Fifteen years ago, it was called wireless data, and trucking quickly became the first commercial market for a new technology that linked mobile assets with the rest of a fleet's information systems. Today it has a new name — telematics — and new capabilities, but the big change for trucking is neither the name nor the new features.

Until recently, fleets have relied on third parties for both the mobile hardware and the communications networks that allow them to remotely trade information with their drivers and vehicles. But now the companies that design, build and sell trucks have also begun to enter the telematics field. While they won't supplant the well-established providers who already dominate telematics in long-haul operations, that change is going to greatly expand both the types of trucking operations that use telematics and the ways the new technology shapes future fleet management.

The most obvious advantage for an OEM-based telematics approach is that the truck builder is best positioned to integrate the necessary hardware with existing truck electronics and displays, and to install that hardware on the factory line.

ON THE LINE

“Factory installation should mean lower cost,” says Rich Glassman, marketing manager for truck electronics at International Truck & Engine. “But more importantly, it should also bring more functionality [to telematics systems] than third-party solutions. Everyone has access to the public data on the [SAE standardized J 1708 and J 1939 data busses], but as the truck designer and builder, that vehicle data is more meaningful to us.

“Also, we have access to the full range of vehicle data including the proprietary data that isn't available over the J links,” he says. “So everyone can record fault codes, but we're in a better position to tell customers what they really mean.”

In International's case, their new Aware Vehicle Intelligence telematics system is able to take that integration one step further. The multiplexed Diamond Logic electrical system used in its new generation of Class 5 through 7 work trucks lets customers extend remote monitoring to equipment mounted on those trucks. Automatically capturing operational data for body equipment such as refuse packer or boom-truck outriggers not only improves maintenance management, but also allows a fleet to monitor behavior of their drivers in the field, according to Cortney Guzlas, manager of strategic planning for truck electronics.

Kenworth Truck Co. actually made its first foray into telematics in 1999 with a system that chiefly provided navigation assistance. The system was expensive — around $3,000 — “and there were very few takers, so we removed it from the data book,” says Jim Bechtold, asst. chief engineer for cab, outer body and electrical systems.

“Now we're developing products that go after three applications our customers tell us have value for them,” Bechtold says. “We call them the three m's — messaging, mapping and monitoring.”

Like other OEMs, Kenworth believes it has a clear advantage over third-party telematics suppliers when it comes to the monitoring portion. “We're simply in a better position because we have direct access to [information about) the vehicle's health,” Bechtold says.

“Messaging and mapping are more of a toss-up,” he says. “The current systems work well, so it's more about how well they're integrated into the vehicle, how easy are they to read and use. Take displays, for example. It's much easier for us to integrate them from a space and electrical point of view.”

Mack Trucks already offers customers a telematics product called Road Connect “It's a complete factory integration using the dash display and putting the controller behind the dash,” says Wayne Wissinger, manager of product strategy.

DEALER WINS

Dealership networks offer another potential benefit for OEM supplied telematics. “When you look at the primary functions [for telematics] today — routing, messaging, location — the third-party systems are really cost effective,” says Landon Sproull, chief engineer for Peterbilt Motors. “They've invested in the development work and have a clear idea of what customers want from telematics.”

“In our vision, the advantage of [an OEM] integrated system will be in prognostics and the local dealerships,” says Sproull. “Once trucks are smart enough to know the difference between a minor fault and an impending major failure, there is a major advantage to linking customers with your dealership service network with telematics.”

“We see it as an extension of our Premier Care call center service,” says Kenworth's Bechtold. “Think about how much better the service would be if the truck rather than the driver or dispatcher actually communicated the problem and associated information directly to nearby dealers. They'd know what needed to be done to get that truck back on the road and be able to pre-stage servicing so they'd be ready with the parts and necessary technicians by the time the truck actually arrives. Telematics brings new value to our whole dealership distribution chain.”

Volvo Trucks of North America has already taken a step in that direction with it's recently announced Sentry service for it Volvo Link telematics system. Limited now to owner-operators buying Volvo's premium VT 880 tractor, the optional system uses Volvo Link to monitor vehicle fault codes. If a code remains active for more than five minutes, it automatically downloads all the relevant data including vehicle location to a 24/7 call center, says Don Philyaw, director of sales and marketing support

“The call center then contacts the driver directly and if necessary sets up service with the nearest dealership,” he says. “As an OEM, we're able to offer telematics with two service groups wrapped around it — the call center and dealership service.”

At presstime, Volvo was preparing to extend a similar option to its fleet customers. “If they have Volvo Link, they can choose to have those fault codes sent directly to their own maintenance operation, to local dealers or to our call center,” says Philyaw.

Telematics services delivered by local dealers could also extend beyond maintenance and repair in International's view. “We seen creation of a ‘buddy system’ for smaller fleets,” says Guxlas. “If the dealer has access to the telematics data, they can offer those smaller customers logistics and fleet management services as well as maintenance management.

SERVICE ADVANTAGE

While closer integration and factory installation of the hardware are the major advantages of OEM telematics systems today, “in the long term, the hardware on the truck is far less important than the services wrapped around it, than the things done with that information when it comes in,” says Philyaw. With their well established dealership networks and call centers, “I think OEMs will have a clear advantage there,” he says.

Truck OEMs are also in position to extend the benefits of telematics beyond fleet applications and take direct advantage of the ability to remotely monitor and automatically collect data about how their vehicles perform in everyday use.

“Our customers already have a whole list of [telematics] applications, but from the OEM perspective, telematics is going to become an important part of building trucks,” says Wissinger. “Think about the benefits for warranty and service operations if you can download performance histograms remotely from a truck. You can move beyond onboard diagnostics to prognostics with vehicles actively determining and communicating faults. You could begin customizing warranty coverage based on real truck duty-cycle information.”

In the aggregate, real-world truck data collected by the truck builder “could give us an early indication of developing problems and allow us to react quickly to deal with them,” says Guzlas. “Seeing trends as they develop in real operations will lead to overall product improvement.”

As enthusiastic as truck makers may be about telematics, no one expects them to displace well-established third-party providers like Qualcomm, PeopleNet and GeoLogic anytime soon, if ever. They already dominate the long-haul Class 8 market, where fleets have closely integrated their communications networks and services with internal fleet management systems.

Not only have those systems proven cost effective, but many fleets are also reluctant to commit themselves to a system tied to a single truck brand. “In my experience with the market, fleets tend to gravitate towards products that operate across multiple brands,” says Mack's Wissinger.

All of the current OEM telematics systems, including those offered by Mack, Volvo and International, can be installed in any brand truck with standard SAE data busses, but fleets will lose some of the functionality since the OEM systems won't have access to the proprietary data they see when installed on their own trucks.

Advanced diagnostics coming with 2007 and 2010 diesel engine emissions will improve the amount of non-proprietary data available to all telematics providers, making it easier to install OEM telematics across other brands. As usual, however, the customer will have the last word.

FLEET CHOICE

“We can't ignore our customers,” says Wissinger. “We install a significant number of prep kits [for third-party telematics systems] every year. So we'll continue covering both third-party and OEM-based telematics.”

There's plenty of room for both approaches. While the long-haul market has largely chosen third-party telematics services, “there's a huge untapped market of Class 5 though 7 work trucks and regional haulers,” says Guzlas.

In the end, it probably won't be an either-or situation, but rather one of complementary co-existence. “The third-party providers have well-established networks for wireless communications with vehicles,” says Bechtold. “We know how to integrate those systems with the vehicles. Why not take advantage of both their networks and our integration?”

Those paying the bill, the fleets, will of course make the final choice. The good news is they're going to have a lot of choices.