Do you know where your company's vehicles are?

Quick: Can your company track where its trucks or sales cars are at the moment? Do you know how much gas they're using, which ones may need new brakes, and how their drivers are performing on the road?

If you think these are questions for your fleet maintenance department, think again. Until recently, rolling assets were the only part of the enterprise not connected to the network. Now, proprietary and public wireless technology is being used to track asset management, fuel consumption, logistics, security and safety, and service and maintenance.

And of course, as companies begin to consider in-vehicle digital technology or "telematics" solutions, IT will be called in to help determine which proprietary solution, industry standard, or public wireless network is best-suited to the enterprise architecture.

Unlike some technologies in which benefits are hard to measure in dollars and cents, the ROI from integrating a telematics infrastructure with applications into the enterprise is far easier to determine. The value of diagnostic software capable of alerting a fleet manager to transmission problems before they happen can be measured in revenue gained from a completed delivery versus a package sitting in a disabled truck by the side of the road.

Telematics will also have a direct impact on back-end systems. Vehicle location will be tied to transportation, route management, and package tracking systems. Monitoring of driver behavior will be routed to the HR department for employee performance and training, while asset management numbers will be routed into accounting systems.

Road tested

Today's telematic technology can be retrofitted for most vehicles. Costs vary, but the price for outfitting a truck starts at about US$2,000, with ongoing costs of about $100 per month for the use of satellite communications. Two major suppliers of telematics infrastructure for commercial vehicles are IBM and Qualcomm.

In-vehicle telematics for commercial use include two classes of applications. Driver-productivity applications track information such as vehicle location, crashes, door-lock status, and vehicle speed. Diagnostic data, which is gathered from electronic control units in the vehicle, include information about tire tread-wear, fuel usage, and braking systems.

In 1988, when Qualcomm, one of the first telematics companies, began to deploy its OmniTRACS telematics solutions, there was no industry standard for in-vehicle wireless communications so the company used proprietary devices to develop its solutions. Although Qualcomm uses industry-standard components such as global positioning for some solutions, it still offers its own satellite communications system, which is used by a number of the country's largest carriers.

The OmniTRACS system is designed for communication between the vehicle and headquarters. A 37-pin serial cable connects the engine control module to the onboard computer on the truck. From that connection, the system receives reports on potential problems with the engine. JTRACS is an application that gives early warnings about overheating, brake wear, fuel consumption, and low oil pressure, for example, which is then transmitted back to the carrier.

The interactions between the driver and the equipment are also tracked and measured with SensorTRACS. This application tells a fleet manager how long the truck engine is idling, the vehicle speed and whether the engine is over-revving, among other data points.

The information is fed back to fleet management optimization applications by satellite using the Ku band, the same satellite system and frequency used by CNN to transmit its video channel. Qualcomm leases part of the band from CNN.

Ku band may be proprietary, but it is far more secure, performs better, and is more reliable than the public network, according to Glynn Spangenberg, vice president and general manager of Qualcomm Wireless Business Solutions. "It's a fully redundant system transmitting at 500,000Kbps, so if one satellite is out of operation it automatically switches over to another," Spangenberg says.

Tracking the data

Although Qualcomm offers a complete hardware and software solution, the missing link between programs such as JTRACS and SensorTRACS is the middleware that connects pertinent vehicle data back to legacy systems. Traditional EAI vendors including BEA Systems and middleware vendors including IBM fill in the missing pieces.

IBM's reputation sometimes overcomes any technology shortcomings in its product lineup, according to one third-party supplier of commercial fleet telematics. Jim Zaleski, president of Vetronix, was using BEA's WebLogic to integrate telematics data to the back end. "IBM came to us about two years ago and showed us what they had. Frankly, it was weak but we saw their product plans," Zaleski says.

Vetronix switched to WebSphere and according to Zaleski, IBM lived up to its part of the bargain by delivering on its promises. Like Qualcomm, Vetronix supplies a telematics control unit that connects to the vehicle's electronics, and has its own actuators on devices to monitor additional vehicle data, such as cargo door locks. Vetronix software turns the diagnostic data into reports a manager can understand, but it's IBM WebSphere that takes that information to the next level by plugging those reports into legacy systems.

With WebSphere, Big Blue provides the infrastructure needed by most third party suppliers to deliver the productivity and diagnostic data to applications on the back end. WebSphere includes an application server for connectivity to content, and a portal server for personalization and systems management. WebSphere Everyplace Server is used for device connectivity, and Connection Manager for the connectivity to back-end data sources and for linking the mobile device to the back end.

Early warning system

Connecting to legacy systems is important, but the real value of onboard telematics may be in its ability to predict trouble. "We can read all of the sensor signals on the vehicle, about 275 parameters, and add algorithms to correlate and prognosticate what might happen," Zaleski says. The ability to "prognosticate" goes straight to the bottom line.

If a manager of a parcel delivery depot, for example, has 150 vehicles pulling in at 5 o'clock, the manager may have no idea whether any of those vehicles has mechanical problems that need attention. Drivers may not report problems. Therefore, the service and maintenance managers have to determine whether there is a problem and if so, get parts to make repairs. With real-time monitoring, the manager will know which vehicles have potential problems, and can then have the parts pre-shipped to schedule maintenance. This gives the manager much more control.

A less costly alternative

Translating engine fault codes into useful data still takes proprietary and costly hardware, as evidenced by Qualcomm's black box, and software JTRACS and SensorTRACS. However, other industry players, such as Xora, focus on simpler solutions, like vehicle tracking, using GPS (Global Positioning System) and the less-expensive cellular network.

Xora's GPS TimeTrack uses cell phones on drivers' belts to keep tabs on both the employee and equipment. The cost of such a cellular network could be as little as $50 per month.

Kristy Collins, one of the managers for Kinney Construction, uses Xora to track equipment. If she ever wanted to, she could also track employee whereabouts using what the industry calls "geofencing." With geofencing, a manager can set up a perimeter that will trigger an alert if the employee goes beyond its boundaries.

Collins acknowledges the benefits of geofencing, but she hasn't deployed it. "If one of my guys takes off for an hour, I might never know. But geofencing offers valuable information if I have an issue with a particular employee," she says.

Still, Collins is reluctant to deploy that component of Xora software, fearing a false reading might be more trouble than it's worth.

Turning raw data into useful information

There are still major challenges ahead for the telematics industry, according to Thilo Koslowski, vice president and lead automotive analyst at Gartner. That's because most applications used by fleet managers today were designed before wireless data was available. "Even though you can track down the location of a vehicle or get the diagnostic data, we haven't seen good software to leverage that data and turn it into an advantage," Koslowski says.

That means telematics will require the enterprise to develop new business processes to handle additional information. And with every piece of mobile equipment wired into the network, the enterprise will have to build fleet management programs to incorporate the new data available to see where the payoff is.

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