The Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts that nearly 77,000 new diesel technicians will be needed over the next 10 years, while vocational programs graduate just more than 10,000 newly-minted technicians every year.
The debate rages on about the degree of the shortage of mechanical manpower, but what’s not debatable is the technological sophistication needed by technicians to succeed in today’s repair shop.
Current model-year trucks can self-diagnose fault codes before an event occurs and communicate those needs to the driver, dispatch and repair shop in real time.
On early-model trucks, the check engine light was the standard diagnostics indicator. The actual fault was anyone’s guess, and it could take several days before it was discovered.
Today, under many circumstances, the time it takes to triage a truck can be cut to minutes and even performed by the truck itself while it’s on the way to the shop.
This level of sophistication has, in most cases, curbed downtime by improving communication among everyone involved in the repair process – including the truck itself.
In this sixth edition of CCJ’s Tech Toolbox, we look at some of the technology and methods available to fleets that can help streamline the diagnostics and repair process, control downtime and improve productivity.
Be sure to visit CCJTechToolbox.com for other installments and multimedia content and to sign up for special Tech Toolbox webinars and newsletters. Next month: How to decide which technology makes sense for your business.
Communication plays a critical role in truck maintenance, whether it’s the driver telling dispatch of a need, or a shop updating the fleet on a repair’s status.
As drivers focus more on their own efficiency than the truck’s mechanical performance, diagnostics capabilities have become a linchpin in the communication process between the driver’s seat and the fleet.
“You get immediate visibility of emissions-disabling-type faults,” says Phil Taylor, Central Oregon Truck Co.’s vice president of maintenance, who estimates the company has 75 tractors operating on Kenworth’s TruckTech+. “It gives us an opportunity to communicate with the driver. You can actually make the driver part of the process.”
Taylor says a telematics-based diagnostics service gives the Oregon-based fleet the opportunity to “plan” a truck to a shop that will have both the capacity and the parts to support the repair.
“There’s a few things we can do to overcome an out-of-service event based on those [fault] codes,” he says.
Previously, the company would populate the fault codes through its PeopleNet-powered mobile communications system, which wouldn’t provide information about potential local service providers or the code’s severity.
“With the technology on these trucks, understanding and education leads to making that driver part of the process and making him understand what’s going on.”
— Phil Taylor, Central Oregon Truck Co.’s vice president of maintenance
“Today, we can see on a scale of one to five how severe the problem is,” Taylor says.“Is it something we need to deal with right now, or is it something we can deal with when a driver is out of service or expired? It gives us a lot of information that we can manage by.”
Of all the benefits reaped from a remote diagnostics platform, the one that stands out most is the improvement in communication “from the truck to the fleet,” Taylor says. “Although the communication is coming via a call center, we’re getting those notifications in real time so that it allows us to get ahead of the issue, typically prior to failure.”
When a fault surfaces, the entire company is pulled into the loop and can take action from there, Taylor says.
“Those codes and everything you get, they also go to our operational team so that they know how to adjust,” he says. “If we have a fault code, what do we do for the driver? We can respond to it earlier. We can make adjustments and avoid a service failure to a customer or, more immediately, to the driver.”
Getting ahead of a failure allows Central Oregon to maximize the driver’s and the truck’s uptime. “Our goal is to always plan general maintenance activity when a driver’s hours of service are expired,” Taylor says.
Tim Gray, remote diagnostics coordinator for Averitt Express (CCJ Top 250, No. 21), says that drivers for the Cookeville, Tenn.-based company “really like the peace of mind where someone else is monitoring their tractor.”
“The information a driver can provide is essential. What [telematics] does is it essentially allows an alert to go out that allows us to reach out to the driver and ask them if they are experiencing problems, to potentially help them identify things they can’t hear. What they are experiencing in the vehicle is still valuable information.”
— Sherry Sanger, Penske Truck Leasing’s senior vice president of marketing
Averitt has eight breakdown coordinators that provide around-the-clock monitoring. “We want them to know that they’re operating a safe piece of equipment,” he says.
The flow of information also has helped replace the mechanical ability that Taylor says many of today’s new drivers seem to have lost.
“It used to be that drivers out on the road were kind of gearheads – they had a lot of mechanical aptitude,” he says. “Today, we don’t see that capability or that aptitude on the driver end.”
While some millennial drivers may be less mechanically inclined, they tend to understand the codes and electronic notifications coming from the ECM, Taylor says.
“With the technology on these trucks, understanding and education leads to making that driver part of the process and making him understand what’s going on,” he says, adding that drivers frequently understand the technology but not how it affects them.
“Part of it is learning how to make our drivers successful,” Taylor says. “How do we allow them to understand and be part of the process?”
The flow of communication from the truck was designed to supplement, not replace, the feedback coming from the driver’s seat, says Sherry Sanger, Penske Truck Leasing’s senior vice president of marketing.
“The information a driver can provide is essential,” Sanger says. “What [telematics] does is it essentially allows an alert to go out that allows us to reach out to the driver and ask them if they are experiencing problems, to potentially help them identify things they can’t hear. What they are experiencing in the vehicle is still valuable information.”
When you go to the doctor, your personal physician knows most of your vital signs and symptoms before knocking on the door of the exam room where you’re waiting. That same level of data is available to service bays via a vehicle health report.
Health reports can contain more than 130 parameter values and store data every 30 minutes for up to 500 reports – the equivalent of five days on the road.
Shelby Tidwell, maintenance manager for Royal Trucking, says the West Point, Miss.-based company receives a health report via Navistar’s OnCommand Connection every morning with the vital signs of all the units in the carrier’s fleet.
“You can click on the health report, and it will give you a fault code action plan,” Tidwell says. “It will tell you ‘This is going to derate the engine. You need to get it fixed.’”
Listed in the health report is a list of service locations, including dealers closest to the truck.
“It gives us a snapshot every morning of what the fleet’s doing and what problems we’re having. It gives us the flexibility to say, ‘OK, that’s something you can come back to the yard with,’ or ‘No, we need to get that in the shop now,’ or ‘Yes, we can send you by an independent shop to get that looked at.’”
— Shelby Tidwell, maintenance manager for Royal Trucking, talking about OnCommand and its health reports
Royal has been using OnCommand for about three years and has gone from 20 trucks initially on the platform to now include the company’s entire fleet of ProStars equipped with both Cummins and Navistar engines, as well as Freightliners equipped with Detroit engines.
“We can go in there and monitor the health and the status of all our trucks at any time, no matter where the truck is,” Tidwell says. “You can see the different fault codes, the DPF status … there’s just all kinds of information you can get.”
Tidwell has integrated OnCommand with the fleet’s Omnitracs platform, using OnCommand to extract the data and build the health report that includes the truck’s VIN, unit number, model, time, odometer reading and diagnostics trouble codes.
“If they’re red, they need attention,” he says. “If they’re yellow, we can wait until it gets back here. If they’re gray, it’s either inactive or the ABS – maybe the guy spun a wheel or broke traction.”
With help from Royal’s local dealer, Waters International, the company customized its email alerts to include only the events that “were going to cause a wrecker bill and downtime,” Tidwell says.
Everyone in the shop receives the email, and Royal’s breakdown service manager is responsible for seeing that faults are monitored and addressed.
The report’s real-time data also helps catch major issues before they result in downtime.
“Maybe it shows the guy’s got low fuel pressure and that he probably needs a fuel filter,” says Tidwell, who notes the reports also are valuable tools in monitoring the aftertreatment system.
“Maybe the driver blew through the regen[eration] light and didn’t do what he was supposed to,” he says. “We’d need to call the driver and see what’s going on.”
Tidwell says the health report helps Royal control downtime. “We don’t have to send a truck to a dealer or shop and depend on them to tell us what we need, or we get to the shop and they say ‘We can’t look at it for two days,’ and you wait two days to find out it was only a coolant level sensor or something.”
Tidwell says he’s not sure how much time OnCommand and its health reports have shaved off Royal’s downtime, other than it’s “significant” and that efficiency has improved.
“It gives us a snapshot every morning of what the fleet’s doing and what problems we’re having,” he says. “It gives us the flexibility to say, ‘OK, that’s something you can come back to the yard with,’ or ‘No, we need to get that in the shop now,’ or ‘Yes, we can send you by an independent shop to get that looked at.’”
Fleets comprised of trucks from multiple OEMs often are put off by remote diagnostics and the prospect of having to manage each of the individual platforms that come with them, but in some cases the segregation of proprietary information can be more helpful than headache.
Averitt Express uses separate portals to manage Volvo’s Remote Diagnostics, Cummins’ Connected Engine, Eaton’s ServiceRanger and Freightliner’s Virtual Technician across its fleet of more than 4,500 tractors.
“I like it individualized,” says Tim Gray, who became the fleet’s remote diagnostics coordinator in August 2013, coinciding with the timeframe when OEMs began making diagnostics standard on their trucks.
“It’s greatly improved downtime. If a tractor triggers a fault code and it’s a service-soon event, that lets us know that we can plan our repairs depending on the fault code. Depending on the severity of the code, it might could wait toward the end of the week.”
– Tim Gray, remote diagnostics coordinator, Averitt Express
“If I need to invite one of [our field service managers] in to see how a repair is going at one of our dealers, I don’t want him to have to filter through a bunch of other OEMs,” Gray says.
Keeping each make separate from the others also helps direct repair information to all parties involved on a need-to-know basis.
“It would be very easy to click on, say, a Freightliner tractor and then accidentally invite our Volvo rep in … it’s a lot easier to get your communications mixed up,” Gray says. “To me, it would be a lot easier to make a mistake [using a combined portal].”
While platforms such as Noregon’s TruVision or Navistar’s OnCommand Connection can consolidate multiple portals, using each OEM’s separate portal helps Averitt Express capture all proprietary repair data.
“If I’m buying a [proprietary engine], each one of those OEMs has expertise with their engines that nobody else does,” says Scott Sutarik, Geotab’s associate vice president of commercial vehicle solutions. “The problem is that while those two programs are universal, they don’t have the detail that Freightliner would be able to provide on Detroit, for example.”
A singular portal for each OEM also keeps technicians focused on the task at hand by allowing them to concentrate on a certain group of tractors.
“When I’m working on the Volvo portal, for example, I know I’m only in there looking at Volvos,” Gray adds.
From those portals, Gray has access to all the information he needs to arrange an expedited repair at one of the OEM’s shops, a nearby dealer or an independent shop.
For example, Volvo’s Remote Diagnostics platform allows him to pull a fault code from the tractor and schedule a repair at the closest facility with the needed part.
“What I always do is go ahead and send [the shop] that fault code, and [the report] has the part number listed on it,” he says. “That way, when the driver rolls in there, that shop leader has already got that fault code and knows what part is needed.”
A generation ago, a set of wrenches was about all a good technician needed to get a down truck back on the road.
Fast-forward 25 years, and a laptop and a host of other modern accessories are standard issue, forever changing the type for training for today’s technicians.
“You’re needing someone who is computer-literate,” says Dewey Bishop, technician trainer for Memphis, Tenn.-based Ozark Motor Lines (CCJ Top 250, No 143). “Four or five years ago, technicians didn’t have an email address. They didn’t need one and didn’t know what one was. Now, with all the online training, they need email addresses.”
“We fussed for years at them for having their cell phones out on the floor,” says Glen McDonald, Ozark’s director of maintenance. “Now, that’s how we’re going to deliver [information] to them.”
“The younger generation is a lot more computer-literate, but they depend too much on computers. A computer is only going to tell you so much. You still have got to be able to troubleshoot and find problems.”
— Shelby Tidwell, maintenance manager for Royal Trucking
Computer literacy is becoming just as important as mechanical aptitude, and trade schools have started to shift their coursework accordingly.
“The technicians coming out [of trade schools] are more trained,” says Tim Gray, Averitt Express’ remote diagnostics coordinator. “They’re actually receiving training on technology.”
The level of training for new technicians is something their veteran peers are having to learn on the fly.
“I have some great mechanics, and they’re scared to death of a laptop computer,” says Phil Taylor, Central Oregon Truck Co.’s vice president of maintenance.
Many of today’s shops employ techncians with varying degrees of training, some good with their hands and others good with computers – all working to find their way to common ground.
“The younger generation is a lot more computer-literate, but they depend too much on computers,” says Shelby Tidwell, maintenance manager for Royal Trucking. “A computer is only going to tell you so much. You still have got to be able to troubleshoot and find problems.”
“The whole millennial generation seems to be very receptive to [diagnostics],” Taylor says. “But if you ask them to change a wheel seal, they might struggle a bit. [The mechanical] part of it seems to be harder to find.”
When a truck throws a fault code, it’s too late.
The code only displays when there’s a problem that needs to be fixed, but today’s technology is marching slowly toward the kind of sophistication that can alert drivers and fleets to a problem before it’s ever actually an issue.
Ozark Motor Lines’ predominantly Freightliner fleet uses the OEM-standard Virtual Technician. The fleet also has partnered with tech startup PreTeckt to develop a prognostics platform capable of sending alerts before a fault occurs.
“I’ve always fussed and said ‘I don’t need 15 different systems on my truck,’ but [PreTeckt is] looking to try and tell you ahead of time that the light’s fixing to come on, that something’s happening inside that’s going to trip it so we can plan ahead of time,” says Glen McDonald, Ozark’s director of maintenance.
PreTeckt connects to the truck’s diagnostics port and automatically configures the truck to the network. Dewey Bishop, Ozark’s technician trainer, says the company currently is testing the platform on 30 of the carrier’s units and that he communicates with PreTeckt every few weeks as the group works to refine the system. “It looks really promising,” Bishop says.
“For example, if a doser nozzle starts to stop up in one of our trucks, the fuel pressure increases. If I can log in and look at the fuel pressure on another truck at any given moment, when I see it starting to increase, then I know a problem is about to happen.”
— Dewey Bishop, Ozark Motor Lines technician trainer
PreTeckt’s networked service continuously logs the truck’s sensors and sends alerts for anomalies that indicate early signs of failure. The potential to plan maintenance better is the prospect that most excites Bishop.
“With [standard diagnostics], the problem has already happened and lets you know after the fact,” he says. “You can try and arrange for service, but you’re very limited most of the time – 300 or 400 miles is about the best you can do once the problem already happens. If we can identify a week or two ahead of time along the truck’s daily route, we can schedule through the shop and have it repaired before the problem ever begins.”
McDonald says Ozark tries to perform all maintenance in-house and that using a nonproprietary provider allows the flexibility to better plan and route repair services.
“We want to discover it before it happens and route it to one of our shops and not have to limp him in,” he says.
The PreTeckt platform is self-learning so that when one truck on the network experiences a maintenance issue, it communicates with the rest of the trucks to recognize the symptoms that could predict a similar failure.
Bishop’s shops most often see high volumes of similar issues because they’re running 700 of the same trucks, and PreTeckt’s real-time data insights that allow Bishop to log in and see various operating data from any truck play a key role in preventing breakdowns.
“For example, if a doser nozzle starts to stop up in one of our trucks, the fuel pressure increases,” he says. “If I can log in and look at the fuel pressure on another truck at any given moment, when I see it starting to increase, then I know a problem is about to happen.”
That level of predictive maintenance is what Bill Combs, director of connected fleets for Penske Truck Leasing, calls “the ultimate goal.”
“When the truck can tell us there’s an issue, the driver may not have seen a light on the dash, and it’s possible there’s not even a light on the dash yet, but we’re getting data telling us that vehicle is in trouble,” he says. “Then we can proactively reach out to the customer, and our customer can work with us in figuring out how we can deal with that issue.”