problems immediately, we also reduce long-term repair costs.”

Another advanced use of remote diagnostics is two-way communications with the ECM to allow for remote change of engine parameters such as top speed and shutdown. In July, Qualcomm announced a plan to integrate an application from Snap-on Tools with OmniTracs. Snap-on’s e-Technician enables operators to query vehicle data at any time. The application also has a “command and control” feature to re-program vehicle parameters while the vehicle is traveling on or off the road.

“In addition, we believe that in the future, it will do a better job of giving customers the ability to interpret the data and operationalize the data – not in the sense of just sending data back to the home base, but a better job of integrating with fleets’ maintenance software package,” Waterstreet says.

In the short term, Qualcomm plans to offer e-Technician as a separate hardware piece connected to the OmniTracs system. Eventually, the company will embed the product into OmniTracs, Waterstreet says. With the command and control features of remote diagnostics, it’s not difficult to imagine programming trucks’ top speed to adjust automatically by state or region, according to the speed limits of each area.

While the technology exists to make this possible, many companies are still in stage one – searching for a cost-effective way to harness vehicle information. In most cases, solutions that make the most sense from an economic standpoint leverage wireless ECMs with other applications, such as tracking and mobile communications.

Watching the yard
Remote diagnostics can be a matter of feet

For fleets with local operations or trucks that return on a daily or weekly basis, short-range wireless solutions now make it possible to download data from an onboard computer or simply an antenna as vehicles return to the yard.

For years, the major providers of diagnostics tools have used cable to download data from the vehicle’s J1708 datalink connector. Now a host of short-range wireless solutions are entering the market.

Mack Trucks, for example, offers an onboard data logger called DataMax that records trip and life-of-vehicle information, such as maintenance and fault codes, engine duty cycle and a driver’s daily stop-and-go activities. The company also offers InfoMax Wireless, a tool that utilizes 802.11b frequency standard to transmit data from vehicles to a local computer instantly and automatically when the vehicle is within range. Fleets can specify what data they want as well as how often they get it, the company says.

Truck manufacturers Volvo North America and International also have developed proprietary wireless tracking and vehicle monitoring systems, although these systems use satellite and cellular-based networks, respectively.

Scan tools also are making the move toward wireless. Later this year, Eaton Truck Components, which markets the MD Scan Tool, will release a wireless version that works within 802.11b standard. The company also plans to move into cellular-based diagnostics in 2005, says Matt Starks, Eaton’s manager of installation and support development. The advantage of using a wireless scan tool, Starks says, is that you wouldn’t need a dedicated transmitter for each computer. All scan tools would transmit data to the same PC.

CAT Engines is soon to release a wireless system as well. The engine manufacturer now offers Palm OS-based and PC-based software to download data from engines. The company is nearing production of a wireless communications adapter that uses the 802.11b standard. The hardware could be installed on a truck permanently or temporarily.

“I could envision that some truck fleets would want to put (a wireless adapter) on every machine, and as a truck comes in, it would automatically download through the wireless network to a desktop connected to your parts order and warranty system,” says Mike Watson, product development manager for Caterpillar dealer service tools. “It should be able to improve the productivity of technicians.”

Tests have shown the wireless adapter will work over a half-mile, assuming a directional antenna and a clear line of sight. In a service bay environment, the system is reliable up to 300 feet. With a small whip antenna on the top of the truck, the distance jumps to 1,000 feet.