March 18, 2016 4:00 PM, EDT

The ‘Internet of Things’ Takes Hold in Trucking

This story appears in the March 14 print edition of iTECH, a supplement to Transport Topics.

It wasn’t long ago that the Internet was used mainly for sending e-mail, browsing news sites or making purchases, generally from a desktop computer. But that is changing rapidly due to one of the defining technology trends of our time — the proliferation of devices and objects connected to networks to gather and transmit data.

This movement, usually described as the “Internet of Things,” has opened new ways for people and businesses to communicate and transmit information. And the transportation sector is certainly no exception.

Seth Clevenger

Perhaps the most obvious example of IoT is the ubiquity of smartphones and tablets, but we also see it in the growing number of everyday appliances that now can become connected devices. Examples include refrigerators that keep track of their contents and programmable home thermostats that users can control remotely.

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Vehicles are increasingly connected to networks as well, including heavy-duty trucks.

All of North America’s major truck manufacturers now are offering their own remote diagnostics systems, which can report engine fault codes back to fleet managers and dealerships while a vehicle is on the road.

Armed with that information, fleets can proactively address maintenance and repair issues to minimize downtime. The data also can be sent to dealerships so they know about a problem before the truck arrives, thus reducing the amount of time the vehicle sits in a service bay.

This field will only expand in the years ahead. Tomorrow’s trucks will provide remote diagnostics that incorporate additional information from more components, giving fleets an even more detailed view of their vehicles.

However, remote diagnostics is only one aspect of trucking’s broader move toward greater connectivity.

For many years, onboard telematics systems have been providing fleets with information such as a vehicle’s location, engine data, driver performance and miles per gallon.

The newer generation of telematics platforms has been designed to tap into the IoT by acting as communications hubs for the growing number of devices in and around the truck, including smartphones and tablets, wearable technology and onboard cameras.

And the expansion of this technology is not limited to trucks.

One story this month examines the growth of trailer monitoring. While many fleets have been using technology to track the location of their trailers for years, a growing number are incorporating additional onboard sensors to obtain more information.

Technology vendors are offering sensors that can tell fleets when a trailer is loaded or empty, when its door opens, the temperature of the cargo inside, when individual pallets move and more.

The IoT trend also factors into another story, which delves into cab cameras and other technologies designed to prevent distracted and fatigued driving. These systems can send video of critical driving events back to the home office so fleet managers can coach their drivers and address safety risks.

Meanwhile, the expansion of onboard sensors and improved active safety technologies is aiding in the development of autonomous driving capabilities and vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications.

Given these advances, it’s easy to forget that trucking once operated without any tracking or onboard communications tools. Back then, carriers were flying blind compared with many of today’s fleet operations, which have a vast sea of information at their disposal.

In fact, much of the challenge today has shifted from data collection to data analysis.

The explosion of connected devices has made “big data” into even “bigger data,” making it tougher for trucking companies to interpret all the information captured and view it in a way that can support better business decisions.

In response, expect technology vendors to introduce increasingly sophisticated analysis software that can parse through the data and deliver the right information to the right person at the right time in the way they want it.

That kind of prioritization and analysis will be crucial in a world where your truck can tell you when it needs service and your refrigerator can tell you when you’re running out of bread or milk.

Seth Clevenger, technology editor, can be reached at 703-838-1795 or Follow him on Twitter @SethClevenger.