The longest communication gap in trucking, the saying goes, is the gap between the trailer and the tractor. Class 8 tractors are putting vast amounts of real-time data into the hands of maintenance managers, safety teams, dealerships, and OEMs. But getting a signal from the trailer following behind that tractor has proven to be a maddeningly slow process.
That’s not to say that trailer telematics haven’t been gaining ground. In fact, trailers have made tremendous strides in communicating their overall health, location, and critical operating data for many vital components and systems. And that list is growing. But there remains an elusive lack of integration, coordination and simplicity with trailer telematics.
Nevertheless, many fleets have been pioneering the use of trailer telematics and finding it incredibly useful in day-to-day operations, with very real return on investment. And, these fleets say, the technology is improving at a rapid rate, and getting easier to use, integrate and coordinate with other telematics systems every day.
From Asset Tracking to Real-Time Action
When it first delved into trailer telematics, Maverick Transportation just wanted to make sure it was keeping up with all its assets.
“We run a really tight truck-to-trailer ratio,” says Mike Jeffries, vice president, maintenance, for the Arkansas-based flatbed carrier. “And we always had a solid process on tracking locations where trailer assets were dropped. The first thing the adoption of telematic technology did was validate that those processes worked.”
As the Maverick team got more comfortable with trailer telematics, Jeffress says, the technology began to change other processes within the fleet — particularly in terms of asset maintenance.
“Before telematics, we basically relied on our drivers to identify any issues on the trailer,” he explains. “Now that we can monitor the ‘BLT,’ (brakes, lights and tires) through the Road Ready System, we know for a fact what Tire View live or the LODS (Light Out Detection System) or Brake ABS faults from Bendix are, prior to the driver reporting said issues. Currently, our road assist team takes that data and decides whether to have the driver continue to the final delivery location or direct them to a safe haven so service providers can be dispatched to make said repairs.”
Refrigerated carrier Stevens Transport has been using telematics to monitor food shipments for almost 15 years, says Nick Forte, vice president of maintenance. But recent advances in telematics mean that today, fleet managers and technicians alike can look at a trailer in a holistic way that has never been possible before, he says.
“In my previous job, we had over 2,000 trailers fitted with Phillips Connect,” he says. “We’re currently testing 10 units at Stevens, and it’s been a massive change in terms of seeing what’s happening with our assets. Not only can I do a remote pretrip inspection with the system, I can geofence the units, look at brake system health and tire pressures. Even see how many times — and when — the trailer doors have been opened and closed. And we’re currently testing a feature with magnetic locks that will give us the ability to basically lock a trailer down completely from a remote location.
“Best of all, trailers are highly susceptible to ‘thermal events’ — fires. But now, we have real-time insight into tire and wheel bearing temperatures. We can determine if we have a brake dragging or a bearing overheating. This gives us the ability to stop the trailer and make repairs before we lose the trailer, the cargo and even the tractor. An event that could end up costing us hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Tim Stueck, chief financial officer for Foodliner, says his fleet first turned to trailer telematics about a decade ago, simply trying to get a better handle on where all of their assets were.
“We sort of struggled with tracking our assets and this seemed like a good solution. We had trailers just sitting idle for weeks or even months until somebody ran across it. So, we needed to do something.”
Eventually, Foodliner adopted the SkyBitz telematics system. The company was able to quickly set up geofences, lot checks, and daily push reports with real-time data.
“Now we can see what trailers are sitting where,” he says. “We can also set up landmarks at our customers’ facilities and see how many trailers are there, and how long they’ve been there. And that gives us insight into our trailer utilization. Now we can be sure a customer is not consuming more of our assets than is necessary. We can even see when a trailer is at a tank wash getting cleaned. It’s ultimately about visibility in many different ways for us.”
Pilot Company’s tanker fleet hauls diesel, gasoline and diesel exhaust fluid to its truck stops, but delivering fuel to its truck stops is just part of the operation. Other divisions haul products such as liquified hydrogen, as well as crude oil from wells to refineries and wastewater from fracking.
Brent Hickman, senior manager, equipment, maintenance and fleet sales, says trailer telematics have been critical for boosting fleet efficiencies on both the delivery side of operations and in asset maintenance.
Initially, Hickman just wanted better information on his fleet’s tire health and usage. But now trailer telematics is a critical part of the fleet’s daily operations. Pilot isn’t just using Drov Technologies’ AirBoxOne smart-trailer system to simply collect and transmit data. It also automatically inflates or deflates trailer tires based on load throughout the day to optimize fuel economy and tire life.
“We’ve had AirBoxOne outfitted on a handful of trailers for almost a year now,” Hickman says, “and we’re already seeing solid ROI from it.”
Using the dynamic inflation function, Hickman says the system automatically inflates the Michelin X One wide-based single tires on the trailer to 100 psi when the tanker is fully loaded. Then it gradually decreases tire pressure as the trailer weight drops as the driver makes deliveries. Eventually, when the tanker is fully unloaded, tire pressure will be down to 80 psi per tire.
“And the amazing thing is that the system consistently holds the pressure to within 2 psi of its setting,” Hickman says. “In the past, older, passive tire inflation systems would vary by as much as 20 to 35 psi from the desired setting. So, we’ve drastically cut down on excessive heat and wear in our trailer tires.”
Hickman has carefully tracked tire wear as a means of calculating ROI for the system. The results have him convinced the system is already saving money in maintenance and equipment costs.
The Michelin X One tires have a 16/32 tread depth when new, Hickman explains. Without any tire inflation system, Pilot got about 7,800 miles per 32nd wear. With a passive system, it increased to 15,000 miles per 32nd. Now, with Drov and the dynamic tire inflation system, it’s seeing 31,000 miles per 32nd of wear.
“That’s a 50% increase in trailer tire life for us.”
Migway, a carrier out of Pineville, North Carolina, recently added Aperia’s Halo tire monitoring and inflation system to some of its 350 trailers.
“We don’t have enough data to report on ROI at the moment,” says David Voronin, president and CEO. “We’re adding them slowly because it takes time to install everything correctly.”
Even so, already technicians now know which tires need attention when a trailer is in for service, he says.
“And our road call managers keep the dashboard open all the time so they can immediately react when we have a tire going down. We can already tell that the system has reduced the number of blowouts and the amount of downtime our trucks have.”
Streamlining the Data
Clearly, trailer telematics are delivering real benefits in fleet operations. So why aren’t more carriers using them? There are too many different systems and too many different “gateways,” or access portals.
“The problem with trailer telematics right now is that we’re in what Mike Roeth at the North American Council for Freight Efficiency calls ‘The Messy Middle,’ with this technology,” says Pilot’s Hickman. “You’ve got so many providers involved. They’re all jumping into this space at once. So, you’ve got all these dedicated component or system information silos. And they all want to force you to use their system. That, in turn, hurts fleets. Because now you’ve got to go to one gateway to look at wheel end data. And now you’ve got to go to another gateway to see your tire pressure issues. And then you’ve got to go to another dashboard to see what’s going on with the cargo. It’s not a streamlined way of giving people actionable data at the moment. It makes it that much harder to catch serious issues before they’re too far gone.”
Forte, however, notes that Phillips has been working with Stevens and other carriers to make the Phillips Connect gateway more brand-agnostic. They’ve partnered with Hendrickson and ConMet to get their data in through the Phillips Connect gateway. "And that’s a big help. Because you don’t want to end up keeping track of — and paying for — monthly subscriptions from six different telematics providers.”
Another evolution Hickman approves of is the move toward mating trailer telematics with the unit’s CAN bus (controller area network) as is already done on tractors.
“That makes for a more open information platform with a lot more information flowing and everyone speaking the same electronic language,” he says. “Eventually, I think we’re going to get down to a single gateway for all of this data. Having all of this crap connected to a bunch of different, isolated silos just doesn’t work. That’s why you’re seeing forward-thinking fleets like us pushing the players in the industry to move in this direction. And we can’t take ‘No’ for an answer. We need to demand system integration for trailer telematics. Fortunately for us, this is an industry that, as a whole, is really good about uniting around an issue and staying on topic to force change.”
Maverick’s Jeffress points out that even though trailer telematics is not new technology, “I believe it’s still in its infancy stage — particularly when it comes to accessing and using data. We’re getting really good basic data from the systems now. But we need to do better in applying it to daily process improvements.”
Maverick has been working with suppliers for 10 years on different solution paths and has only recently settled on which one to use. “So, this is still very much a process in its early stages.”