TAG YOU’RE IT: Trucks and cargo can tell a story — with help from advanced telematics

By many measures, the bottle-sized device from Telogis is much like the individual containers of juice which surround it. The dimensions and freezing point are identical. But instead of holding a drink, it is a sensor which monitors the exact temperature of a beverage hauler’s liquid cargo in the middle of a trailer.

That kind of information – just one example of the data available through business-transforming telematics – can mean the difference between a happy customer and the insurance claim for a rejected load.

As impressive as this can appear, a sensor will make a bigger difference when part of a system that tracks and communicates several pieces of related information. “It’s all about trying to take more than one data point and really allowing the customer to look at everything from a business perspective,” explains Mark Wallin, Telogis’ vice president – product management.

In this particular case, the temperature data feeds a broader system which also monitors the chilling work of a reefer and the trailer’s physical location. Should the reefer fail, dispatchers will have enough information to decide whether the trailer can continue to its destination, needs to be rerouted to a nearby temperature-controlled warehouse, or requires a roadside repair.

We’ve clearly come a long way from the era when cargo vanished from view once a truck pulled out of a fleet yard.

Sensors and the telematics systems which wirelessly transfer their data can now be used to monitor everything from temperatures to locations, pressures, acceleration and shock loads. The related devices are also smaller than ever, costs have dropped on everything from chips to GPS receivers, and advancing short-range communications technologies allow sensors to seamlessly share packets of data within a trailer itself.

“People are able to intelligently monitor what’s going on,” says Craig Montgomery, senior vice-president product management and marketing at Orbcomm. “Five years ago [that] really wasn’t happening except for on extremely expensive devices.”

Cold tracking, crime fighters

Consider the way multiple information sources can support everyday business decisions.

In the case of a reefer, temperatures are established by everyone from government regulators to customers. Multiple sensors can give fleets insight into why actual temperatures might be shifting as the products are being delivered. Alarms can be sounded if a compressor fails or a trailer door is left open. Reefers can be adjusted remotely to account for changing environmental factors like an unusually hot summer day. In other cases, the running time might be limited to comply with anti-idling rules at a customer location, or even to support corporate sustainability pledges.

Granted, many fleets have yet to adopt the rapidly advancing telematic tools. Loads are monitored and managed remotely on just 15% of refrigerated trucks, says Shawn Allaway, president of Cooltrax. “That puts nearly 85% of all units at risk of catastrophic consequences as fleet managers resort to trial and error or outdated processes to discover problems.” Data loggers which store information to be downloaded upon a truck’s return offer little support when trying to avoid real-time risks, he adds. “Knowledge is king, and data is the ultimate proof of a company’s ability to properly care for food and adhere to both internal or external regulations.”

In other cases, the data collected from a vehicle and its cargo can help to fight crime. Sensors which monitor locking and unlocking doors, or are even tied directly into a bolt seal, can be coupled with “geofencing” systems which tell when a truck deviates from its assigned route. These two pieces of information certainly tell a troubling story if the truck has strayed into a known high-crime area – particularly at a time when an estimated $5 billion in Canadian cargo goes missing every year.

“Cargo theft is much more than an insurance problem. It’s a dangerous, expensive, global threat that puts individuals, communities and businesses at risk,” Insurance Bureau of Canada Atlantic vice president Amanda Dean observed during a recent training session in Dieppe, NB.

Internal antennas in hidden RFID tags are able to communicate with Global Positioning Systems and cellular networks, helping to track pallets and containers of stolen goods. Today’s models will even store enough power to travel as far as a load, or recharge themselves through solar panels.

The power of data is not limited to fighting external threats, either. It can also help to improve productivity. Telematics offer fleets a competitive advantage, whether it involves reducing costs or protecting freight, Wallin insists.

The sensors which determine if a trailer is full or empty, for example, eliminate the need for physical yard checks and make it possible to move equipment into service more quickly. The same cargo sensors can even be used to better manage detention bills when working with customers who use trailers for extra storage. Other options include sensors which ensure tractors are connected to the right trailers in the first place.

Construction and utility companies are certainly enhancing productivity by using location-related data to coordinate different vehicles. Telogis clients who shared their system data in the wake of Hurricane Sandy were able to ensure that damaged trees were cleared by Asplundh Tree Experts before Pepco’s utility trucks were dispatched.

“We’re taking data from your work orders, from your jobs, from your truck, from your mobile worker, and we’re bringing that together in a way in which our customers can help change their business,” Wallin adds.

The right choices

The choice of the sensors themselves will depend on the information to be communicated and how it will be accessed.

“Every platform has its own pros and cons,” says Montgomery, referring to different wireless communications standards such as ZigBee and Bluetooth. “Some of them are more power-efficient, some of them are more communications efficient. But [with] this explosion in short-range communications capabilities and the efficiencies that are starting to be gained in those technologies — coupled with the increased technology, sophistication of the physical devices themselves, the shrinkage of their size, and the integration of those technologies — you really start to create this explosion of devices that are able to truly leverage sensors.”

“Dual-mode” devices that use different communications standards, for example, can be particularly important in an intermodal supply chain. Where the cellular capabilities might be used to communicate data when a load is on the road, sending reports just when the freight passes defined points in a geofence, the same device can switch to weekly reports communicated by satellite when the cargo is at sea.

Decisions about communications will involve a combination of coverage, cost and quality, Montgomery says. The platform itself will be judged on flexibility and durability. “You want a device that’s going to be durable and last as long as you expect your trailers to last, for one. You want it to have extremely low cost of ownership and a low touch when it comes to preventive maintenance. You want it to have the flexibility to communicate as needed and not restrict you versus being one-way versus two-way, or limit you in terms of the amount of messages. But you also want the solution to have a platform associated with it so you can use it in various different scenarios.”

Consider preventive maintenance issues as just one potential challenge that could be overcome. A battery-powered device might require workers to climb onto a trailer to change the power source. If the screws are not properly retightened, water can also seep into the device. But in most cases a rugged solar-powered option would not need to be touched for the life of a trailer.

Wallin stresses that any successful rollout of a telematics system will include different phases. Fleets have to take the time to understand what they hope to achieve, and see how the information can be used to change business activities, he says. For one fleet, the main purpose might be to tackle rising insurance claims; in another operation, the primary goal might be to reduce fuel costs by refining routes or limiting idling.

“The key is for them to understand what they’re looking to get out of it,” says Wallin. “How are they looking to change their business?”

Even the software interface will vary depending on whether it will be used by the driver, dispatcher, manager or executive. Different roles require different functionality, he says. “Software that can be tailored to help with that is going to give you a really good chance for success.”

Avatar photo

With more than 25 years of experience reporting on transportation issues, Lou is one of the more recognizable personalities in the industry. An award-winning writer well known for his insightful writing and meticulous market analysis, he is a leading authority on industry trends and statistics.

Have your say

This is a moderated forum. Comments will no longer be published unless they are accompanied by a first and last name and a verifiable email address. (Today's Trucking will not publish or share the email address.) Profane language and content deemed to be libelous, racist, or threatening in nature will not be published under any circumstances.