You probably have a pretty good idea what a telematics system is, even if you don't know it by that name. You may know it as a fleet management system or GPS fleet management system or GPS vehicle tracking system.

In most respects, all are the same.

If you look it up, you'll find telematics defined as something like “data communications between systems and devices.” In a nutshell, that's what a telematics system does, and what they have been doing since the late 1980s when the first satellite-based GPS tracking systems were installed on trucks.

That technology gave fleet managers the ability to locate a vehicle so they knew not only where their truck was at that particular moment but also where it had been.

Today, however, fleet managers expect more out of their systems than pinpointing trucks on a map.

“Telematics is really a machine-to-machine transaction,” says Christian Schenk, vice president of XRS. That transaction becomes the basis for a lot of things, he added. “That's how vehicle information and third-party safety data is captured for fleets.”

“At one time, it was exciting that you could communicate with a driver directly without using a phone or entering data. You could dispatch a load and automatically the data would go to the truck,” says Randy Boyles, senior vice president, tailored solutions, PeopleNet. “Now we have a greater understanding and dependency on technology than we've had before,” and the result is that fleet managers want more capabilities than just dispatching a truck.

Those capabilities include gathering performance data from the truck and integrating with various other systems such as collision avoidance or lane departure warning systems, trailer and cargo monitoring systems, air pressure monitoring, International Fuel Tax Agreement reporting and route adherence.

Ryan Driscoll, marketing manager for GPS Insight, says fleet managers want everything involved in fleet management to be rolled into one solution. In his company's case, that may be fuel card integration for fuel fraud detection, navigation integration for dispatching, EOBR integration for hours of service, and driver performance monitoring for driver coaching.

Making sense of the data

Of course all this can generate a lot of data. Making sense of all that information is also where telematics providers play a role.

“I'm not a huge fan of doing a data dump,” says Mike Scarbrough, CEO of NexTraq.

For instance, your system can tell you how many hard-braking events a driver has had, but it doesn't mean anything unless its put in some kind of context. How does that driver compare to other drivers in the fleet? How does the fleet compare to other fleets?

“You can't know if you are normal, above normal or below normal unless you have a context for what you are looking at,” Scarbrough says. “Telematpanies ustomers se a meaningful way.

Pete Allen, CEO of Cadec, says that by using exception and critical event reporting with a telematics system, fleet managers “don't have to go find the problems, they come to them. That's how smart systems are designed.”

Making the most of the investment

It's important to get the most value you can out of your telematics system to help pay for your investment.

“You have to go after numerous applications to justify the expense and time for training and procedural modifications,” says Braxton Vick, senior vice president corporate planning & development for Southeastern Freight Lines in Lexington, S.C.

Southeastern Freight Lines run 2,800 tractors, 4,000 trailers and employs 7,000 people. The regional LTL has been using onboard computers since 1991 and is on its fourth generation of devices, using PeopleNet's mobile communications platform.

In addition to GPS location services, the company uses its systems to improve customer service and operational efficiency. SEFL staff look at customer-specific data and shipment information so they can determine the pickup and delivery costs at each stop.

The company also deploys Web services so customers’ computers communicate directly with the company's website to check on shipments or place orders. “We had over 1 million web inquiries in December on over 400,000 shipments. That's taken a lot of activity off our customer service team.”

As a long-time user of mobile communications/telematics systems, Vick says the company has seen tremendous changes in the technology. “It used to take us 45 minutes to communicate with a truck. Now we do it in 20 seconds. The network is getting bigger, better and faster. And the bigger it gets, the cheaper it gets.”

Cadec's Allen noted that many customers are second, third or fourth generation users of the telematics technology. “In the early days it was simple stuff— engine data, compliance, productivity,” he says. GPS made that information available real-time and now, it's all about integration.

“It's really about making the data accessible to all the systems that touch fleet management: the payroll, the routing, the dispatching, the maintenance,” he says. Fleets want all these systems integrated in a way that makes them all smarter and easier to use. “I think that's the shift that's going on it the marketplace.”

That integration and making sure you're using that data are key to getting the most out of your investment.

For example, Jonathan Durkee, vice president of product marketing for Fleetmatics, says managers can use their telematics data to improve things such as driver behavior or safety. Some managers look at weekly or monthly driving style scorecards to rank their drivers and use that in an incentive program, or as part of a larger safety program.

PeopleNet's Boyles notes that telematics companies in general are providing additional value and are looking at how they can take the technology and mold it into something that provides more value for their customers.

Their ultimate goal: “We are trying to provide fleet managers everything they need to know, when they need it, whether they know they needed to know it or not,” Boyles says.

Mobile Options

So how does the telematics system gather all that data? In order to capture engine data or information from other onboard systems, a telematics system's “black box” must connect with the truck's ECM. In some cases, the connection is hardwired into the truck with a display terminal mounted in the cab for driver messaging, electronic logging, etc. In other instances, the “black box” communicates via the truck's diagnostic/communications J1939 bus.

In those cases, a device is plugged into the bus, which gathers engine and other data and communicates that to a handheld device such as a tablet or smartphone via a Bluetooth connection.

Jonathan Durkee, vice president of product management for Fleetmatics, says his company's telematics system connects to the truck this way.The Bluetooth connection allows the system to talk to the application on a tablet or Android smartphone. In addition to GPS and engine data, the app also supports electronic driver vehicle inspection reports, electronic driver logs and other functions.

“There are a lot of business mangers that are on the move and not behind their desk very much,” he says. “We need to be able to deliver the software to them wherever they are.”

The benefit for smaller fleets in using a smartphone or tablet-based option is the cost to deploy a telematics system is much lower.

This spring, XRS introduced a new, completely mobile platform for its fleet management system.The XRS mobile platform runs on more than 50 types of devices.

Last fall, Rand McNally unveiled its HD 100 device, which plugs into the truck port and allows electronic hours of service recording, text- and dispatch-integrated messaging plus driver performance monitoring capabilities through mobile devices.

Zonar recently introduced a portable telematics-enabled tabletthat provides electronic driver vehicle inspection reports, hours of service, instant driver feedback, fuel efficiency, two-way messaging and advanced commercial navigation.

About the author
Jim Beach

Jim Beach

Technology Contributing Editor

Covering the information technology beat for Heavy Duty Trucking, Jim Beach stays on top of computer technology trends from the cab to the back office to the shop, whether it’s in the hand, on the desk or in the cloud. Covering trucking since 1988.

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