You may roll your eyes or groan when I say trailers are “trailing” behind tractors in telematics technology use by fleets — but it’s true. Transportation technology experts say trailer telematics have the potential to transform maintenance and freight management. But it hasn’t happened yet, for a lot of reasons.
For starters, given the much larger number of components on a tractor than on a trailer, it simply made sense for developers to focus telematics efforts there first. And thus far, there hasn’t been significant pull-through from OEM customers demanding trailer telematics to “prime the pump,” says Jim Epler, executive vice president for Phillips Connect.
And at the moment, trailer makers are faced with more immediate concerns.
“We are in a moment where the industry is waiting on its larger players to take the lead and begin demanding integrated, comprehensive trailer telematics,” Epler says. “And it’s only a matter of time before a major fleet — Amazon, most likely — does so. But, at the moment, trailer OEs simply can’t afford to slow down production long enough to place telematics sensors on their products. They’re totally focused on meeting demand and getting trailers out the factory doors.”
So, until this white-hot trailer market cools off, he explains, most trailer makers aren’t putting a lot of emphasis on telematics options.
At the same time, however, the current demand for capacity also is driving more interest in telematics, points out Nada Jiddou, EVP and general manager of Road Ready.
“The supply chain bottlenecks that started in 2020 don’t appear to be letting up,” she says. “With freight capacity constrained, fleets are adopting trailer telematics solutions like ours to get more out of their current assets. The past year has forced fleets to address and eliminate inefficiencies in their operations—including taking advantage of their own open capacity.”
Patrick McNamara, VP of sales and marketing for TSE Brakes, says although trailers have traditionally lagged tractors when it comes to new technology, “they are now making up ground quickly due to the increase in efficiency needed to operate fleets today in the complicated supply chain.”
Because many fleets today keep their trailers for 10 years or even longer, any new technologies are going to be slow to percolate through most fleets. Nevertheless, “trailer telematics is becoming more commonplace as cost and availability of critical sensors for telematics continue to decrease in acquisition and operational cost,” McNamara says. “Fleets will see a quicker ROI, and it will be driven by their customers to provide more real-time information.”
That could be as simple as “Where’s my trailer?” or as complex as a real-time report on the current state of the equipment.
“The trailer has been the forgotten asset in the telematics world until recently,” says Lisa Mullen, CEO, Drōv Technologies. One of the issues, she says, is that a lot of telematics technologies on the trailer have been component-based rather than a comprehensive solution. Drōv’s AirBoxOne is one example of fully integrated solutions being developed now, bringing together proprietary as well as third-party smart components onto one platform.
Using smart trailer technology will allow for longer trailer life and better performance, Mullen says. The ability to monitor key trailer components for potential unnecessary wear or failure, such as dragging brakes, overheating hubs, extreme vibration and other mechanical components that aren’t currently monitored proactively, will improve the overall life and performance.
At the same time, the operational data provided by telematics will allow fleets to better understand how trailers are built and how components perform, in addition to providing real-time telemetry on freight. This performance data can be aggregated with maintenance data to provide a more robust understanding of all performance aspects of trailers and the loads they carry.
And it won’t stop there, she says.
“The future of autonomous power units has elevated the need for smart systems on the trailer and has brought the safety benefits of these systems for the driver today to the forefront,” Mullen says.
As any fleet manager wondering where in the world a trailer has gotten off to can tell you trailer telematics have already made a mark on fleet operations. But while telematics has been helping fleets keep track of their trailers for decades, it’s come a long way from just being able to find the physical location of a trailer.
“When I see the word telematics, I think exclusively GPS tracking — and I think many others do as well,” says Charles Willmott, CEO at Willgo Transportation Consulting. “Technically, I believe that telematics originally referred to the transmission and communication of vehicle location data only. Since then, the word has evolved into a more general reference to the management tool that allows remote monitoring of a host of data, including ELD [electronic logging devices] and onboard diagnostic systems.”
Remotely monitoring and managing truck and trailer operations and key component systems, he says, can save lives, improve efficiency and earnings, and promote customer service across the logistics network.
“A broken-down rig by the side of the road is a public hazard, a costly service headache, and a long delay in service delivery times,” Willmott says. “With management visibility and predictive analytic software fueled by live remote data feeds, this example and many other costly inefficiencies can be virtually eliminated.”
Many telematics experts feel that the trucking industry is on the cusp of a whole new realm of telematics capabilities for trailers.
“Trailer telematics devices have grown rapidly over the past few years, from providing rough location data to delivering live pinpoint-accurate asset tracking,” says Chris MacDonald, Orbcomm’s senior VP of global transportation sales. “But now, trailer telematics has surpassed the role of basic asset trackers with the addition of trailer IDs, cargo cameras, temperature and door and humidity sensors, reporting by exception, along with crucial maintenance insights collected from component data by integrating with third-party systems used by other participants in the logistics chain. The value of the data has increased significantly as a result.”
Telematics can provide instantaneous information to the operator and to dispatch offices, says Doug Kenney, director of national fleet accounts, platform trailers, for trailer maker East. Fleets are using trailer telematics to identify many common trailer issues, he says, including tire pressure issues, wheel-end heat issues, braking systems, light outages, and other maintenance events in real time.
“With telematics now, safety and maintenance decisions can be made in real time to help prevent catastrophic events and/or costly maintenance breakdowns,” he says. “This technology helps management make proactive rather than reactive road-related decisions.”
Depending on what the telematics are saying, the driver can be directed to pull over immediately or to proceed to the next qualified repair facility.
And it goes well beyond preventing roadside breakdowns. Justin Garver, FleetPulse sales manager for Great Dane, says fleets are embracing the ability to identify trailer usage trends.
“Telematics can identify trailers that are being over- and under-utilized,” he says. “And this, in turn, allows a fleet to realize longer trailer lifecycles and better utilize technician resources.”
The insights from telematics on trailers can deliver a mix of preventive maintenance and usage data, from knowing how many actual miles you’re getting out of trailer tires to real-time alerts that can help identify door openings in the event of an attempted theft. Lights-out alerts can help prevent citations and even out-of-service orders at roadside inspections.
As fleets get into more advanced telematics systems that integrate many more component data points, managers start to unlock the potential for predictive maintenance, Garver says.
“Fleets can capture and analyze data regarding wear and tear of key components, that will eventually allow us to use machine learning and artificial intelligence to accurately predict future failures of components,” he says. “These exciting innovations will create a steep reduction in emergent maintenance procedures that are much more costly than scheduled maintenance.”
Carl Whitmire, channel marketing manager for SkyBitz, says: “Technology advances have taken the industry from telematics being a ‘nice-to-have’ to being a ‘must-have’ for most companies. Next-generation technology such as the SkyBitz Kinnect Advanced Sensor Integration Hub solution is designed to capture and communicate all of your remote asset data through one device.”
Real-Time Cargo Information
One of the most powerful recent trailer telematics developments is the ability to provide completely transparent data concerning cargo. This goes beyond real-time reporting on a shipment’s whereabouts, to include things such as trailer door opens and closings, cold-chain verification for food shipments, and even real-time video or photos of cargo en route.
Trailer telematics is changing the way that fleets operate by providing real-time visibility into the cargo itself, Orbcomm’s MacDonald says. Using cargo camera sensors, fleets can manually take a photograph within any trailer to ensure products haven’t been damaged or that loads have been safely stored. This gives fleet managers operational intelligence they can use to find and address underutilized load capacity, streamline trailer management, reduce cargo claims, mitigate theft and more.
“The ability to remotely view and monitor the precious cargo within a trailer is still often understated today,” MacDonald adds. The combination of telematics and cargo cameras/sensors “can provide proof of quality delivery that can clear up any cargo damage claims and can be cross-referenced with other telematics data to note if and where cargo was displaced or damaged,” he says. “In addition, these cameras are playing a role in helping fleet managers improve their trailer capacity utilization by providing them with full visibility into the capacity of any given trailer.”
SkyBitz’s Whitmire says telematics is moving into a realm where fleet managers can get real-time visibility into a dark, closed trailer from anywhere. Fleet managers will be able to access information not only on how full the trailer is, but also what the available floor space is, calculated through artificial intelligence.
And finally, telematics also will play into emerging blockchain logistics technology, which Jeff Geoffroy, director of marketing and business development for Peterson Manufacturing, says will supercharge all aspects of transporting and delivering goods.
“Blockchain is all about improving the flow of information and products to reduce costs and improve traceability and speed,” he says. “And being able to track individual cargo packages is key to complete supply chain visibility and traceability, which is the foundation of blockchains’ value.”
This article first appeared in the September 2021 issue of Heavy Duty Trucking.