The separate elements that make up telematics are relatively simple — real-time location of a mobile asset, real-time operating data from sensors on that asset, and a two-way wireless communications network that allows real-time exchange of that information with central information systems.

The difficult part is uncovering the complex implications created by combining those simple elements in an environment like trucking, which is all about mobile assets both capital and human. While the value of telematics is also relatively simple to identify — faster, better decisions made as a result of gathering and analyzing the location and operating information — the full value of the technology can only be unlocked by understanding those implications and how to exploit them.

“The first wave of telematics is driven by systems operated as silos,” says David Armitage, CEO of the web-based telematics service provider Cartasite. “You can see where an asset is and generate [location] reports that are completely self-contained and autonomous.”

The next stage of the technology's evolution, what Armitage calls Telematics 2.0, “adds values to an operation's existing systems by working in context with those existing systems to build real operational benefit,” he says. For example, a national food manufacturer can integrate inventory control with a route management system and telematics to monitor inventory levels throughout its distribution chain and to make that inventory visible to its routing and delivery system.

“Dot-on-the-map information is of scientific interest, not business interest,” Armitage says. “To add value by greatly enhancing productivity, you have to integrate that information with the systems and processes already being used to run companies. Then telematics becomes real-time operational intelligence truly delivering operational efficiency.”

“We're at the beginning of the end of the Information Age,” says Dr. Joseph Salvo, manager of the pervasive decisioning systems laboratory for GE Global Research. “That may sound drastic at first, but the technology that gives an age its name, like the Iron Age, is the technology that distinguishes the leading group in that age. Data is nearly ubiquitous now, so the Information Age is over. In fact, we have so much information now that we don't know what to do with it. It's paralyzing.

“What we need now are complex systems to collect all that information, make sure it's accurate, timely and from a trusted source,” Salvo says. “We're entering the Systems Age. That's the leading technology now, and those that embrace it will have a competitive edge from a complex, global network that allows them to operate with more speed and accuracy.”

Telematics “brings in sensing data in all sorts of forms — position, condition, group behavior,” says Salvo. That data can be distributed to “decision engines” in the overall system, which can be a local node like the trailer's tracking hardware, a system tied to a small local group, or “a main level decision system,” says Salvo. “Then it's passed back down the telematics chain to objects that will benefit from this information.”

The importance of telematics in this systems view is that it brings a fourth dimension — time — to the decision process.

“When you first buy a newspaper, it costs you a dollar, but by the end of the week you pay someone to take it away,” says Salvo. “There is a time element to value, and if you don't take advantage of it, the value disappears. The telematics backbone is the way to get information in near real-time, which means (systems) can use it to detect value that only exists for a brief period of time.”

These temporary “local value pools” could be an optimal match between an empty trailer and available load, for example, but identifying those opportunities isn't enough, according to Salvo. “Our goal is to create very sophisticated algorithms that not only find that value, but also calculate the risk of pursuing that value and then present the option to capture that value based on a user's business rules and needs.”

While the value of individual opportunities captured by such systems might be small, the automation provided by telematics feeding data into intelligent systems in real-time makes it practical to find that small value many times. “And that adds up to huge amounts of value,” says Salvo.

“We really don't know what the next value opportunity will be,” he says. “This is a discovery system. You'll have to discover it in your own business, but [telematics operating within systems] will let machines do the repetitive, monotonous task and free people to pursue more creative activities.”

In this systems view, size isn't important. “This is a critical play for both small and large businesses,” Salvo says. “This ‘age change’ is about a change in thinking. Only those who effectively manage data and create value with it will be part of the new Systems Age.”

TIME FOR SALE

Once you accept the idea that telematics is really about time, tying it into a wide range of information systems opens many opportunities for trucking that go beyond location-based operational advantages. Without much imagination, it's easy to see how Telematics 2.0 will shape every part of trucking from vehicle design and maintenance to customer service and congestion solutions.

“In general, we have the classic example of lots of data, but not enough information,” says Tom Doyle, vp of business development for Qualcomm's Wireless Business Solutions. “We haven't been as good as we need to be about inferring actionable information out of the wealth of data that's available on most trucks today.”

The next level in telematics requires not just identifying that “actionable information,” but “getting it to the right people at the right time in the right form that fits their work flow,” he says. “That means integration with other systems.”

Take maintenance, for example. “There's been a good deal of talk [about using telematics to deliver vehicle diagnostics data], and even a little movement to actually use telematics there,” says Doyle. “But very little of that information is delivered in an integrated way to back office systems.

“The potential is great, though,” according to Doyle. “If something goes wrong and it's identified immediately (by the telematics system), you have to get that information to the right person at the right time for it to be useful.”

Adding navigation to the mix furthers value, he points out. With traffic information and advanced routing data from other systems, “ETA monitoring moves to another level,” says Doyle “If traffic information becomes a component in the routing algorithm, it becomes a driver satisfaction issue, too. You can tell drivers why they're being routed a different way or why sitting in traffic is their best option.”

“Fleets today are looking to increase productivity for the entire organization, not just within the fleet management or logistics piece of their operation,” says Matt Starks, manager of applications and support for the vehicle solutions business unit at Eaton Truck Components. For telematics services, that includes “looking at safety and maintenance as well as productivity improvements,” he says.

For example, with advanced safety systems like collision avoidance monitors, “you can know more than the truck is located at XYZ,” says Starks. “You can seamlessly place safety data like how a driver is handling the brakes into location information.”

As vehicle sensors provide more data about what's going on in a vehicle in real-time, telematics development is being driven by how that data can be best understood and used, according to Starks “Data is data, but there's a difference between critical data for a cement mixer and a P&D truck. It's important that once you have the data, everyone understands just what data is there and how they can use it most effectively.”

HISTORY LESSONS

Telematics 2.0 adds more than the element of time to fleet decision making. It also adds scale, allowing a fleet, a group of fleets or even entire industry segments to aggregate vehicle and driver data.

With systems collecting and sorting the information, managers can use it to identify large scale trends that affect the entire fleet or drill down to individual vehicles or even components. “You might use the aggregated data to look at a particular geography or type of route and how certain vehicles or specs perform under those conditions,” says Starks. “For example, you might identify the axle ratio that gives you better driveline life in a particular operation, or a tire that works better.”

Truck OEMs also see value in aggregating data collected directly from vehicles on the road. IBM is one of the leading researchers in the area of automotive telematics, and a few years ago it built a pilot project with International Truck and Engine Co. to look at such an “analysis system,” says Larry Lieberman, senior manager, automotive industry for IBM Research.

The purpose of the International pilot was “to conduct underlying research on decision analysis,” says Lieberman. “We wanted to create an expert system…that would be capable of real-time interpretation of vehicle data.”

While monitoring individual vehicles for fault codes and other problems has value for the fleet operating that truck, accurate statistical predictions based on aggregated data for entire classes of vehicles not only help the truck OEM improve vehicle designs, but also allow development of prognostic systems, he explains.

“Identifying trends in usage, trends that I can take action on before it becomes a major problem, requires the ability to automatically sift through the data to find those trends,” says Lieberman.

“The key is the volume of data needed,” says Stefan Hild, manager of multimodal conversational solutions at IBM Research. “The sophisticated analytics required to find useful information in that amount of data requires autonomic computing systems.”

Prognostics and better vehicle designs certainly have long-term benefits for fleets, but aggregated telematics data promises more direct benefits for those able to collect and properly analyze such data, benefits they can see in the near-term.

Just last month, for example, Qualcomm announced a new tool that allows fleets to analyze large amounts of aggregated telematics data. Called DataVisor, “It lets you manipulate that data and see it as trends, summaries or any other view you consider pertinent to your operation,” says Doyle. “If you're running two engines makes, for example, you may want to see trending on performance across your entire data base, or you might want to see which gets the best mpg in the mountains or in a specific application like a tanker.”

While the application will initially be limited to analyzing vehicle data from Qualcomm's onboard telematics hardware, it could eventually be integrated with either fleet management systems or even a company-wide ERP system, Doyle says. “When you add maintenance, operational and other information from a fleet's information sources, the [aggregated telematics data] becomes dramatically more valuable.”

TIME AND SCALE

What happens when the linked systems of Telematics 2.0 combine the real-time value of data from individual vehicles with the analytical power of aggregated data sorted by those systems?

Maybe it becomes practical to launch a low-cost solution for minimizing traffic congestion, according to Dr. Alain L. Kornhauser, the founder of ALK Technologies and professor of operations research and financial engineering at Princeton University.

“Look at how traffic is distributed now, not just on the Interstates, but on all major and minor roadways,” says Kornhauser. “Some are over-congested and a bunch are underutilized. They're not sharing the traffic burden equally because we just don't know traffic conditions on the individual roads. If we knew in near real-time, we could better utilize the entire existing infrastructure.”

If that information can be gathered and made available to routing systems, those systems could monitor each individual vehicle, look ahead at current traffic conditions and constantly recalculate new routes around congestion and reforecast an accurate estimated time of arrival.

“It would be nice if we had traffic sensors on all those major and minor roadways giving us that information, but that's not really happening,” says Kornhauser. “What we do have out there are people with [telematics] devices. Those devices and vehicles know what they're experiencing. If you collect that data and serve it back out, people can use it to determine better routes, and we also get better utilization of the infrastructure.”

Large fleets or smaller ones with concentrated operating areas could possibly collect enough real-time traffic data from what Kornhauser calls “probes” to run their own route optimization systems. “They do it now informally, calling in to dispatch with traffic reports or talking on the CB,” he says. “But that's an ad hoc approach. It would be nice if we could automate it so everyone can react early and not add to a building congestion problem.”

Benefits of such an approach extend beyond limiting road congestion. Aggregating location and traffic data would also improve logistics by allowing companies to see an accurate picture of goods flowing through their entire system. “If I'm a logician, I can use that information to make decisions as things change on the road,” says Kornhauser.

What's exciting is that “it's almost easy enough to do it now,” says Kornhauser. While the concept isn't new, “we now have the [telematics] hardware, communication and [routing] systems to do it with a return on investment that's substantially greater than the real cost of implementation.”

As proof of the concept, ALK ran a small pilot in the Albany, NY, area. It issued smart cellular phones with GPS receivers and its CoPilot routing system to engineering students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Real-time traffic data was collected and fed back to the hand-held units, where CoPilot adjusted individual routes based on that aggregate data. “It worked,” says Kornhauser. “It's more than academic — it's ready for prime time.”

It's also one more example of how Telematics 2.0 is going to deliver real benefits throughout the entire fleet organization.