Engineers dash to clean up the dash

by John G. Smith

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Whether bolted into the cab or in the form of a hand-held computer, a record level of computing power is emerging in today’s trucks. And while more tools are on the horizon, engineers are looking to combine systems in equipment that can be upgraded and doesn’t clutter the dash.

In-cab computers began to emerge in the early 1980s with the Rockwell Tripmaster, Freightliner’s Paul Menig said during a panel session at the spring meeting of the Maintenance Council of the American Trucking Associations. Displays from engines emerged in the early 1990s with such devices as the Cat ID. Then truck makers came up with equipment of their own that would draw on data from engines.

In terms of wireless communication, Qualcomm (sold in Canada as Cancom) dominates the market, followed by American Mobile Satellite, Highway Master, Xata, and Eaton Fleet Advisor.

“(But) there are more coming all the time,” Menig added, referring to the emergence of such things as Sprint PCS, systems by Fieldworks, and a Terion system that sends information over FM signals.

The danger of it all is information overload.

“We worry about driver overload, about drivers’ ability to use these items while moving,” Menig said. “One possibility would be to have some sort of computer that is multi-function.”

While a handheld computer is one approach, Freightliner is looking to incorporate more functions into radio systems. “The radio better still handle AM, FM and weather band … run the CD and satellite radio,” he said of such approaches. But it offers a logical area to expand computer power, with the simple addition of some enter keys, a cursor key, dedicated function keys and multi-function “soft” keys, he said. So too will any combined system need access to a Universal Serial Bus to handle everything from digital cameras to printers, fax machines, handheld Palm computers, and magnetic bar code readers, he added.

Voice recognition software and text-to-speech systems are also on the horizon.

“It doesn’t make sense to provide a lot of bells, whistles and additional displays,” said International’s Jack Gemender. “It may make the job more difficult to the driver.”

Even systems designed to augment a driver’s senses can be confusing.

Web-based concierge services – such as those offering service locations, information on the cheapest fuel, traffic updates, and will call ahead to check the status of a service – are the way of the future, he said.

So too can the Web help manage information about the status of shipments, said Vinit Nijhawan, CEO of Kinetic Computer.

“Broadband access to the Internet is driving Application Service Providers growth.”

Such providers would become central hubs for both data and software, and that could lead to an exponential growth in in-cab computers working on a common platform, he said.

“The fear of obsolescence kept a lot of people away from on-board computers.”

But it isn’t likely the Department of Transportation will allow future regulatory information – such as automated logbooks – in a hand-held computer, said XATA founder Bill Flies. Such information, he said, will probably have to remain in a truck-mounted device. Japan’s government wouldn’t accept the idea when it began mandating digital tachographs in January 1999. n

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