What could be finer for protecting a fleet's investment in its trucks — not to mention for curbing downtime — than to have a technician ride shotgun in every cab? Wildly impractical in the real world, this scenario is nonetheless entirely possible in the virtual realm, as many fleets have begun to find out.

One of the greatest promises held out by the arrival of vehicle telematics in the trucking industry some years back has been gaining the capability to diagnose a truck's mechanical and electronic problems remotely while it is out on the road hauling freight or working vocationally. Telematics has long been used to provide wireless communications between fleets and their vehicles, but until recently has mainly been limited to real-time communication between driver and dispatcher — not the truck and the fleet, dealer or other maintenance facility.

But now wide-ranging remote diagnostics are a reality and a fleet can access this capability either through a truck OEM or one of several high-tech suppliers. What's more, other truck OEMs either offer some of this capability already and/or are planning to make remote diagnostics available in the near future.

The first truck OEM out of the gate with a complete remote-diagnostics package is Daimler Trucks North America's Freightliner. Dubbed Virtual Technician (VT), it will come standard on all 2012 Freightliners powered by Detroit engines. VT uses hardware — the black box/transmitter — supplied by Zonar as well as a cloud-based computing platform for the system. Zonar also offers a remote-diagnostics product directly to fleets.

VT transmits real-time engine diagnostics with performance indicators to the Detroit business unit's Customer Support Center. The center than communicates to fleet owners any potential performance issues as well as service scheduling based on the data pulled off the truck.

It's that Detroit connection that distinguishes Freightliner's VT offering, according to Tim Tindall, director of sales for Detroit Components. He says “the execution [of the information transmitted] is done by us in-house, using our expertise to interpret and act on the data transmitted from the truck and then communicate what needs to be done to the vehicle owner.”

“Zonar technology allows us to provide a new level of customer service to Freightliner owners,” points out Dave Hames, general manager-marketing & strategy for DTNA. “With Virtual Technician, maintenance and service teams will be solving problems as they occur. Uptime will increase through Virtual Technician's real-time diagnostics and the verification that the right parts needed for the repair are available. Service outlet support will be bolstered with the aid of the Detroit Customer Support Center, due to the electronic reporting, and, best of all, productivity will be increased.”

According to Tindall, VT packages and analyzes diagnostic codes transmitted from the vehicle. The analysis of the codes conducted by the Customer Support Center results in a series of reporting and remedial actions being initiated.

“With Virtual Technician, we have determined that more than 93% of the issues identified by indicator lights are easily correctable and can wait until the best time for the customer to be addressed,” reports Hames. “Virtual technician maximizes uptime by enabling customers to make informed decisions immediately.”