June 21, 2010 3:15 AM, EDT

Advanced Electronics Improve Fuel Economy, Allow for Better Control, More Driver Features

By Jim Galligan, Staff Writer

This story appears in the June 21 print edition of Transport Topics.

Medium-duty engines over the past decade have gotten a lot smarter, thanks to the advanced electronics developed first in heavy-duty engines.

Since the early 1990s, commercial truck owners have been driven to balance the need for fuel economy with increasingly stringent fuel-eating emissions controls.

Electronically controlled engines were first introduced to improve fuel economy, said Kevin Otto, director of service for Cummins Emissions Solutions, Columbus, Ind.

Earlier trucks were geared to run fast when needed, Otto noted, but at the expense of fuel economy, so the engine makers began using electronics to slow down the spinning speed of the crankshaft to about 1,500 rpm from highs of 1,900 or 2,100 rpm. The parasitic drains on the powertrain are lower at that point and result in better fuel economy, Otto said.

“Electronics allowed [the industry] to do two things; better control fueling and timing events, and . . . introduce road speed control and creature features, such as cruise control,” Otto told Transport Topics.

The advancing emissions standards in the 1990s required ever more sophisticated engine management features. Otto noted that a 1991 Cummins heavy-duty engine had six sensors and seven electronically controlled actuators, including fuel injectors. A 2010 ISX engine has 28 sensors and 15 actuators to monitor and control engine functions and emissions.

By 1994, almost all Class 8 trucks were electronically controlled. Fully electronic medium-duty engines didn’t arrive until 1998.

Engine makers focused on heavy-duty first because that’s where the demand was.

“They [the Class 8s] needed it the worst,” Otto said.

Because of all the advanced electronics, a heavy-duty engine can collect an extensive number of measurable data.

Electronically controlled midrange engines today lag heavy-duty engines in the amount of operational data they monitor. A Cummins ISX, for example, can provide reports on 44 operational activities, but the number of reports available from the midrange ISB or ICS is less than half that number.

But most medium-duty engines still provide users with enough operational measurements — such as fuel use, idling times, power-take-off use, speeding and hard-braking incidents — to help a fleet control costs.

Are medium-duty fleets using all these operational data?

“[It] tends to be an overwhelming ‘yes’ from leasing fleets who are running trucks because it’s their business,” said Paul Menig, chief engineer of mechatronics with Daimler Trucks North America, Portland, Ore. “It’s a ‘sometimes’ from those companies with a large number of trucks, and it’s almost ‘never’ from people whose job it is to deliver furniture or other things.”

Private companies such as that last group focus on the business of running the business, and the truck side of the operation is often down the list of priorities, Menig said.

Penske Truck Rental’s midrange customers generally look just at average fuel economy and idling time, said Mike Hasinec, vice president of maintenance support. The Reading, Pa., company’s heavy-duty customers, on the other hand, ask for much more detailed operational information.

“Heavy-duty folks can give you the number of hard-braking incidents, or the manager can identify someone who accelerates really hard . . . [or] how much fuel was consumed for the regeneration process,” Hasinec said. “Until the last few years, most medium duty operators looked just at fuel efficiency.”

That attitude of medium-duty users may have changed with rising fuel prices and the introduction of the diesel emissions regulations and their accompanying price increases in 2004, 2007 and 2010, Hasinec said.

“Now that diesel has gone up to where it has, and [considering] ’07 and 2010 with their price increases, medium-duty truck operators are becoming a little more savvy,” he said.

There also may be a learning curve, said Randall Ray, manager of engine sales and marketing with Navistar International Corp., Warrenville, Ill.

“The [heavy-duty] guys have had time to grow up with data and discern what is important and what isn’t. [Medium-duty operators] are going to have to learn, as the heavy-duty guys did, what they need. They’re going to have to really learn how to separate the wheat from the chaff,” Ray said.

The opportunities to improve operating costs are there for medium-duty users, Hasinec said, but it will mean taking action.

“Medium-duty operators are going to have to get little bit tighter control over drivers to drive efficiencies into their business. They don’t consume the same amount of fuel as [a heavy duty operator], but there are still opportunities to push efficiencies down to the bottom line,” Hasinec said.

Accessing the operational data stored on medium-duty engines is more difficult than it is for heavy-duty fleets, executives said, partly because the heavy-duty truckers forced the engine and truck suppliers to standardize the data links and protocols needed to collect and transfer the onboard information. It was important for the trucking companies to have the onboard components and systems communicate with each other, regardless of manufacturer.

There is less standardization among light- and medium-duty engine suppliers because there are more of them, suppliers come from different markets and there are different size vehicles, said Chris Metro, engineer with software and telematics provider Xata Corp., Eden Prairie, Minn.

Light-duty vehicle components are more unified; the components and systems are built to the manufacturer’s electronic specifications, Metro added. Even if, or when, they standardize on the communication protocols, the manner in which the components produce the data may be different.

The result is a handful of protocols, such as older protocols used by the Detroit Three and international protocols used by the Japanese suppliers.

“The medium-duty [protocols] fall anywhere in between, depending on the engine,” Metro said.

The variety of communication protocols adds cost and complexity to the process of accessing the data, making it impractical for smaller operations or those with many vehicle brands in the fleet, Hasinec said.

“Unless [medium-duty truck users] spend a lot of money on diagnostic tools, access is not that easy,” he said. “They have to take it to the engine distributor or dealer to get the information or spend money on telematics solutions. Even that’s selective; OEMs are proprietary about what they share.”

All OEMs provide some operational data through the onboard driver information displays. The depth of the data displayed differs among manufacturers, but the need to provide truck users with information about the new emissions systems is driving the introduction of more comprehensive dashboard displays.

Cummins users can access engine use information and operational reports via Powerspec, a free Windows-based downloadable program. The base program provides users with read-only access to the data, but users also may apply for a license to configure their own requirements, said Louis Wenzler, director of on-highway marketing communications for Cummins.

The data are downloaded from the truck’s j1939 link either at a Cummins distributor or in-house with a datalink cable and adapter kit, which costs between $400 and $500, Wenzler said.

Navistar’s Aware telematics system similarly monitors and tracks basic trip information such as total engine hours, idling time, total fuel consumed, as well as any other signal on the vehicle, such as a passenger door is open or a lift gate is down.

The data are downloadable via the company’s ServiceMaxx program to an Excel spreadsheet. The system cost is “competitive,” said a company spokesman.

Ford Motor Co.’s program, Crew Chief, part of the onboard Work Truck Solutions, is available in its light commercial vehicles, including the Super Duty pickup trucks, E-Series and Transit Connect vans.

The program also provides reports on numerous engine systems and vehicle components, such as speeding, the number of hard-braking incidents or the number of times the diesel particulate filter was regenerated, as well as seat belt or unauthorized vehicle use, said William Frykman, product and business development manager for Ford Work Solutions at Ford Motor Co., Dearborn, Mich.

The system monitors and collects more data than is offered, but the data sets can be turned off or on depending on a customer’s needs, Frykman said.

Crew Chief costs $425 and $20 a month for service per vehicle.

Aftermarket telematics systems, with their use of the Global Positioning System, provide the delivery channel for the engine data, but the type of data varies among midrange engine makers and that variation may affect the type of information the suppliers can provide.

“Some OEMs provide a fair amount of data, [such as] trip miles, idle times, and some real basic information,” Hasinec said. “Some other medium-duty engines provide just a little; just miles to date and gallons to date.”

“The biggest problem is that some manufacturers only make available what the government tells them they have to,” said Xata’s Metro. “That makes it hard for us to provide more.”

Craig Whitney, vice president of marketing for telematics provider Networkfleet, San Diego, said that despite the proprietary information, the data still can be used.

“Each different manufacturer has a whole bunch of proprietary information they don’t want you to know,” Whitney said, “but that doesn’t change the fact that, by plugging in, you can get speed, fuel . . . you can get all the data fleets need to manage their fleet.” 

The challenge several fleet managers said they faced was finding the return on the investment in a telematics system, especially if their information needs are relatively simple.

Don Scare, national fleet and transportation safety manager for Apria Healthcare Group Inc., Lake Forest, Calif., said Apria has been looking at having a system that monitors the engine and truck driver’s performance, but the firm has not been able to justify the cost for the system it wants.

“We’d like to look at speeding, long idle periods, harsh braking; those applications where you can pick up that data in relation to driving habits,” Scare said.

The Apria fleet of about 1,500 trucks is spread out among locations throughout the United States.

Scare said the company also is looking to get electronic driver logs and have it all as part of one system.

“It’s costly, and we’ve got to make that commitment, but we’ve got to justify the [return on investment] to proceed,” he said.

In Florida, about a third of Polk County’s 1,600 on-road vehicles are equipped with a Networkfleet telematics system. Bob Stanton, fleet management director in Bartow, Fla., said the system reports idling time, speed, fuel use, fault codes, odd-hours operation as well as the standard location data common to GPS devices. Stanton said he focuses on idling times, speed and fuel use because they are pertinent to county programs.

Stanton said other county departments are asking for the system, but he does not see how the county can justify the cost — about $100,000 a year in total.

“We’ve had a significant reduction in fuel use, but there’s no way to attribute all or a portion of our fuel savings to the use of GPS.”

Andrew Sutherland, CEO of International Telematics Corp., New York, which provides the “ibright” telematics system for Mitsubishi Fuso, said that, although it is more difficult for medium-duty truck users to “see” the operational data, the value has grown in importance as fleet costs have increased.

“In urban delivery, things like driver performance have greater proportional impact,” Sutherland said. “The performance of an engine, the way it’s being driven, has a much greater impact because much of it is concentrated driving. The starting, stopping, turning and the wear on the tires have much greater impact.”

The number of onboard electronic control modules and the systems and components they monitor will continue to grow.

Leighton Good, manager of product and applications with Mitsubishi Fuso Truck of America Inc., Logan Township, N.J., said he expected telematic systems to become more pervasive in the midrange market,

“Ready-to-go telematics systems for certain customers, starting with fleets, will be required to be part of the bidding process,” he said. “Even individual owners will opt for them, once you can show that . . . the initial cost and monthly maintenance costs are recovered quickly.”

“There will be much more real-time monitoring of the vehicle,” said Navistar’s Ray, as the onboard diagnostics system, OBD-II, spreads to all commercial vehicles by 2014.

It is more likely that telematics systems will become more sophisticated and offer more data for fleet managers than it is that system costs will drop, said ITC’s Sutherland.

But, in the end, he said, that will make it easier for a fleet to realize and justify the systems.