Diagnostic tools are vital for fleet maintenance procedures today. But the systems can be expensive and difficult to use across different makes and models of trucks. Photo: Rush Truck Centers

Diagnostic tools are vital for fleet maintenance procedures today. But the systems can be expensive and difficult to use across different makes and models of trucks. Photo: Rush Truck Centers

The diagnosis process for Class 8 vehicle repairs has come a long way, and even more capable systems will soon give fleet managers and technicians unprecedented access to data and diagnostic abilities. But, as with many new and emerging fields of technology, there are growing pains.

Handheld diagnostic devices and shop laptops today allow technicians to access vehicle systems in ways that were unimaginable a few years ago. But with that power have come concerns over both the upfront and annual costs of hardware and software associated with these tools, as well as the proliferation of products and the continuing lack of any sort of common platform to simplify matters on the fleet side of the equation.

“As Class 8 equipment continues to become more complex and sophisticated, diagnostics tools are becoming essential, and the adoption from desktop to handheld has accelerated,” says Scott Vanselous, TMW Systems executive vice president. “Fleets are changing the way they measure maintenance operations. More progressive fleets are tracking equipment downtime and utilization versus the cost to operate a truck. This is a major shift in the industry.”

Taken as a whole, Vanselous says, these changes on the diagnostic front have been transformational for fleets, which are now able to minimize and even eliminate unscheduled downtime. “Diagnostic handheld devices are just more efficient and help fleets quickly understand the health of critical components on their vehicles to take proactive action, before breakdowns occur,” he says.

“The rate of change is incredible,” adds Dick Hyatt, chief executive officer and president, Decisiv. “And we’re moving into two distinct areas of operation today: One where you have telematics relaying information directly off a truck – even while it’s moving. And you have the handheld side, where you physically plug the device in to download diagnostic information. So the industry is entering a time where this field is moving quickly on some fronts, and slowly on others. More and more vehicles are becoming connected and relaying information. But OEMs are still struggling in terms of figuring out what data is valuable to fleets. And usually, in this instance, ‘valuable’ means ‘actionable.’”

OEMs aren’t the only industry players developing and promoting vehicle telematics systems. Rush Truck Centers, the nation’s largest dealer network, has been developing its RushCare Service Connect Platform to support all brands of vehicles. And while it seems logical to conclude that telematics and the ability of connected vehicles to download diagnostic information will make handheld diagnostic devices obsolete, Brian Mulshine, director of the dealer network’s operations technology and innovations efforts. “I think someday we’ll get to a point where handheld devices aren’t necessary,” Mulshine says. “But I believe it will be years before that happens.”

Mulshine notes that as incredible as telematics systems are, they still have significant limitations that handheld devices allow technicians to work around. “You should not just clear a fault code on a truck using telematics, for the code will return without addressing the cause of the concern. Telematics does allow you to deep-mine data for trending of vehicle reliability concerns in your fleet. This can provide the actionable information to reduce your fleet’s repair cost and frequency of unexpected roadside breakdowns,” Mulshine says.  “Some of today’s handheld devices can provide your technicians the ability to perform diagnostic tests and guide them with recommendations of likely root or repair advice. So I tell fleets today to use vehicle telematics to prevent catastrophic failures or get a heads-up on an actual failure or a failure that is about to occur, and use your handheld devices to dig in deep on the vehicle’s CAN bus to dig deep down into the data and find out what’s going on, and clear those fault codes once the repair has been made.”

Telematics systems can give fleets warnings of pending failures. But diagnostic devices are still required for deep data mining off vehicle CAN bus units. Photo: TMW Systems

Telematics systems can give fleets warnings of pending failures. But diagnostic devices are still required for deep data mining off vehicle CAN bus units. Photo: TMW Systems

An elusive solution  

It may look like we’re moving into a new era of predicting or even preventing downtime and expediting repairs, but some fleet managers are less than enthusiastic regarding the state of diagnostic devices today. Many cite the wide array of devices required to sync with difference OEMs and read their unique software codes, as well as the rising costs of acquiring the devices and the software and their annual subscription fees.

“We really need Bill Gates, or somebody like him, to come into the industry and create some kind of common platform that will read everything,” says Darry Stuart, chief executive officer at DWS Fleet Services. “I think the tremendous costs associated with writing and creating these software systems has created an environment where those companies need to get a return on investment. Which is understandable. But it’s getting to be an expensive proposition when most fleets I work with struggle to get a laptop that’s been handed down in the company two or three times and a cheap wireless printer on the shop floor.”

Stuart has clearly discussed the issue with his friend and fellow Technology & Maintenance Council past president Doug White, who is vice president of maintenance for Dunbar Armored. Unprompted, he says the exact same thing when asked about the state of handheld diagnostic devices. “You’d think we could get Bill Gates to come in and develop one software program that would work for everybody. The Society of Automotive Engineers has already standardized the fault codes. So it seems like it would be an easy thing to do.”

White has been evaluating various handheld devices as part of a larger effort to update the computer capabilities of Dunbar’s maintenance shops nationwide. “It’s been outrageously expensive,” he says. “In terms of reading diagnostic code, we need to have software and devices that can decrypt International engines, Cummins engines, Ram trucks and Allison transmissions. And the initial purchases are pricey. But the renewal fees for the in-depth diagnostic software really adds up. It’s not too bad for one or two shops. But when you’re talking about 60 shops nationwide…”

White declines to cite any numbers in terms of software costs, but Bruce Stockton, president of fleet consulting firm Stockton Solutions, says the last maintenance plan he drew up for client with a light-duty shop included a budget of $40,000 to get up to speed with the diagnostic software and devices. “After that, they were looking at another $20,000 annually in subscription fees for those systems,” he adds.

Stockton says a one-size-fits-all diagnostic solution would be great for fleets, but adds that he doesn’t believe OEMs are interested in providing such a solution. “From a competitive standpoint, they don’t want other OEMs to know how their proprietary powertrain codes and algorithms work. And that’s perfectly understandable. At the same time, they don’t want to just give anybody access to the powertrain software. Emissions [equipment] is a major cause of Class 8 downtime today. But if someone were to use that access to disable downstream exhaust treatment on a truck or a fleet of trucks, the OEM could find itself being sued by the EPA. So that is understandable as well.”

Radley Bess, a service manager in Charleston, South Carolina, for Snider Fleet Solutions, says his shop uses three different types of diagnostic devices for a customer base that ranges from pickups to Class tractors and trailers. “JPro is a good choice for our shop,” he says, “because it has a lot of capabilities built into it, plus it also serves as an interface with other OEM software automatically.”

Looking at future diagnostic capabilities, Bess’ colleague, Ryan Pottle, service manager Snider’s Winston Salem, North Carolina, facility, says he would like to see aftermarket software capable of handling SCR tests, injector testing, and more data monitoring signals present.

“There have been large improvements in OEM software over the past couple of years,” Bess adds. “It seems as if the OEM programmers finally realized that the diagnostic process is made a lot easier and successful when the technician is led step-by-step through the fault troubleshooting and testing process. Even better, is the most-common solution-based diagnostics that almost guarantee success for even the less-experienced technician. As far as telematics and diagnostics, a driver-friendly display could list probable causes of a fault code, possibly with a blown fuse or easily identified physical problem that caused the fault code. A system like that might make it possible to instruct a driver (or a road technician) as to where a component is located (with a picture or diagram) and what to check for. This is an easy way to prevent an unnecessary road call or misdiagnosed fault on the roadside.”

Snider Fleet Solutions is a Greensboro, North Carolina based service provider, which has been a commitment to serving the transportation industry since 1976 and today has over 80 locations  spread across the eastern and southern United States. According to Jerry Hutchins, the service manager in the company’s Greensboro facility, the company’s customer base is quite large and varied, which demands an extremely robust amount of diagnostic capabilities. Software and equipment must be up-to-date and versatile with the latest model-year engine and vehicle systems controllers. Service information must also be very comprehensive.

 Jerry Hutchens says his shop has three types of diagnostic systems: two for light duty vehicles, and one that is a main platform for medium/heavy duty applications. “We have a variety of customers and need a variety of software,” Hutchins says. “Our shop started using JPro years ago, and we find it very ‘hands on’ and ‘user friendly’. The aftertreatment diagnostic portion of JPro’s program makes it easy to see and track all of the related data needed to troubleshoot the system.” He continues, “Although having the right software is necessary, the equipment has to be shared between the shop and road service at times.” One laptop is specifically for a road technician, as it allows customer vehicles to be serviced at their location or for emergency roadside assistance.

Rush Truck Centers’ Mulshine understands the pain points fleets are experiencing today. But he believes diagnostic capabilities and pricing will improve over time. “The data coming in from the trucks is only going to get richer,” he says. “The OEMs are figuring out more actionable codes and the next wave will be even more data coming from other components.”

Soon, Mulshine predicts diagnostic capabilities will include real-time oil analysis and viscosity updates, tires relaying information on tread depths and inflation pressure, and even sensors that can measure vibration readings from ball bearings to detect failures. “We’re just starting to figure out this new, diagnostic frontier,” he says. “And it all comes down to fine-tuning the data and processes we’re using, and putting all of that into the right context. But the power of this technology and these devices to minimize or prevent downtime is real.”

About the author
Jack Roberts

Jack Roberts

Executive Editor

Jack Roberts is known for reporting on advanced technology, such as intelligent drivetrains and autonomous vehicles. A commercial driver’s license holder, he also does test drives of new equipment and covers topics such as maintenance, fuel economy, vocational and medium-duty trucks and tires.

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