That's the sort-of present, and definite future, of commercial vehicle technology, according to truck manufacturer Navistar, Inc. Terry Kline, senior vice president and chief information officer, says 2016 will witness yet another leap in automated systems maintenance, monitoring and control.
Truckers are likely to embrace the new capabilities. They're getting increasingly squeezed by high labor and operating expense, as well as the cost of stricter regulation. They're looking to in-cab systems that do more than flash a mysterious warning light when something is wrong with the engine.
Through its OnCommand Connection service, Navistar already has the capability to detect and diagnose some 18,000 potential engine and vehicle faults. Say the system detects a clogged filter – an ostensibly small glitch that could result in a catastrophic engine failure. It immediately texts the driver with the appropriate fault code, along with advice as to the seriousness of the problem. The information can also be conveyed by e-mail, website or phone app.
Users of the service, which operates through software in the cloud, pick their own telematics provider for feeding vehicle data to the driver and fleet manager. The latter can track issues through a dashboard that monitors all trucks, regardless of where they were manufactured.
Kline says carriers are already reaping the benefits of the technology. On average, it costs 15 cents a mile to maintain a truck. He cites one Mississippi carrier with 200 trucks that has managed to drive down that expense to between 2 and 3 cents a mile. Most OnCommand customers have seen a 30-percent reduction in maintenance cost, Kline claims.
The near future promises even more advanced technology. Start with the maturing of systems built upon open technology systems. In their efforts to gather all applicable data, managers have been hampered by the many models of trucks and engines that make up a typical fleet. Beginning in 2016, they’ll be able to remotely pull diagnostic data from every unit, regardless of make, Kline says.
Truckers will have access to over-the-air reprogramming of their systems, provided they’re on a Wi-Fi network. Critical software updates will show up automatically, much as they do today on mobile phones and laptops. (Sometimes to the irritation of users who don’t want to deal with updates at the given moment, it should be noted. But truckers, aware of the need to keep their vehicles running safely, might be more conducive to such alerts.)
Kline expects that capability to be rolled out shortly after the first of the year. The sole limiting factor is the spotty nature of Wi-Fi coverage in many remote (and not so remote) parts of the country. “Realistically, it’s not everywhere,” he says. “But we’re getting there.” In fact, many of the new technology features will rely on a steady Wi-Fi connection.
In any case, the remote capability should allow truckers to reduce service visits and, in some cases, recalibrate engines on the spot, in accordance with changing conditions such as steep roads or unusually heavy loads.
As for those mobile notifications about service issues, they’ll go beyond mere identification of an existing problem, to predict incidents before they occur. Drivers will be informed of what’s wrong, which parts are needed to correct the problem, and the location of suitable dealers within range. The alerts could even get as specific as indicating the precise technician and service bay location for the particular job, as well as estimating how long the driver will be off the road.
Kline says the mobile app will prove especially useful for drivers who own just one or two vehicles, and are unable to afford sophisticated internal command centers.
Information about system maintenance can, of course, be combined with more traditional data on driver performance, such as speed, hard braking and rest stops. The technology could also yield some interesting options: Kline sees the availability of real-time status information as encouraging the use of gamification. Drivers might compete to determine who is servicing a particular route in the safest and most efficient manner.
And speaking of safety – talk of more sophisticated messaging systems invariably raises concerns about the introduction of new distractions in the cab. Transportation experts such as the National Safety Council have warned that new onboard communications devices, regardless of their purpose, pose additional hazards for drivers. Even talking on a cell phone in a hands-free mode can be dangerous, the council says.
Kline doesn’t believe the new Navistar technology will have that effect. “It’s not about always having things in the driver’s face,” he says. “It’s about telling the driver about something that needs to be done immediately.” The alert could come in the form of a light on the dash, prompting the driver to pull over and check for an explanatory text. Or so goes the theory.
The technology is coming nevertheless. It will allow fleet managers to view their vehicles as “nodes on the network,” says Kline. “It’s like having your own maintenance technician in the truck with you.”