The power of telematics is not limited to mega fleets

The power of telematics puts vehicle data at a front office’s fingertips. And the benefits are not limited to mega fleets.

Trucks produce an enormous amount of data every day. An exact number would be difficult to determine, but the data files themselves are tiny, on the order of a couple of dozen bytes per file. We have heard it said that a typical truck can produce up to 4 gigabytes of data in a day. That’s 4 billion bytes.

Telematics and mobile communications systems transmit all sorts of data such as vehicle location, of course, but there’s also engine performance data, tire pressure and temperature sensors, cargo-related sensors (temperature readings, door open/shut, etc.), cruise control and collision avoidance data, and trailer locations. The list goes on, and naturally includes electronic logging device (ELD) data.

Transport management systems (TMS) sort all that data and offer it up in a fashion that’s readable and useable by its human masters.

As we lurch into the ELD age, the sort of transparency offered by TMS is no longer an optional luxury. Mistakes and poor planning can no longer be made to disappear by adjusting paper log sheets.

“Having access to all that information has helped us immensely,” says Andrew Page, a logistics specialist at Turk Enterprises of St. Andrews, Manitoba. “No longer do we run into the 8 p.m. phone calls from drivers saying they are out of hours. We can now see that coming much earlier in the day or even the day before, so we can plan deliveries much more effectively.

“And all this new information has also helped us educate our customer base,” Page adds. “Some of them were budgeting for 1,100-1,200 kilometers a day, but with ELDs the best we can budget for is about 1,000, on a clear sunny day when nothing goes wrong. We show them the trip reports and they get it.”

Overwhelming and comprehensive data

The beauty – and challenge — of TMS is that it can be overwhelmingly comprehensive. The software can do so much, it can be difficult deciding what you want it to do for you. There’s the basic ELD functionality, tracking and location data, as well as maintenance and vehicle condition reports, electronic vehicle inspection reports, and so much more. All the data can also be routed to a specific part of the company: the shop, accounting, safety and compliance, for example. It would take the better part of this page to list all the possible functionality, and the options you might choose really depend on the operation.

Trimble, for example, offers four separate TMS platforms and many different versions of its TMS tailored for different types of carriers, whether LTL or truckload, fuel haulers, highway or local, refrigerated, private or for-hire. Each one has functionality geared to the application.

“No TMS that will do 100% of everything that every customer could ever hope for,” says Jay Delaney, senior director of product management for Trimble Transportation. “There’s just too much variability for one provider to do it all. That’s why integration with third-party systems and vendors is critical. Trimble has over 400 vendors that we can integrate with and that number seems to be growing every day.”

As well as integrating with the on-board telematics and ELD systems, TMS can also be extended to the customer to aid with ordering, tracking and billing.

“Historically, EDI (electronic data interchange) has been the standard by which our customers talk to their customers,” Delaney says. “It’s a longstanding, well-known and very stable form of integration, but it costs money. However, some new technologies have come out in recent years to help reduce that cost and we are now supporting many of those today.”

Not just for big fleets

Fleet management software on such a scale is no longer the exclusive domain of the mega-carrier. If you’re shopping, you’ll soon realize that some platforms are easily scaled to larger or smaller fleets, but most offerings can fit into almost any operation. Not surprisingly, fleets with more on-road activity might see a faster return on investment, but fleets with a couple of dozen trucks will see the benefits, too.

“We see companies starting to take advantage of the TMS capability at around 25-30 tractors,” says Mark Cubine, vice-president of marketing and enterprise systems at McLeod Software. “That seems to be the point at which they have enough back-office staff time to gain some real benefits from all this stuff. That’s about that point where the benefits to management by exception start to kick in.

“Fleets of that size are usually in a better position to be able to adjust to the operating conditions, re-powering loads, or reassigning drivers, etc., all stuff TMS can help with. For the five-to-10-truck fleet, they are probably too small to take advantage of it,” Cubine adds. “If all their trucks are out on loads, they may not have anything else to re-power a late load with. It’s just going to be late.”

That’s not to say smaller fleets can’t take advantage of all the convenience TMS offers. In fact, in a one- or two-person operation, administration and monitoring functions can suck up a lot time. And there’s certainly the possibility of the operation growing into the software.

The TMS learning curve

Turk Enterprises, with 75 trucks, started with a basic TMS and is still growing into it. It does not use the payroll functionality, for example, because there’s so much variability in how drivers are paid. But it’s beginning to use some of the maintenance functions and is now beginning to implement electronic driver vehicle inspection reports.

“I haven’t enough experience with e-DVIRs yet, but I can already see where the efficiency is,” notes Page. “Different parts of our operation are adopting at different speeds.”

The TMS learning curve can be daunting, Page warns. “Because the admin work — processing [proof of deliveries], invoicing, that sort of thing — can be automated more easily, the back-office staff can adjust to it more easily than somebody in a front-line position who is taking calls from drivers and customers all day long. They just don’t have as much time to sit with it and learn it.”

The TMS vendors are supportive in helping you get up and running and working confidently with their systems, but that should be a consideration when planning a purchase. Support will be critical, especially when it comes to integrating data from systems you may already have up and running. Take possible compatibility issues into account when choosing a supplier.

Regardless of the hoops you have to jump through to make it work, TMS will start to pay dividends quite quickly, maybe as soon as the first late delivery is avoided.

With data from the ELD, the operations department knows when the truck arrives and leaves the customer. Detention charges and excessive dwell times can be tracked by customer and location.

Telematics makes it happen

Telematics is both a mechanism and a medium for gathering data from around the truck and beaming it back to the fleet or  OEM.

In addition to vehicle data, other devices connected to the vehicle’s CAN bus may be integrated with the telematics network. These include safety technologies like vehicle stability and collision mitigation systems, devices that detect hard braking, accelerating and cornering, as well as on-board cameras. Once integrated, such pieces of output data can be transmitted over cellular networks or satellite connections for review or monitoring, or for distribution throughout the fleet’s in-house transportation management system (TMS).

The telematics ecosystem onboard the vehicle is a management system unto itself. It need not be affiliated or related to the TMS software the fleet uses, but the two platforms must at least be capable of integrating.

The adoption of telematics was slow at first, but the U.S. ELD mandate — which required live two-way communication between the vehicle and the terminal — basically kicked open a telematics gateway in every truck that required an ELD. The number of applications available for on-board use exploded and continues to grow exponentially, with everything from on-board cameras to applications that monitor driver behavior, fuel economy, tire pressure, and much more.

Now that the gateway exists, fleets are using the data to improve driver retention and equipment utilization, optimize routes and available driver hours, improve safety and compliance, and reduce vehicle downtime.

“The TMS needs to be integrated with the telematics, but the actual level of integration with the telematics can vary,” says Jean-Sebastien Bouchard, Isaac Instrument’s vice-president of marketing. “At the very least you should integrate everything that has to do with the operations and dispatch — the full circle of service — and automate as many of those functions as possible. For example, alerts when the driver arrives and leaves a customer, any on-route delays, mechanical problems, and that sort of thing.”

There is practically no limit to the different applications for fleet telematics solutions. As the world becomes more connected new uses for location-based information are being developed constantly, especially when it comes to vehicle-based businesses. Essentially, telematics has made the truck a mobile extension of the in-house TMS.



Jim Park was a CDL driver and owner-operator from 1978 until 1998, when he began his second career as a trucking journalist. During that career transition, he hosted an overnight radio show on a Hamilton, Ontario radio station and later went on to anchor the trucking news in SiriusXM's Road Dog Trucking channel. Jim is a regular contributor to Today's Trucking and, and produces Focus On and On the Spot test drive videos.

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