Think about this for a minute: Let’s say you’re a highway fleet looking to obtain the best possible fuel economy for your big rigs, which operate on mostly flat roads in the Midwest hauling some 60,000 to 80,000 lbs. in dry van trailers. You might start with a “soup to nuts” review of your specifications; maybe you look at shaving some pounds off of the suspension system, adding aerodynamic devices to the tractor and trailer, or switching to wide-base tires.

Or maybe you just go online and find an engine calibration algorithm designed to maximize fuel efficiency for the specific engine/transmission combination and load parameters of your fleet. You click on “download” to instantly update your fleet’s equipment with said calibration wherever it happens to be located. No need to bring trucks back to home base for costly time-intensive software upgrades.

Sound a bit too pie-in-the-sky perhaps? Not to Steve Charlton, vice president and chief technology officer-Engine Business for Cummins Inc. In fact, he’s hoping to offer just such a service in a year or two, a service based upon the burgeoning capability of today’s telematics systems.

“There’s already a broadcast of public information from today’s engine control modules of public data such as throttle and torque,” he explains. “But then there’s private data we at Cummins can extract that enriches that public data and turns it into information.”

That detailed information can then be crafted into precise engine calibrations truck owners can tap into to improve whatever operating characteristics of their vehicles they desire, be it for better fuel economy or better performance.

“Within a year or two, we expect users will be able to download and apply calibrations just like the way you download and use songs from iTunes,” Charlton says. “We see this as a huge enabler going forward.”

Being able to tap into such information treasure troves in order to “smarten up” truck performance is but one aspect of how fleets will benefit from the next wave of telematics development, says Tom Dorazio, senior product manager for PeopleNet Communications.

That’s why, in order to successfully combat economic challenges and fluctuating fuel prices that thwart profitability, he says fleets need control over the type of information they get, how frequently they get it delivered, the format it’s in, and the time period it covers.

Yet this may only be the tip of the proverbial iceberg in terms of how telematics can help drive broad efficiencies throughout a fleet, stresses Ryan Foisy, manager of WEX Telematics at WEX (formerly Wright Express).

“At no time in history has there ever been more useful vehicle data available to fleets to help them build a better, more efficient fleet. The nature of a telematics unit makes the vehicles they are in smarter,” Foisy says.

Through the use of remote diagnostics, for example, a vehicle can tell you when it is in poor “health” by checking the engine, fluid and pressure statuses on a continual basis. This ensures that potentially serious issues can be addressed before they create a big expense, he explains.

“As technologies advance and OEMs push further into the telematics space, I think you will find that even more data will be transmitted from the vehicle for optimal efficiency,” Foisy adds. “To build on that point, with the integration of such data and smartphone technologies, there are opportunities to allow for more interactive control by fleet managers.”

Upon notification of a 10-min. engine idling event, the engine could be stopped remotely, he says, a capability similar in nature to the control feature on today’s higher-end remote starters.

“From a fuel telematics perspective, I envision a future where the ability to pay for fuel at the pump would be simply based on the proximity a vehicle is to the pump, with perhaps the vehicle someday even telling us when and where to fuel,” Foisy stresses.

Mark Sargent, director-solutions engineering at Telogis, believes that the immediate future will bring deeper integrations to and from the vehicle with other remote systems, ensuring the vehicle is as productive as planned, and operating within acceptable specifications.

“Further, we are seeing more safety data being requested and combined with location and vehicle status to help reduce accidents and injuries,” he says.

PUSHING IT FORWARD

One of the reasons behind this deeper and far more sustained push into telematics by OEMs and third-party providers alike is that such technology and the “smarts” it can offer remain one of the few areas in the truck market where a competitive advantage can be attained.

“Telematics have been around for a long time,” explains Sandeep Kar, global director of commercial vehicle research for Frost & Sullivan. “But now that we’re past the 2010 emissions hurdle and we’re not bogged down in the selective catalytic reduction versus exhaust gas recirculation technology battle, the focus is shifting to more ‘soft’ product advantages, the kind electronics can provide.”

Telematics is also an area where fleet managers themselves are demanding more services, he stresses.

“Telematics is being driven by what we call market pull rather than an OEM-driven push strategy; it’s the fleets that are driving this,” Kar says. “For example, in our U.S. fleet manager survey back in 2009-2010, 50% [of the survey respondents] said they wanted prognostic capability for their trucks more than anything else and were willing to pay top dollar to get it, even though it [prognostics] didn’t truly exist at that time.”

Now that’s changing—and fast. For instance, the Remote Diagnostics package now offered by Volvo Trucks is a remote communication platform that allows for proactive diagnostics to help streamline repair service to increase uptime. Volvo says its year-long field tests of the Remote Diagnostics package on 1,300 customer-owned VN tractor models found the technology helped reduce diagnostic time by 71%, reduced average repair time by 25%, and on average improved vehicle uptime by one day per fault code event.

Volvo isn’t alone in this game, as Freightliner Trucks began offering Daimler Trucks North America’s (DTNA) Virtual Technician as standard equipment for all of its Detroit-engine spec’d models. Developed by Zonar Systems for DTNA, Virtual Technician transmits real-time engine diagnostics with performance indicators to the Detroit Customer Support Center, which then communicates with fleets and vehicle owners any potential performance issues and service scheduling based on the data.

“With increasingly complex truck engine technology, new government regulations, and the continued need for cost control, successful transportation operators rely on real-time diagnostics and data to improve fleet efficiency,” says Chris Oliver, Zonar’s vice president-sales & marketing. “By leveraging Zonar’s technology with the Virtual Technician system, DTNA can provide immediate and proactive diagnostic service to their customers.”

Such prognostic service is only the beginning of the “smart truck” evolution, though, says Frost & Sullivan’s Kar.

“The real mega-trend is what telematics and ‘smart trucks’ will mean to the supply chain,” he explains. “Typically, the truck has been the ‘black hole’ in the supply chain where shippers lose freight visibility. Telematics will completely change that while adding in hours-of-service (HOS) data, compliance with safety metrics, and driver performance information. Telematics will offer a ‘Swiss Army knife’ to help manage trucks in far more efficient ways.”