Trouble Codes + Telematics

Remote Diagnostics Can Improve Truck Maintenance, But Data Overload Presents Challenge, Fleets Say

This story appears in the April 17 print edition of iTECH, a supplement to Transport Topics.

Troubleshooting dysfunctional trucks from afar through the use of remote diagnostics can help carriers better manage their equipment, reduce vehicle downtime and cut maintenance costs, but sifting through all of that fault code data can be a challenge, several fleet maintenance managers said.

Remote diagnostics systems, now available from all of North America’s major truck and engine manufacturers, collect data from sensors that monitor vehicle performance. When a malfunction occurs, the system works in conjunction with telematics hardware to send a notification back to the fleet maintenance manager.

“I’m not aware of a one-size-fits-all solution yet,” said Kirk Altrichter, vice president of fleet maintenance services for Kenan Advantage Group, a tank truck carrier that operates a mixed fleet of about 7,000 tractors. Altrichter added that he was continuing to evaluate at least three remote diagnostics systems.

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“Part of the struggle” with any of these systems is “how you filter down to things that you want to see,” Altrichter said.

During a test last year, the company received about 700 or 800 fault codes per day, with 80% of them coming from trucks that already were in the shop.

“It’s a matter of filtering things out and under­standing what you want to look at and when you need to take action,” Altrichter said. “I think it would be nice to have a clear understanding of what’s coming across and not trying to interpret.”

At times, one truck may send three or four fault codes at the same time.

“What is it telling you?” Altrichter asked. “One code alone may say one thing, but three or four together may be pointing out something else entirely.”

Kenan Advantage Group, which is based in North Canton, Ohio, ranks No. 21 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest for-hire carriers in the United States and Canada.

Jeff Johnson, director of maintenance for Halls Fast Motor Freight, also has experience with remote diagnostics.

Some of the tractors in the company’s 75-truck fleet are Freightliners outfitted with Virtual Technician, Detroit’s factory-installed remote diagnostics system that was co-developed by Zonar Systems.

“If there’s a fault code on that tractor, the maintenance manager … is going to know about it right away,” Johnson said.

Halls Fast Motor Freight is part of Hall’s Warehouse Corp., a logistics services company based in South Plainfield, New Jersey, that operates day cabs from Maine to Virginia. The trucks are back every day, but even so, the e-mail alerts that the remote diagnostics system issues are often needed, Johnson said.

“I hate to say it, but this happens: The engine light comes on. The driver comes back. He doesn’t want to lose his truck. So he sometimes doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t realize how serious it is.”

The remote diagnostics system ensures notification, Johnson said, “so you don’t have to count on the driver.”

Though he could not cite a concrete measure of savings from the use of the remote diagnostics system, Johnson said “it definitely helps” the fleet avoid breakdowns and road calls.

Some original equipment manufacturers offer use of remote diagnostics on new tractors for a specified time, such as the warranty period, after which there is an option to continue using it for a monthly fee. Some maintenance managers said they opted not to pay for continued use, choosing instead to rely on drivers to alert them if the “check engine” symbol lit up on the dashboard.

“We let a check engine light come on and let the driver contact us,” said Dan Borchers, service manager at Pohl Transportation, a 130-tractor fleet based in Versailles, Ohio. “At that point, we can [use telematics to] pull the codes.”

That approach was echoed by Dave Oliver, a regional maintenance manager in charge of about 40 trucks based at a Sioux Falls, South Dakota, facility operated by agricultural cooperative CHS Inc.

About a half-dozen new trucks had come with remote diagnostics for a limited period, but since the service expired, Oliver has been relying on drivers to call in if the check engine symbol lights up.

Speaking further of his experiences with remote diagnostics, Oliver said, “Sometimes the codes are pretty broad. It could be a sensor or it could be a wiring problem. It doesn’t pinpoint the exact fix necessary; it kind of points you in the general direction.”

He added: “It’s nice to know what the problem is and maybe how far the truck is going to go before it shuts down, but the bottom line is the truck needs to go to a shop either way.”

RSD Transportation, a 200-tractor fleet based in White River Junction, Vermont, purchased about 10 trucks with remote diagnostics about a year ago, said Mark Killmer, the fleet’s service manager.

“In some aspects, it is helpful because you know right off if there’s something going on with the truck,” he said, “and you can get it in a little quicker than if you waited for a driver to tell you or for something to happen.”

However, Killmer said the nature of RSD’s operations is such that those advantages weren’t needed.

“We pretty much see the trucks all the time, so we didn’t really think there was a reason to [pay for] it,” he said.

Original equipment manufacturers said they are enhancing the remote diagnostics systems they offer.

Greg Treinen, marketing manager for connectivity at Daimler Trucks North America, said a new interface — the Detroit Connect portal — soon will be available for users of Virtual Technician, the remote diagnostics system that Freightliner markets for use with Detroit engines.

Treinen said portal users will have “visibility to fault code notifications and fault severity, plus full fault diagnostic information and recommendations for repair, fault event history for each VIN and fault event trends.”

Rather than relying on the e-mail notifications that Virtual Technician used to deliver, fleet maintenance managers using the portal will find information at their fingertips to help them maximize vehicle uptime.

The current Virtual Technician platform installed on Freightliner and Western Star trucks is based on Zonar’s V3 telematics platform. A mixed fleet that also operates trucks made by other OEMs can utilize the Zonar V3 platform on those vehicles and have access to basic fault information pulled from each vehicle through Zonar’s Ground Traffic Control web-based fleet management application, Treinen said.

“If a fleet has a mix of OEM trucks, generally they can utilize a non-OEM telematics service provider, or another back-end system interface,” he said.

Unlike its competitors, Navistar Inc. markets its remote diagnostics system, OnCommand Connection, as an “open architecture” platform that transmits fault codes not only for its own International models, but for all truck makes.

It enables carriers to use “one common portal to access and manage data from all their vehicles, fleetwide,” said Andrew Dondlinger, Navistar’s vice president and general manager for connected services.

Dondlinger said an industry standard for diagnostic trouble codes being communicated on the J1939 network, in effect since 2010, enables OnCommand Connection to receive consistent information regarding those trouble codes regardless of the vehicle make.

He pointed out, however, that there may be a difference between the detailed fault code action plans provided by each company in response to those common trouble codes.

OnCommand Connection requires fleets to purchase a third-party telematics system supplied by vendors such as Omnitracs, PeopleNet and Zonar.

Kenworth Truck Co.’s remote diagnostics system, TruckTech+, describes an issue based on fault codes, the company said. Notifications via e-mail advise an appropriate course of action, including whether to keep driving, take no action, have the fault addressed at the next service, go to a dealer or pull over to prevent damage.

Both the Kenworth system and Peterbilt’s SmartLinq use pre-installed hardware developed with telematics provider PeopleNet on engines manufactured by Paccar Inc., the parent company of Kenworth and Peterbilt.

The pre-installed modem is standard on all new Class 8 Kenworth trucks with Paccar MX engines.

Beyond OEM-provided systems, Cummins Inc. offers remote diagnostics for its engines.

For its Connected Diagnostics system, Cummins last year added a mobile diagnostics app for use on Apple and Android devices. The system provides customers with a prioritized list of service needs for a truck, Cummins spokeswoman Molly Yedinak said.

“We are able to provide information on the estimated time to failure for each issue,” such as when a truck is in need of a diesel particulate filter regeneration before it experiences a de-rate or failure, she said.

The fleet manager receives an alert with information on when the DPF must be serviced, whether that is seven days, three days or a number of hours, Yedinak said.

Decisiv Inc. partners with OEMs that offer remote diagnostics offerings, including Volvo Trucks North America and Mack Trucks.

Decisiv provides service relationship management software designed to help fleet maintenance managers track and manage repairs from breakdown centers and truck dealers. Fleet maintenance managers can use the system to determine the service status of a truck and approve estimates, Decisiv Vice President Michael Riemer said. The company recently introduced a mobile app for Android and Apple smartphones for use with Mack Trucks’ remote diagnostics system, GuardDog Connect.

Among aftermarket offerings, Noregon Systems, provider of JPRO, a truck diagnostics system for use in maintenance shops, has started marketing TripVision, a “fault guidance service” designed for all makes and models, said David Huan, director of custom solutions sales.

That service covers Classes 6-8 vehicles dating to model year 2000 and integrates with Trimble, Omnitracs and GeoTab telematics, Huan said.

One feature of the service is that it identifies and highlights fault codes that affect fuel economy. Though such faults would be unlikely to prevent a truck getting from point A to point B, they would inform a maintenance manager that the trip was costing more in fuel, Huan said. Meanwhile, certain codes related to tail lights and anti-lock braking, for example, could help a maintenance manager protect the fleet’s vehicle maintenance score under the federal Compliance, Safety, Accountability program.

Truck dealer network Rush Enterprises Inc. started using the TripVision service in December.

“We have JPRO diagnostics software at most Rush Truck Centers,” said Brian Mulshine, director of operations technology and innovation. “When a truck indicates a concern in TripVision and a customer brings the truck in for service, we have the Noregon JPRO solution to accurately diagnose and assess the vehicle fault.” ³