'Aftermarket companies will be the primary drivers of many all-new product and service opportunities for both the consumer and commercial-vehicle industries," predicted the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association in a detailed report published late last year.
Telematics has moved beyond satellite solutions. (Photo by STF)
Telematics has moved beyond satellite solutions. (Photo by STF)

There has been much talk about telematics on the car side of the automotive business, with GM the highest-profile early adopter with its OnStar product. Yet trucking had the car people beat by 20 years. The early adopters there were trucking companies Schneider National and Roberts Express among the six beta-developers of the Qualcomm OmniTracs system.

This helps answer a question posed early in the AAIA report: Who plays the game better - OEMs (the vehicle manufacturers) or the aftermarket companies?

In the example here, despite GM's branding and the marketing behind OnStar, the customer response to re-up the service after the first free year is disappointing. But trucking has been quite the opposite. The ubiquitous Qualcomm antenna, the keypad and the back-office system were a huge enabler for a host of other applications, not least of which was computerized dispatch.

Getting information into and off a moving vehicle - telematics at its most basic - was a game-changer for trucking, but it has become a commonplace thing today. Many service providers offer communications through satellite, cellular communications, and even at close range through WiFi connections. The truck today in many cases is part of a wide-area network, with information from the truck driving all manner of aftermarket applications that streamline operations, enhance safety and productivity and reduce cost.

The danger for the aftermarket is that telematics technology has the ability to lock out independent service providers.

"The same programming that provides connectivity can also be used to direct service information into very narrow channels," notes the AAIA report. As margins shrink and markets contract in poorer economic times, the truck OEs are looking to help dealers maximize service and parts contributions to their bottom lines. The AAIA is thus a major voice in supporting the "Right to Repair" legislation currently in Congress.

But if service information is proving increasingly hard to get, at least heavy-duty applications that rely on the telecommunications aspect of telematics are burgeoning.

DiagnosticS and Prognostics

In 1998, Qualcomm added JTracs to the OmniTracs system to provide real-time on-board vehicle diagnostics and fault monitoring. Previously it was the responsibility of the driver to report such things as an engine fault, usually during one of the check calls drivers used to have to make three or four times a day from a pay phone. This has completely changed with the wireless truck, which reports in without the driver even knowing.

Knowing a fault has been logged in a truck as it is going down the road is a huge plus for any operations manager, because from that flows a number of actions that can avoid a breakdown. The advance warning that something is wrong with the truck can allow dispatch to send out alternative power to put under the load while a crippled tractor heads for service - maybe at an independent service provider such as yours.

This takes a step up with new packages such as NormNet, a military supplier looking to make inroads into commercial markets with its prognostics software.

NormNet has established itself as a prognostics application for F18 fighter engines, where the software "listens" to sensors on the jet engines for anomalies. The NormNet software builds a normal profile of sensor activity. And if the sensors give signals that are away from the norm (hence the name) the software can report the fact. Where NormNet differs from JTracs, though, is that it will track all sensors and, through its learned experience, can accurately predict failure modes well before they happen - an important piece of information on a fighter jet.

NormNet has had significant success in pointing to potential failures on the Series 60 Detroit engine, which is used by the military in many fighting vehicles. According to Nick Frankle, manager of new business for the company, NormNet can easily adapt its military product to civilian applications and is looking for development partners.

Aftermarket Advantage

NormNet's prognostics technology shows how aftermarket innovation can outdistance the captive telematics of the OEMs.

Another example is GPS navigation systems. To get the technology only a few years ago, customers would have to spec an in-dash system at a considerable premium. Today the same functionality and more is available in a portable handheld unit for a fraction of the price. And because of the nimbleness of the aftermarket, the handheld systems are much simpler, cheaper and more convenient to upgrade with changing software and databases.

Navigation for commercial trucks can be made available on many wireless platforms. For instance, Trimble, which has 20 years of experience in GPS solutions for mapping and asset management in the agricultural and construction fields, has recently targeted trucking for its mobile solutions.

In 2007, Trimble acquired @Road to expand its growth strategy for the trucking segment. Trimble describes its business as mobile resource management, piggybacking off @Road's Web-based expertise and strong field service.

More and more telematics solutions are being offered through standard cell phones and handheld devices.

As the AAIA report says, "With telematics the tide is turning in the aftermarket's favor. Hand-held devices, cell phone power, speed to market - they all lean toward the aftermarket in the telematics game. To capitalize on those advantages, aftermarket players need to understand the services and data analysis that can be brought to work side by side with the hardware."

Safety Systems

This is nowhere better illustrated than in the advances in truck safety that have been made in the collection of data and analysis of that data for predictive purposes.

Recent innovations in this arena come from Qualcomm with its critical event reporting and from Iteris, with a new database feature added to its lane departure warning product. Iteris has just launched real-time warnings over a PeopleNet wireless link.

Critical events, such as hard braking, can be programmed for safety action. New safety systems such as Meritor Roll Stability Control and OnGuard and the new Bendix Wingman report vehicle safety intervention. Using the different telecommunications platforms - the telematics links - information on a narrowly avoided collision or other event can be signaled to a fleet in real time, as well as stored on the vehicle for future retrieval.

It's the real-time wireless reporting that is of critical importance. Victor Malchesky, director of safety for Swift Transportation, said the Qualcomm technology alerted managers to unsafe driving and allowed for driver coaching instantly.

The Iteris system reports on out-of-lane incidences. The fleet can set its parameters for how many instances and their frequency to build a threshold for critical event lane warnings. If a driver consistently registers out-of-lane excursions, he or she can be brought in for training. If a driver becomes erratic while driving, there can be real-time warning of a fatigue situation, putting the safety team right there in the truck with the driver.

Trailer Technology

There also are an increasing number of trailer-based systems to enhance productivity and utilization.

This has become very apparent at Xtra Lease, where the company has been able through Qualcomm's T2 Portal to let short-term trailer leasers know if they have trailers sitting idle when they could be returned. T2 has also let customers like Target manage trailer pools at significant cost savings through featur