Working the problem: Information technology and downtime

Updated Dec 16, 2014

InternetMy refrigerator at home has a computer motherboard in it.

I can’t tell you what the hell that motherboard does. But I can tell you that it costs $275 (plus labor) to replace. And that I’ve replaced it twice in the 10 years I’ve had this ‘fridge.

Computers are everywhere today. And if you’re my age – born in the mid-‘60s, you’ve been primed for this in a lot of ways.

I grew up in the 1970s, which was a really interesting time from a technology standpoint. We’d just walked on the moon, and all the big (and little) technological advances from that mind-blowing feat were just beginning to trickle down into society at large. This was coupled with what was surely a Golden Age of Science Fiction: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Trek, Star Wars and even cheesier fare such as Battlestar Galactica and a revamped Buck Rogers were challenging us to think about new and theoretical technology in open-minded ways.

But here’s the funny thing: All those great, creative minds pondering the future and advanced technology never came up with something as simple and world changing as the Internet.

Now, to be fair, the concept of a computer was pretty mind blowing at the time. And there weren’t all that many of them around. The tectonic shift came when suddenly everybody had their own computer (another mind-blowing concept) and somebody said, “Hey, let’s hook all these computers together and start sharing information with one another.” And suddenly the world was changed forever.

Which leads me back to that motherboard in my ‘fridge.

I spent the early part of this week touring Mack and Volvo’s new Uptime Center, adjacent to their “corporate campus” in Greensboro, NC. The Volvo Group seems to get the concept that sharing information quickly and easily is the key to making trucking technology work via telematics. They’re not alone in this approach, of course. But the dedication of this new facility and the “war room” demeanor the employees manning it have adopted shows clearly how Volvo and Mack will react and respond to a customer’s truck being down from now on: It will treated as a crisis situation. And just like the guys on the ground in the during the famous Apollo 13 crisis, those Mack and Volvo experts will “work the problem” until a truck is repaired and back on the road.

Of course most trucking crises aren’t as dire as the Apollo 13 situation. I seriously doubt we’re going to need to get a truck driver to build a C02 filter in his sleeper from old socks and a Kleenex box any time soon. On the other hand, much like my ‘fridge, trucks today are loaded down with increasingly complex ECMs. And if these components fail, you can be looking at more than $2,000 a day, per event, while a truck sits idle, according to Goran Nyberg, president of Volvo Trucks North American Sales and Marketing. And as it happens, information is really your best defense and tool to prevent or at least mitigate those breakdowns.

Fleet managers know that information equals power when a truck is down — Where is the unit? What’s its cargo? Where is it headed? When is it supposed to be there? What’s the problem? Where’s the nearest dealer? Can the truck still run? Can this problem wait? – are all just a few questions that have to be answered in the opening minutes of a down truck situation. And many more questions will follow before the situation is resolved.

Telematics systems like Volvo and Mack’s ASIST and GuardDog Connect are simply systems that use myriad technologies like GPS, computers and the Internet to get information to fleets so decisions can be made. That’s it.

And guess what? That’s the future. The trucking industry is only just now sticking its toe in the technological water to see how things feel. Nyberg assured journalists at the Uptime Center’s grand opening that the next generation of trucks will feature more smart components that will be able to communicate problems more efficiently and even alert fleet managers to their impending failure.

No technology is ever going to eliminate downtime completely. But what is clear is that information technology is fast becoming your best means of minimizing costly breakdowns.