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Evolving Remote Diagnostics

Which is more useful: wireless transmission of electronic engine condition data while trucks are on the road far from home base or just as they roll into the yard? Opinions and market offerings are mi...

Which is more useful: wireless transmission of electronic engine condition data while trucks are on the road far from home base or just as they roll into the yard? Opinions and market offerings are mixed.

With the introduction of electronic truck engines, Engine Control Units (ECU) and engine condition data came the inevitable theorizing that engine data from trucks could be transmitted over cellular networks or satellite to the repair shop and problems diagnosed remotely. Systems were rolled out to do this, but the usefulness of remotely obtained data has by no means been established.

On the plus side, remote diagnostics can supply fault codes and the electronic settings surrounding a fault occurrence. Failures should be able to be anticipated and downtime on the road avoided. Knowing a problem in advance of a truck’s arrival at a garage gives technicians time to line up parts. Recent trip history, such as mileage, overspeeding or hardbraking can be obtained and customer settings can be changed on the road.

Critics have generated a lot of heat rebutting the supposed benefits of remote diagnostics: They say that the data, for what good it does to have it, is not worth paying for. Or, remote diagnostics typically does not tell the technician why the vehicle is down (perhaps remote diagnostics should have been called remote symptomatics). And when a fault code is detected, should a technician be dispatched to the truck to figure out what problem has caused the fault code, should the truck head to the nearest garage, or should the truck simply go about its business and get looked at the next time it is at the shop?

Others point out that the game has barely begun and that issues such as transmission costs and shortcomings in data interpretation can be overcome. Toronto-based software company Cetaris is working to advance the ability to interpret engine data, a capability that its President and founder Rick Bedard sees as still in its infancy.

“The challenge in the current market is that there is a lot of information or codes, that are passed from the engine back to the application. What is currently missing is the mechanism to transition from this stream of data – from this information to knowledge. There are a number of relationships there that no-one has been able to see – relationships between events and the probability of failure. We are still not good at looking for trends in the engine data,” Bedard says.

Cetaris markets a fleet maintenance management software package called Fleet Assistant, which has been integrated with Cancom Tracking. Fleet Assistant was a joint project between Cetaris and Freightliner that began in 1996 to develop a next-generation fleet maintenance software. “We said we wanted to make major improvements to fleet maintenance software out there,” recalls Bedard.

One goal was to obtain meter readings remotely and automatically, something Cetaris’ market research identified as a widespread problem among fleets, especially with regards to warrantee service. This is not remote diagnostics in its original sense but, Bedard points out, “An accurate meter reading means that when you are doing an analysis of component failure by mileage, you are getting accurate readings and can develop accurate trends.”

Every time a message is sent over the Cancom network, meter readings, Driver Vehicle Condition Reports (DVCR) and other vehicle data piggybacks on the message. “Using Cancom’s technology we are allowing a driver to send [DVCRs] to the garage from the onboard computer. It becomes a red-tagged item to make sure it is corrected,” says Bedard. In addition, he says, “Fleet Assistant is receiving fault codes today and storing them in databases. Fleet Assistant is pulling back everything it can get without adding cost to the transmission.”

The fault code project is a longer-term effort to learn how to read patterns and predict failures. Although Bedard declined to detail just which data Fleet Assistant is pulling from the trucks he says, “Ultimately we are building for the future where we can get inferences from the data and do something with it.

“Here is the goal of all of this discussion: How do we more efficiently run our fleets? The goal to me of remote diagnostics is to reduce the risk of breakdown and failure and missed deliveries. The best fleets need to know when things are going to fail. By responding more proactively you can do that. We are trying to get to the point where the number of failures can be reduced when the obvious patterns are there.”

International Truck and Engine Corporation is also optimistic that engine data collected while trucks are on the road can be put to good use. It believes that the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) is in the best position to overcome existing shortcomings, particularly what to do with the limited amount of data that can be cost-effectively transmitted over carrier networks.

“The telematic, which acts as a gateway from the vehicle to the fleet’s server unit, cannot cost-efficiently collect a real-time data stream from a running engine. This is in the gigabite per day range. All you can do is transmit static information – snapshots,” says Jeff Bannister, International’s Director of the Truck Electronics Group. “The people at the repair end do not know what to do with the data. The diagnostics tools cannot interpret the data because they are designed to receive and interpret real-time data from the ECU.

“Where the OEM comes in, it needs to only transmit key data and we’ll know what to do with it and do something intelligent: We can predict failure, engine trouble, reduce unscheduled downtime, optimize service levels.” For example, usage-based maintenance can be optimized. “I can be more intelligent about servicing. I can optimize when to bring in the truck for all its servicing.”

International is working to develop a telematics solution, which would include a telecommunications module suited to the fleet’s communication carrier of choice. “I think that we will have a base-level system and we will build on that. There is a high level of certainty that we will have a commercial product by late 2004,” says Bannister.

Others argue that the best solution for the majority of fleets is short-range wireless systems that do automatic and free data dumps somewhere between fleet yard gates and the garage. After all, goes the argument, most trucks return to home base every day or nearly so, so why the rush to transmit data from somewhere out on the road?

Detroit Diesel doesn’t have any long distance communication alliances, rather, it uses its IRIS infra-red wireless system to transmit and receive engine data within an indoor range of about 50 feet (about 15 metres). “What has held remote diagnostics back is that the amount of savings that could be had by doing RD doesn’t begin to pay for doing it,” says Tom Diefenbaker, Detroit Diesel’s Director of Electronic Products, Business Development. “The technology is there. The problem is doing it cost-effectively enough to make it worthwhile.”

IRIS extracts engine data at the fuel island, the inspection lane or in the shop. “The shop is laptop unfriendly … IRIS makes that go away. This allows you to have a desktop in a clean office, hook into the Internet,” says Diefenbaker, who also points out that the weak link with manual data collection systems is that the information is not extracted regularly.

Mack Trucks recently cast its lot with a shorter-range solution, called InfoMax, which it announced on March 20, 2003. Although Mack appreciates the benefits that remote diagnostics theoretically can bring fleets, it seriously questions whether they work in practice or are worth the cost. Instead, Mack developed a wireless technology that automatically transmits a wide range of truck and engine data from equipped trucks to what it calls a Network Access Point (NAP) in the fleet terminal building.

With a line-of-sight range of about 1000 feet (about 300 metres) information from InfoMax, an onboard data logger, is automatically transmitted to the NAP, on whatever schedule the fleet
manager chooses. The data transfer is free and secure and requires no licencing fees.

According to Mack, typical uses for this data include equipment utilization reports, automated maintenance scheduling, direct input to MPG incentive programs, driver performance monitoring, electronic fault reporting, and unauthorized reprogramming tamper detection. As well, customers can use InfoMax to reprogram their fleet’s operational systems. All of these are things you could use a short-range report for,” says Wayne Wissinger, Mack’s Manager of Product Strategy for Electronics.

As the technologies of remote (or not so remote) diagnostics, or prognoses (or should that be symptomatics?), are refined and shortcomings understood and overcome, as usual, what looks good on paper will have to survive the paper money test of an acceptable return on investment.


Combining the ideas of Internet personal match making and eBay, marks the launch of a patent-pending, electronic system to match the needs of truckers with those of shippers., the product of several trucking and logistics experts, has entered the freight transportation industry with a computer algorithm developed exclusively for trucking that the company claims will eliminate many of the problems currently experienced by those using load brokers. proclaims that it is merely the meeting place for shippers and carriers. Rather than charge a fixed fee per transaction or a variable per load commission, charges a fixed monthly membership fee based on the number of trucks owned by a carrier or the number of locations used by a shipper. One fixed fee permits an unlimited number of postings and matches. Load matches are based on selected criteria for either routes or destinations. Once the computer selects the best matches, the parties can proceed to make their best deal.

Recognizing other industry problems, incorporates a strong privacy and security policy. Members can also refer to another member’s feedback profile and are encouraged to provide feedback on each other after a transaction is completed.

Both shippers and carriers have the ability to purchase door-to-door limited risk cargo insurance per shipment at rates that are lower than general cargo insurance through’s association with the Atlantic Mutual Insurance Company – America’s oldest mutual insurance company. members will rely on mandatory arbitration procedures, with the assistance of the American Arbitration Association, to settle cargo related claims.

The link between arbitration and insurance will guarantee that approved cargo claims will be paid without unnecessary delay, the company says.

Once a member, users may access geographic information down to the street level of addresses through their site powered by PC*MILER/STREETS (ALK Technologies). Members may also receive weather reports.

Through its partnership with Comdata Network, Inc., a division of Ceridian Corporation, carriers will be able to sell their approved receivables and achieve virtually immediate payment for those transactions, the company claims.

Shortly after its launch at the Mid-America Trucking Show, announced a strategic alliance with The American Arbitration Association (AAA), the world’s leading provider of conflict management and dispute resolution services.

As part of the alliance, the AAA will offer a range of dispute resolution services including electronic, documents only, telephonic and in-person arbitrations to resolve cargo disputes that may arise between’s shipping and carrier members.

Both the Transportation Lawyers Association AAA Panel and the AAA’s specialized eCommerce Panel will be available to handle disputes among members. Each expert panel is comprised of independent arbitrators and mediators with extensive backgrounds in transportation law and technical online business-to-business (B2B) transaction issues.

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