Real-time eavesdropping

Fleet Resource Manager from Eaton Corp. includes a diagnostics feature called Rolling Freeze that captures a vehicle’s operating conditions leading up to the precise moment a fault code appears.

In late 2006, Xpedx installed a new onboard computing platform throughout its fleet. When data from vehicles began rolling into the office, Chris Suttle saw opportunities to reduce costs and improve performance. Case in point: Before the transition, the fleet average for idle time was 20 percent; today, the fleet has cut it to 0.8 percent.

“That’s a huge turnaround,” says Suttle, transportation manager for Xpedx, a division of International Paper Co. and distributor of fine paper products from Cincinnati to locations across the country.

Xpedx uses Xatanet, an onboard computing and mobile communications platform from Xata, to measure and manage many critical areas of performance for its 23-truck private fleet. Suttle receives instant e-mail exception alerts when a vehicle exceeds its limit (in minutes) for idling at each stop and facility. Alerts also arrive in his inbox when critical safety and maintenance events occur, such as speeding, “hard braking” and engine fault codes.

In addition to receiving real-time alerts, Xpedx uses periodic reports to measure driver performance, organizational and customer service goals. Once these reports are set up, they arrive automatically via e-mail. “[Reporting] is not something you have to go back and manage,” Suttle says.

Today’s vehicles teem with information. The widespread adoption of onboard computers and wireless communications – often referred to as telematics – has opened the floodgates to new levels of data. The danger is that too much vehicle and driver information quickly can become “white noise” to fleet managers. But as telematics solutions continue to evolve and capture even more information from vehicles, the technology also is advancing to provide more tools to fleet managers to zero in on the critical elements they need to make faster, more effective decisions.

Pulling data from the truck
The primary source of vehicle data is the engine’s electronic control module (ECM) – a virtual warehouse for information generated by the vehicle’s electronics. The ECM communicates with various components and systems in a vehicle’s Controlled Area Network (CAN).

For years, transferring the data stored in an ECM to the office usually meant a hardwired plug-in connection to the vehicle’s databus. Early versions of mobile communications systems – both satellite- and cellular-based – proved to be too costly and inefficient for transferring vehicle data to the office.

But when powerful onboard computers began to converge with high-speed wireless networks and less expensive airtime charges, retrieving information from the vehicle remotely was no longer an issue. Meanwhile, vendors developed more advanced tools to capture, filter and report information that allowed fleet managers to monitor a wide variety of select information in real time.

More recently, telematics providers have developed new applications that integrate with separate monitoring devices in the cab and around the vehicle, including systems and sensors for safety and vehicle maintenance. Many of these providers also have developed new “business intelligence” and reporting tools – all accessible through a Web-based user interface – to give users unlimited flexibility for accessing their information.

Business intelligence
Qualcomm has an aggressive plan to enhance the reporting capability of its performance monitoring and vehicle maintenance applications, says Norm Ellis, vice president and general manager of transportation and logistics for Qualcomm Enterprise Services.

During the past couple of years, Qualcomm has ramped up investment in business intelligence tools. The company already has deployed a business intelligence reporting solution to some customers as a hosted application.

It plans to release a Web-based version this fall, Ellis says.

Fleets also can download driver performance and vehicle maintenance data into custom applications, such as spreadsheets, and will be able to link directly to their own information systems via Web services for real-time detailed reporting and analysis, Ellis says.

CarrierWeb offers a variety of data delivery options for its Truck Mate mobile computing system, says Norman Thomas, the company’s vice president of marketing. The system can gather 16 different engine performance data points.

Fleets that use CarrierWeb can create their own benchmarks for company performance in each category. “We gather this data every 50 minutes and measure it against the established benchmarks,” Thomas says. “(Customers) can then evaluate the drivers within the group to determine bad driving habits or poor-performing trucks or engines.”

PeopleNet offers PerformX on the g3 computing platform to measure driver performance. Fleets that use the vendor’s Web-based interface, the PeopleNet Fleet Manager (PFM), can view and rank driver performance in terms of miles traveled, long and short idle times, average mph, RPM, etc.

PeopleNet also offers Activity Standards, an application that measures driver and vehicle performance against standards of time and mileage for trips that have multiple stops. PeopleNet customers use the data for detention time reporting, for benchmarking of legs, and to compare driver behaviors, says Glenn Williams, PeopleNet’s director of marketing.

Timely fault codes
Unplanned vehicle downtime is a significant cost in terms of lost revenue and customer service failures. That’s why some fleets are using telematics solutions to detect electrical and mechanical failures in advance.

Onboard computers can monitor the vehicle’s electrical network for the appearance of fault codes. These computers can be programmed to alert management to only those fault codes that merit immediate attention.

In early 2007, PeopleNet added a Fault Codes application to its PerformX vehicle monitoring solution. Customers select from a list of fault codes in the PFM interface. They also choose how frequently to report each type of fault code – from once a day to real time, Williams says.

However, merely receiving a fault code is not the same as diagnosing what caused the code to appear. Fleets can choose to see fault codes as well as operating statistics at the time the code appeared – for example, speed, throttle and whether or not the cruise was engaged.

“When a problem occurs, it doesn’t happen when sitting in a shop,” says Tom Flies, Xata’s vice president of business development. Fleets have the ability to run different reports on Xatanet to determine the operating conditions of a vehicle from the last stop or for an entire trip, Flies says.

Eaton’s Fleet Resource Manager – developed through an alliance between Eaton Corp. and @Road Inc. – includes an Advanced Diagnostics Package. When a fault condition occurs, the system automatically records and transmits 41 seconds of critical incident-related data using a new Rolling Freeze technology. It also provides real-time notifications that can be received in the office or field.

“As one of the leaders in the driveline industry, we have learned a lot of important diagnostics and performance information,” says Jack Patterson, marketing analyst of the vehicle solutions business unit for Eaton Corp. “Instead of just giving information, we analyze it and provide it in a way that makes sense.”

Besides diagnostic reports, the Fleet Resource Manager offers advanced performance and safety reports that can include driver following distances by integrating with the Eaton Vorad system. One report shows the driver trends for following distances summarized over the past 12 weeks. Fleets can format reports for each category of safety and performance by using data from their best driver as a baseline, Patterson says.

Using new standards
Today’s available vehicle information may sound comprehensive, but the volume of data will increase due to continually improving technology. The latest truck models now are using a new standard called J1939 for transmitting information in a vehicle’s CAN. The J1939 databus significantly increases the type and volume of data that is accessible to fleet managers.

“The new standard has the capability of transmitting more data at higher speeds,” says Xata’s Flies. “Today, we are working on supporting this standard with our new models.” The J1939 standard will include data captured by safety systems such as roll stability, collision avoidance, lane departure warning and cameras installed on the vehicle – either from the factory or in the aftermarket.

“J1708 is not conducive for that,” Flies says. “J1939 opens up the possibility of devices capturing more information. It is possible to capture that, and with the trends in wireless technology with speeds increasing, it is cost-affordable.”

But figuring out exactly what data to monitor and how to present it to customers is a challenge going forward, vendors say. Fleets have many different information needs. Offering customers too much information upfront can be a turnoff.

Tom Cuthbertson, vice president of government and industry relations for GeoLogic Solutions – acquired by Xata in January – says his company’s latest MobileMax system has J1939 availability. “J1939 is a full system from bumper to taillights,” Cuthbertson says. “We have the ability to monitor it, but the biggest challenge with so much information is ‘Who wants what, and how should it be filtered?’ ”

The J1939 databus has built-in intelligence to limit its communications to exception-based messages. This feature actually will cut down on the amount of information that a telematics solution needs to monitor, says Qualcomm’s Ellis.

“(J1939) is smarter and can make better use of data onboard,” he says. “J1708 just spits it out.”

Trailers filled with information
Onboard computers have become the central gateway to monitor and transmit information from the tractor to the office. Increasingly, vendors say fleets are demanding more functionality to incorporate information from the trailer.

PeopleNet plans to launch a new tethered trailer-tracking product in a phased approach starting in the first quarter as part of its wireless vehicle area network (WiVAN) solution. The new product will have the ability to wirelessly collect information from tractor tires, as well as from trailer reefer units, tires and door sensors, Williams says.

The PFM Web interface will provide reports on trailer activity and events, along with information from the tractor. PeopleNet will be using its open interface, g3 services, to transfer the data from its g3 onboard computer to the PFM, Williams says.

Xata’s Flies sees a trend in demand from fleets to collect information from their trailers, including reefer temperatures and operating statistics. Tanker fleets also are interested in interfacing with new roll stability systems.

“We are in the process of developing that,” Flies says. “We are taking two approaches.” Xata is looking to interface with trailer-tracking and monitoring solutions wirelessly and through the existing seven-pin connection. Capturing data wirelessly from the trailer is more challenging.

“One of the challenges for anything between the tractor and trailer is standards for communication,” Flies says. Tire pressure monitoring systems and other sensors often use a proprietary wireless protocol. “A lot of it is one-to-one integration,” he says.

In the last two years, GeoLogic has received more inquiries about monitoring reefer fuel and temperatures, collision detection and lane departure warning systems, Cuthbertson says. The company already has integrated its onboard computing platform with handheld devices by offering standard protocols.

Devices that detect exception events, rather than unfiltered data to the onboard computer, are easy to integrate with GeoLogic’s platform, Cuthbertson says. “What we want is for exception events to be immediate information for our onboard system to interface with a monitoring device,” he says.

As more applications and devices are developed to harness performance, safety and maintenance information from the vehicle, it becomes even more critical for fleets to learn how to manage the abundance of data.

Big Brother hitching a ride?
FMCSA exploring wireless roadside inspections

If you agree that wireless technology is a key enabler for transportation, then you also might understand why law enforcement officials would want to use wireless technology to inspect your vehicles.

Roughly 180 million commercial vehicles are weighed each year. Many weigh stations are equipped with technology that allows trucks to be weighed while moving at highway speeds. Fleets that participate in programs such as PrePass use radio transponders to automate the weight and safety inspection process.

When compared to the 3 million roadside safety inspections that take place each year, it is not difficult to make a case for wireless roadside safety inspections, says Steve Keppler, director of policy and programs for the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, the agency that trains state law enforcement officials that inspect commercial vehicles.

Wireless roadside inspections will enable officers to “touch” more vehicles, drivers and carriers without having to inspect them physically. Violation rates also will go down, as evidenced by much lower violation rates in size and weight, Keppler says. “If you do more inspections, you will have more of a deterrent factor,” he says.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration currently is looking at different deployment scenarios for wireless roadside inspections, and what type of information should be included in a wireless inspection, such as hours-of-service, vehicle performance and brake-related data.

FMCSA already has examined different types of message sets and deployment scenarios, Keppler says. In August, the agency conducted a proof-of-concept test in Tennessee with participation from technology vendors and fleets. In 2008, it plans to conduct an expanded pilot demonstration of the technology to better understand all of the issues surrounding deployment on a larger scale.

In speaking to fleets about wireless roadside inspections, the most common concerns relate to privacy, liability and data security, Keppler says. In addition, fleets say that if they are going to share more vehicle information with the government, and if it is good data, they want a quid pro quo; that is, they want good inspection results to be evaluated positively in FMCSA’s safety fitness evaluation process, Keppler says. Right now, most of the tools the government uses to evaluate fitness are predicated on bad performance.

Consequently, more data means that FMCSA can target its efforts on the high-risk fleets and not target compliant fleets for roadside inspections, which will save drivers time and improve productivity, Keppler says.

To see the July 2007 FMCSA report on alternative concepts for wireless inspections, click here.