The possibility — and limits — of remote diagnostics

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MONTREAL, QC – Manufacturers are more closely connected to individual engines than ever before. Telematics make it possible to monitor fault codes in real time, inform vehicle owners of the problems, and even identify service locations that stock the required parts. Stephane Godbout, the president of SG Consulting, just wants more.

GodboutHe understands the value of data, having worked for a fleet that adopted Detroit Technician in more than 500 trucks as early as 2012. “It was a lot of data to start out with,” Godbout recalled during the SCEF maintenance summit in Montreal. “We had to scale back because our people were swamped with data. They didn’t know what to do with it.”

Today, the problem in his mind is that many of the advances in remote diagnostics focus on the “nightmare” of emissions-related equipment alone. “That’s where I’m a bit cautious about the real impact of telematics on Preventive Maintenance,” he said.

Trucks still need new brakes and batteries, for example. And warnings are based on components that have failed rather than those that are about to fail. Maybe an alternator designed for 30,000 cycles could trigger a warning when it has just 5,000 cycles left. Oil drains that are now based on arbitrary mileage intervals could be based on the actual condition of fluid in the sump — a feature already available in selected cars.

“Why on a truck do we need to wait for a component to fail before we replace it?” Godbout asks.

“We are trying to see how we can look beyond the engine and the aftertreatment system,” said Sherise Rivera, Daimler Trucks North America’s marketing analyst – connectivity. “It’s not something we can do overnight.” There are still many options available for starters and batteries, she explained, referring to the challenge that might be addressed through more vertically integrated components.

But there are still opportunities to do more with available data, Rivera said. “We have fuel economy information, safety information, as well as uptime information and other operational information.” It can all help to reduce diagnostic time and manage faults.

“Our remote diagnostics is not the end all and be all of trucking,” admitted Steven de Sousa, regional service director for Volvo Trucks Canada. But he stresses that it still “works beautifully” for selected issues. The data is certainly helping to improve the workflows in shops. His company’s Certified Uptime Centers, for example, can now divide jobs into specific service bays, so vehicles requiring quick repairs are not left waiting behind something that will take more than four hours.

It also provides the means to identify trends, informing customers about selected repairs that need to be scheduled before a roadside breakdown, he said.

Changes on the horizon could bring further gains.

“Think about our daily lives and the way we are connected,” Rivera said, referring to systems like Amazon’s Alexa that can simply be asked to turn on lights. And the Waze app on her smartphone can identify traffic jams and calculate arrival times. Vehicle-to-vehicle information available in the near future could tell drivers about traffic events, suggest detours, and notify customers about delays, she said.

Even the way vehicle data is being delivered will change. Rather than feeding data to customers by email, Detroit Connect will soon deliver information through a portal. Volvo is preparing to launch an app in the first quarter of 2018 that will deliver information about everything from engine fault codes to excessive speeds and braking events. Both companies are introducing over-the-air updates for engine software, rather than requiring technicians to physically plug into a truck.

Godbout suggests that some additional lessons about Predictive Maintenance could be drawn from the airline industry. There are no parked regens in the sky, he told managers and executives in the crowd. “Let’s ask for telematics solutions instead of receiving what we think will do us good.”

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John G. Smith is the editorial director of Newcom Media's trucking and supply chain publications -- including Today's Trucking,, TruckTech, Transport Routier, and Road Today. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.

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