Remote diagnostics is the real deal

by James Menzies

 Fleets and owner/operators have had legitimate reason over the past few years to complain about a costly increase in unplanned downtime. Most of the problems can be traced back to the emissions systems installed on 2007 and later model year trucks.

I believe these problems have been largely sorted out, but it’s true that downtime has become a bigger issue since the advent of finicky exhaust aftertreatment systems. Complain all you want, but that’s not going to do anything to solve the problem. Just as technology has brought about some costs to the industry in the form of additional downtime, it also promises to solve the problem.

I’m talking about remote diagnostics, which after a couple years in the field are proving to be highly effective at reducing unplanned downtime and all its associated costs. At a recent Daimler Trucks event, at which it announced the formation of its new Detroit Connect telematics division, officials there said the company’s Virtual Technician has eliminated taking the truck out of service in 80% of incidents in which the Check Engine light appears on the dash. Previously, cautious truck operators would take a truck with a Check Engine light off the highway and check it into the nearest dealership. Quite often, this really wasn’t necessary, as the problem that triggered the fault light could have been addressed when the truck returned to the shop or during its next scheduled service interval.

Think about that for a second: 80% of the time a truck was taken out of service for a Check Engine light, it could’ve continued on its way uninterrupted. If the problem does require an immediate fix, the operator is advised by phone or e-mail of the most appropriate course of action. This is very useful technology, and a variation of remote diagnostics is now being offered on Detroit and Volvo engines, with Mack and Navistar the latest to join the party. Mack earlier this month announced the release of GuardDog Connect, which monitors some 30 engine and aftertreatment fault codes, providing the truck owner or driver with useful advice when any one of these fault codes triggers a light on the dash. The Mack and Volvo programs can even direct drivers to the closest location for service, based on the availability of parts and appointment times.

Navistar just recently announced the launch of OnCommand Connection, which is the industry’s first open architecture remote diagnostics platform. As such, it works with a fleet’s existing telematics system. It also covers all-makes of vehicles, making it a good fit for mixed fleets.

Another benefit to these programs is that they can reduce the cost of diagnostics inspections; pull into the dealership and they’ll already have received a file notifying them of what needs to be done to the vehicle to get it back on the road. That’s a time and money saver, right there.

Remote diagnostics is the next frontier against unplanned downtime. I suspect there’ll come at time before long when it’s available as standard equipment on all makes of engines.

I also look forward to the day when the automotive industry catches on to this technology. I’ve had two recent trips to the dealer lately resulting from a Check Engine light on the dash. (I’d have ignored it myself, by my Nervous Nelly wife insisted I take it in). In both cases, I shelled out $125 for a diagnostics inspection. The first time the light was triggered by an emissions sensor that wouldn’t impact the performance of the car and the second time an aging gas cap was to blame. Total cost of parts was $50; hooking up to the computer to find out what it was cost five times that.

The advent of remote diagnostics in the heavy-duty industry offers another compelling reason to upgrade to the newest generation engines, and could mark the point where unplanned downtime starts trending back in the other direction, if it hasn’t yet already.

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