A dragster travels 1,320 feet, a quarter mile, in about 5.2 seconds. During that time, everything happening on the car is monitored and measured, from the wheel speed to the clutch to the way the car flexes.
“Without knowing what those components are doing in the course of that five seconds, you don’t know what to tune to get that extra speed and that extra little bit that’s going to help you get over the hump and win,” says Brent Hickman, senior manager of equipment maintenance and sales for Pilot Company, explaining how he applies his racing-team experience to running a more efficient trucking fleet. “A slight adjustment makes the difference of winning or losing.”
Hickman has been with Pilot for 14 years, but he literally grew up around motorsports. The family business was drag racing, competing across the U.S. and Canada and in the Middle East. He also spent four years in NASCAR with Stewart Haas racing as a CNC programmer and rear ends and suspension specialist for Tony Stewart in the 14 car. He still does some NHRA racing on the side.
Hickman uses that same approach to winning when it comes to the 1,600 trucks and 1,850 trailers in the combined Pilot fleet — which includes Pilot Flying J as well as numerous other fleets serving everything from oil fields to hauling DEF and hydrogen. Not traveling over 300 mph, of course, but using data to increase efficiencies.
Hickman works with truck makers, trailer builders, telematics suppliers and others to glean information on things such as fault codes, predictive analytics, how tires perform in different conditions, and how much fuel a truck is loading and how much room is left.
He found Pilot was spending a lot of money on aftertreatment, engine and powertrain repairs, compounded by long wait times at dealerships.
“How do we get ahead of that?” he asks. “How do we know when something is starting to have an issue, so we can go ahead and get something minor fixed before we end up with $20,000, $30,000, $40,000 in engine repairs, and keep the truck on the road longer?”
For instance, he says, a set of injectors costs around $20,000 to repair. Yet every time, he says, it turns out the injector cups been leaking for quite some time.
“Much like I do on the racecar, we’re monitoring that fuel flow. And so when that fuel flow drops at a certain parameter, we say, you may have an issue, and then we get away with maybe one injector cup, and instead of $20,000, we’re looking at $800 or $900.”
Managing the Data Flow
One of the challenges faced by Hickman and other fleet managers today is making sense of the vast amount of data available.
“You walk around TMC or any of those show floors, and there’s enough stuff on the floor to run a really, really efficient fleet,” he says. “The problem right now is to utilize all that stuff, you would need about 20 different subscriptions and about 25 screens in front of you and a bunch of other people. And then how do you refine that to actionable data, the things you need to take action on right away, versus the things that are running in the background that we have a team of analysts looking at? With all this data flow, how do you manage it?”
Hickman was looking for a single, customizable system to manage the flow of data coming from the tractors and trailers. He found an answer with Drōv Technologies’ AirBoxOne smart trailer solution, which integrates smart components and sensors all along the trailer. Key operational and safety information flows from the vehicle to the fleet and the driver, relaying diagnostics in real time. Through its Vehicle Health Display, an in-cab mobile app and a web dashboard, real-time health alerts and notifications are wirelessly communicated to the cab and stored in the cloud.
Whenever sensors detect changes in conditions, alerts and real-time information on trailer status and location are transmitted from the cloud to fleets using an API.
Engineered Transportation International (EnTrans) has partnered with Drōv to outfit its Heil Trailer and Polar Tank products with Drōv’s AirBoxOne.
“The AirBoxOne doesn't try to replace the OEM parts; it just directs traffic,” Hickman says. “And that’s really what we needed, something to direct the traffic, the data, and be able to set the parameters as to what you want to see, who needs to see it, and when,” instead of having inboxes flooded with alerts.
Pilot started testing five trailers with the system last year and has added 25 more so far this year. It will deploy them in different areas of the country and different applications for further evaluation. But so far, Hickman says, the system is “a big win.”
“We’ve detected the bearing failures early through a harmonic sensor vibration sensor,” he says. “We’re able to tell alignment issues based on the heat on the tires, because the same system is measuring heat of the air inside the tire. If you have four wheel locations and the two crossing each other diagonally from each other are hotter than the other two, you know you got an alignment issue.
“It’s just getting ahead of those problems and ultimately saving costs and keeping the truck from being on the side of the road.”
Proving out return on investment on something this new can be tough.
Hickman expects the Drov dynamic inflation system to extend tire life, as it automatically inflates or deflates tires based on the changing weight of the trailer as the driver makes deliveries. But he notes that it could be three years before a tire has to be replaced. He turned again to his racing background to find a way to measure tire life.
“One of the things we do in tuning the race cars is play with what’s called rollout, which is essentially the circumference of the tire,” he explains. “Talking with the tire OEs and their engineering teams, I said, ‘I need a tire calculator. How many revolutions at a certain pressure per GPS mile is acceptable?”
As a tire reaches 100 psi and travels more than 3 miles, the system takes a snapshot of each hub rotation.
“With the algorithm and our calculator, it tells you your treadwear by hub location, your total tire life, and also provides a notification when you get down within a 32nd of the DOT [standard],” Hickman says. “It will notify you to change the tire in the next whatever miles, based on the mileage you’ve been traveling.”
Hickman also shares what has been successful with the trucking fleets that are Pilot customers.
“We often benchmark with those individuals, and anything that we find that makes our fleet more efficient, we’re always happy to share,” he says. “Because at the end of the day, we need everybody to stay in business. so they'll keep buying fuel and taking showers and all that, right? So we share it with a lot of people. because I think as a whole we want to better the trucking industry.”