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May 14, 2019 9:30 AM, EDT

OEMs Offer Over-the-Air Software Updates as Latest Advance in Truck Maintenance

Volvo VNR remote programming Truck makers are offering over-the-air software updates and parameter changes in their latest push to reduce vehicle service time. (Volvo Trucks)

Computer and smartphone users don’t have to take their devices to their dealers for each software update. Now, the same can be said for trucks.

Truck manufacturers increasingly are enabling fleets to update truck software and programming parameters “over the air” — an innovation that is saving days of downtime.

Ken Calhoun, fleet optimization manager at Altec Service Group, said the potential benefits are “huge.”

“Obviously, our greatest desire is always to be able to keep the truck on the road doing its job, and if we can eliminate a significant portion of those service events, how is that not a win?” said Calhoun, who also is general chairman of American Trucking Associations’ Technology & Maintenance Council.

Volvo D13 engine

Remote programming for software and parameter updates is available for 2017 and newer Volvo engines. (John Sommers II for Transport Topics)

Volvo Trucks North America introduced its remote programming offering in the fourth quarter of 2018 after a soft launch with certain customers earlier in the year. The service provides software updates for powertrain components, with more updates on the way, and 250 parameter updates for speed limiters and other functions. Updates are available for both over-the-road and vocational applications.

Ashraf Makki, product marketing manager, said Volvo fleet customers are notified by an agent that a software update is available. Software updates require about 20 minutes. Parameter updates require 10 minutes, including the conversation between the agent and the driver. The truck must be parked due to safety concerns, with the battery healthy enough to ensure the service won’t be interrupted.

The challenge during testing wasn’t on the technical side, Makki said. Instead, the company had to train its agents to communicate with customers to instill confidence so they would change their long-standing procedures.

As of late April, Volvo had 783 customers using the service with a total of 18,535 trucks. Those using the service range from large national fleets to single-truck customers.

In the fourth quarter, the manufacturer will introduce a new service in which it will interact with fleets directly through their driver information displays. Decision-makers will be notified that a download is available, and they will accept and download the update without the need to speak with an agent.

Volvo offers connectivity services free of charge for two years, while customers receive two parameter updates per year. With the company’s Parameter Plus Package, customers have a subscription with 50 updates a year.

Steve Aronhalt, vice president of safety and maintenance for AAA Cooper Transportation, which operates about 2,700 trucks, said his fleet’s Volvos have had no issues with any kind of updates since the carrier started participating in beta testing in July 2017. Over-the-air updates have ensured vehicle uptime by removing the need to schedule maintenance to change a parameter.

Freightliner Cascadia

Remote software updates through Detroit Connect are available for the Freightliner Cascadia model. (Dan Ronan/Transport Topics)

Detroit Connect Remote Updates, introduced in 2018, are available exclusively for Freightliner’s new Cascadia models spec’d with Detroit engines. The company soon will perform firmware updates over the air on certain new Cascadias. Detroit is part of Daimler Trucks North America.

Jason Krajewski, DTNA’s director of connectivity, said several hundred customers have actively used at least one of its features since the launch, with use quadrupling over the past year.

In “extreme” cases, he said fleets can reduce downtime by two or three days when all lost time is considered. Other fleets have never made changes on the fly, instead doing so during other maintenance activities.

In addition, being able to update hundreds or even thousands of vehicles from a desktop in a single button push “is a very new and exciting area” for those customers, he said.

Krajewksi said parameter updates take a few minutes and require certain conditions, such as the key being on, the engine being off and the parking brake being set. Remote Updates is included with a Detroit Connect subscription, which is standard for five years on a new Freightliner Cascadia.

International A26 engine

An International A26 engine on display at an industry trade show by John Sommers II for Transport Topics.

Navistar, the manufacturer of International brand trucks, has offered OnCommand Link, an over-the-air system capable of calibrations and performance improvements, since 2016. The system requires a mobile device with a cellular connection and a mobile application.

This summer, the truck maker will begin offering a service letting fleets update programmable parameters, including speed limiters, cruise control and idle shutdowns.

These capabilities will improve performance, while also allowing fleets to audit speed limit settings to ensure drivers aren’t reprogramming their own trucks, said Andrew Dondlinger, Navistar’s vice president and general manager for connected services. The service also will help fleets reward their best drivers by enabling higher speeds.

The upcoming service will require no interaction other than a cellular connection. All communication will be conducted through the instrument panel. For the near future, it will require some level of intervention by drivers and technicians.

Dondlinger said Navistar is confident updates won’t have a negative effect on the vehicle’s operation, but fleets and drivers still have some concerns and want to be close to home or to a dealer.

“We’ve put measures in place to prevent that from happening,” he said. “But there is that anxiety, so we are accommodating that by making sure it doesn’t happen automatically.”

Cummin Connected Software updates screen

A notification for a Cummins engine software update appears on an in-cab electronic logging device. (Cummins Engines via YouTube)

Independent engine maker Cummins currently offers only software updates through its Connected Software Updates, which is available for the rest of 2019 at no charge for compatible, eligible vehicles. By the end of the year, it will offer fleets the ability to adjust engine parameters, said Anuj Shah, senior marketing communications manager for the digital accelerator division at Cummins. That capability is being tested with a couple of customers.

Current software updates can be done in five minutes, Shah said, saving customers both time and direct costs. One large fleet said maintenance shops were charging more than $100 per update per vehicle.

“That’s not including the cost of downtime,” Shah said. “That’s just the raw expense for the update.” The company has calculated the cost of a day of downtime at $1,000.

Updates can be scaled to affect one asset or many at a time, Shah said.

The product sends a notification to the fleet manager who can approve it through an online portal. Then the driver can decide when it’s installed. The fleet manager can set an automatic approval function requiring only the driver to give the final approval. The company also will provide templates to help customers achieve a certain metric.

Shah said security updates are encrypted, and a staff of cybersecurity professionals monitors all connected equipment worldwide, around the clock. Navistar’s Dondlinger said his company has added new security layers.

One concern: J1939 cameras can be exploited when a fleet is using a cellular-based system.

“The more communication paths you have to the vehicle, the more you’re going to have to invest in layers of security,” Dondlinger said.

Security always will be an important concern, said Altec’s Calhoun.

“If you previously had to be connected to a vehicle to make a change like that, and now you can do it over the air, then obviously we have to have our safeguards in place to prevent someone with malicious intent from doing something we don’t want,” he said.

Mack Over the Air

Mack’s over-the-air software updates for powertrain components are available for trucks equipped with 2017 or newer Mack engines. (Mack Trucks)

Since October 2017, Mack’s offering, Mack Over The Air, has performed nearly 2,300 updates for integrated powertrain components, said David Pardue, vice president for connected vehicles and uptime services. The service has saved more than 2,200 days of downtime.

Mack’s offering is included in the GuardDog Connect service, which is standard for two years. Additional coverage is available with extended plans or as an aftermarket subscription. Its Mack Parameter Plus bundles 50 parameter updates per year per truck.

Pardue said updates are sent while the vehicle is in operation, with the final phase scheduled with the fleet and driver through a phone call with a Mack OneCall agent who ensures the vehicle is secure and safe. Updates take an average of just more than 20 minutes, including the phone call, and Pardue said speeds are improving.

Altec’s Calhoun expects the industry to adopt over-the-air software updates quickly, but fleet managers need to be informed about the purpose of the updates and the potential for unintended consequences. If a carrier implements a fleetwide parameter update to boost fuel economy, for example, trucks in applications requiring higher performance also would be affected.

“It’s going to be important to understand what the update does, but that’s not that complicated an affair,” Calhoun said. “When you update your phone, you probably look to see what’s happening whether it’s bug fixes or performance enhancements or whatever, and I suspect you’ll see that same sort of information go along with the software updates.”

Paccar declined to comment for this story.