As a truck driver guides his rig along an interstate highway hundreds of miles from home, he might have a tendency to feel lonely. Yet in many cases, a multi-voiced conversation is going on inside the rig that he isn't even aware of it.
Sensors, databuses, GPS receivers, modems and other devices are constantly talking - to each other, to the trucking company's back office and occasionally to the driver.

"We're talking to the truck and the truck is talking back to us," says Ed McCarthy, vice president of engineering for Vnomics, Rochester, N.Y.

Telematic technologies in the trucking industry have changed dramatically in recent years, moving beyond GPS vehicle tracking and dispatch as fleets have begun to extract more from their mobile communications, onboard computers and fleet management systems.

"It's a much more sophisticated collection of data than we've had in the past," McCarthy says. "It's transitioned in from just GPS location. The onboard computers can talk to the databuses on the vehicle, talk to the sensors that they are monitoring and aggregate that data and make decisions on board." We're talking about things such as diagnostic trouble codes, or integrating an accelerometer that allow us to see how the vehicle is being maneuvered, if is going up or down hills. This information is sent back in real time a supervisor so he can determine if the vehicle is being operated safely and efficiently.

The first satellite tracking units were introduced a little over 20 years ago, which allowed those fleets that could afford the investment the ability to know where their trucks were and to send dispatch messages to their drivers. But fleets learned there was more they could do with these systems than manage assets. They also found out they could automate things such as fuel tax reporting, since they knew from the GPS tracking when truck crossed a state line and how many miles they ran in that state.

When fuel costs spiked a few years ago, fleets found they were able to connect their tracking unit with onboard computers or the engine databus in ways that helped manage fuel costs. "It used to be that at the end of the month, you would print out a report and it would tell you how many miles you drove, how much fuel you used," says David Chauncey, CEO, Vnomics.

"Nowadays, the systems that are being deployed help fleets make decisions at the time when they have the most impact. Now, at the end of the month, instead of seeing how much fuel you burned, you see how much fuel you saved."

Focus on safety

A pending rule mandating electronic onboard recorders for most long-haul trucks and changes to how the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration measures carrier safety have fleets looking at other ways they can use these technologies.

"You see the focus of telematics going from fuel-related and well-understood data, to all of a sudden we're interested in fault codes, we're interested in high-speed braking situations, we're interested in speeding," says Christian Schenk, vice president of product marketing for Xata, Eden Prairie, Minn. "But we're not interested in those for the same reasons, it's not so much for the fuel reasons, but for risks and accountability associated with safety ratings."

Vnomics' Chauncey points out that the functionality of telematics has really evolved over the last 5 to 10 years. "First, people were doing GPS and tracking where the vehicles were. Now we are entering what we call intelligent telematics, the next generation, where the telematics system is monitoring what's going on with the vehicle much more than physical location." Today, he says, it's a decision support tool.

"Five years ago, safety was kind of an afterthought for these systems. It was all about efficiency," explains Brian McLaughlin, chief operating officer for PeopleNet, Minnetonka, Minn.. "Now safety and compliance are as important, if not more so, than any other reason people are buying these systems."

Fleets can monitor a wide array of things on a truck such as seat-belt use, time spent in top gear, reefer temperature, tire pressure, idle time and information on the particulate filter on some of the newer engines.

Robin Hamlin, product manager at McLeod Software, Birmingham, Ala., says they are seeing a push from customers to integrate driver performance information and electronic logs into their system. "They are really looking at anything to do with driver performance," she says.

Mark Cubine, vice president marketing at McLeod, adds that the proposed hours of service rule change "is hanging over everybody's head like a big boulder. And a lot of fleets are looking at integration solutions that have the ability to communicate available hours on a driver's clock to the dispatcher."

Preventing engine failures

Some fleets may find there are more ways to use an in-cab computer/communications system than just logs. Tom Newby, director of maintenance at Old Dominion Freight, Thomasville, N.C., says the company was looking at other ways to make use of the PeopleNet systems they already had installed on their trucks. Old Dominion has now installed a link between the J-bus and their onboard system in 4,000 of their 5,600 trucks to monitor critical engine faults. "We were having a problem with catastrophic engine failures and were looking at a way to improve that," Newby explains.

Working with FleetNet America, their roadside service provider, Old Dominion began monitoring five urgent fault codes: low oil pressure, high oil temp, high coolant temp, low coolant level and low voltage. "When the truck is going down the road and it throws one of those urgent fault codes, it sends a signal to PeopleNet and they send it on to FleetNet," Newby explains.

Since drivers can't access their in-cab communications terminal while driving, FleetNet will call the driver's cell phone to alert them if a problem arises. Sometimes, the driver acknowledges that there was a warning light on the dash. But Newby says when drivers see a warning light, often they try to coax the truck in, only to suffer a breakdown along the way.

They had just such a scenario in one of their tests before rolling the system out. FleetNet got a critical fault alert and called the driver to tell him he had low oil pressure. The driver said he had seen the warning light, but thought it was OK. The driver was persuaded to pull over, and Newby says, "I'm convinced it saved us an engine."

Newby expects to save in other ways as well. "One thing that has really been aggravating over the years, when a unit breaks down on the road and calls in for service, the first thing we do is send a technician out there. The technician gets there and says the truck has to be towed in. I've paid the technician to go out there to tell me he can't work on it and then I pay the wrecker to bring it in. With the fault codes, if there is a low oil pressure code, they walk the driver through a process. Go outside and look, pull the dip stick. If they are not low on oil, we call the tow truck right then." Newby hopes to monitor electrical systems and particulate filters in the future.

Sharing data

Jim Sassen, senior manager of product marketing at Qualcomm Enterprise Systems, San Diego, notes the data that various systems on truck generate are now being integrated.

"You've had disparate systems that were doing different things," Sassen says. "The trend now is you see these things being brought together." For instance, tire pressure monitoring systems that used to communicate with the driver via a dash display can now send that information to the back office via the truck's mobile communication platform.

Phil Zaroor, president and CEO of Advantage PressurePro, notes that while his company's tire pressure monitoring system was initially introduced with a dash display to alert the driver of