Fast forward: PeopleNet prepares for the future of fleet mobility

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Updated May 5, 2014

On Friday, April 18, Mark Botticelli entered a conference room on the top floor of PeopleNet’s headquarters in Minnetonka, Minn., carrying the Google Glass. The company’s chief information officer said he will be experimenting with this and other high-tech devices while leading the development of PeopleNet’s next-generation Precision Mobility platform.

Mark Botticelli, chief information officer of PeopleNet, is leading the development of the Precision Mobility platform.Mark Botticelli, chief information officer of PeopleNet, is leading the development of the Precision Mobility platform.

The Google Glass currently costs $1,500 but, as with most technology, will become more affordable over time. At some point, fleets and drivers may want to use the technology for conducting pre-trip inspections of equipment, he said. Instead of noting any defects on paper or by punching keys on mobile devices, drivers would use simple eye movements and verbal cues to capture content as they walk around vehicles.

Inspections are one of many examples of where connected devices or the “Internet of things” continue to make an impact in the transportation industry. Electronic control units (ECUs), tire sensors, roll stability control and lane departure warning systems, video recorders, onboard computers and smart phones are some of the technologies already being used to capture and transmit data in and around the vehicle.

In developing the Precision Mobility platform, Botticelli said that PeopleNet will be taking a new approach for managing the growing amount of data that is being generated at the vehicle level.

Most telematics providers, PeopleNet included, have traditionally used a direct connection between their proprietary mobile devices and applications in the vehicle and their private data centers. This model works but can be fairly complex when fleet customers and third party software developers want to create a custom integration, workflow or application the cab or the back office.

More recently, telematics providers have begun using a “bring your own device” (BYOD) or software-as-a-service (SaaS) model where they use “dumb” devices connected to the vehicle’s data bus to capture and forward data to servers in the cloud for processing.

With this approach “there is no intelligence in the cab and no opportunity to do real-time anything,” he said. “Our approach is that you want to do as much as you possibly can within the cab before you deliver it.”

Publish and subscribe

As part of celebrating 20 years in business, Botticelli and other PeopleNet executives hosted this CCJ editor at the company’s headquarters to discuss the past, present and future of the company as its prepares to launch its next generation platform for fleet mobility.

The prevailing theme during the meeting was that PeopleNet will stay true to its roots and provide a fully supported, enterprise platform. This involves a deep commitment to developing and supporting its own hardware, cellular network and mobile applications. One advantage of deploying its own hardware in the vehicle rather than leveraging consumer-style devices, as others have done, is to distribute processing power to the cab in order to “generate higher value data and deliver that data to the cloud,” Botticelli said.

“We don’t deliver (data) in little bits and bytes and let the cloud do the processing. We complete something in the cab to make an immediate impact to the driver in the vehicle and then deliver a higher value piece of data to the back end.”

PeopleNet also plans to make its hardware and software applications more easy to integrate with by adding new “publish and subscribe” message brokers to its in-vehicle gateway and, for the first time, to a public cloud rather than its own private data center.

“Anyone who has useful information within the cab can publish that data to our gateway and then anyone who is subscribed to that data will get it immediately,” he explained.

As an example, Botticelli offered a case where an engine publishes a certain fault code that several devices on the vehicle want to see immediately. A new message broker in the cab will allow any device in the vehicle to subscribe to that information, which is published in real-time using a publicly known, standard protocol. PeopleNet will be using MQTT, a protocol similar to HTTP but exclusively for the sharing of information between mobile devices.

The new publish and subscribe approach will make it easier for PeopleNet’s in-vehicle gateway to interface with “the Internet of transportation things” and with vendors and fleets’ own applications to consume information from vehicles.

CLICK on the image to view a photo gallery of CCJ’s visit to PeopleNet headquarters.CLICK on the image to view a photo gallery of CCJ’s visit to PeopleNet headquarters.

PeopleNet has already released some of the components of its new Precision Mobility platform and will be adding more soon. At its 2013 user conference, it took the first step by announcing a new machine to machine (M2M) communications layer.

PeopleNet has decoupled the driver-dispatcher messaging application layer from its proprietary onboard platform and private data center and placed it in a cloud server hosted by Amazon, he explained.

PeopleNet’s messaging “broker” will make it possible for the messaging application to run on virtually any device and to be integrated with any third party software application.

Trimble in charge

PeopleNet and Trimble executives shared many facets of the company during their meetings with CCJ. One of the major events in the company’s 20-year history started in the spring of 2011. PeopleNet was at a crossroads, explained Ron Konezny, one of the company’s founders, after a series of events led to this pivotal decision: should PeopleNet remain an independent company or join a larger enterprise?

Management decided to join Trimble on the basis that it would be in the best interest of its customers, he said.

Trimble acquired PeopleNet in August, 2011. At the time PeopleNet had more than 125,000 telematics units deployed. Today, PeopleNet has more than 250,000 units on vehicles in North America.

Following the acquisition, Konezny became the general manager of Trimble’s newly formed Transportation & Logistics business unit.

In this role he conducts weekly calls with the lead executives of PeopleNet, TMW Systems, ALK Technologies and Vusion — the other transportation technology companies acquired by Trimble since 2011. One purpose for the weekly call is to receive an update on collaboration projects and discuss opportunities as well as begin new ones.

One example where Trimble collaboration has paid off is in the development of an integrated “Crude workflow” product for carriers in the energy sector. About 20 percent of all mobile units that PeopleNet is shipping are to carriers in this market.

Trimble is also working to develop more integrated, closed loop processes for route planning, route compliance and analysis based on feedback gathered from thousands of mutual customers in its T&L group.

“Our customers make meager profits. Of those profits they can only afford to spend a portion of that on technology,” Konezny said. Motor carriers also don’t have the bandwidth to implement multiple projects at one time.

“The next thing (our customers) say is ‘you know what, if we could get these systems to talk to each other that would unlock additional value,’” he added. Customers are also asking for more analytical capabilities to find correlations among their own internal data, and larger industry data sets, to gain insights needed to improve fuel economy, change driver behavior, and make better operating decisions.

“Our customers have been telling us, ‘I’ve never spent more money on technology. I’ve never had more data. I’ve got all these fancy systems but I still lack the answers — what truck to buy, when to trade in that trailer, when are my tires going to need to be replaced,’” he said. “This is the case we are trying to prove to customers — that throughout our business unit we are the best suited and uniquely positioned to unlock value that they would really struggle to do by going another path.”

PeopleNet executives said that among the many factors that have contributed to its success to date, and in the future, is its focus on hiring and developing a workforce of problem solvers and its customer-focused strategy for product development and support.