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Telematics and Tires: Satellite and Chip Technologies Will Launch a Brave New World

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What exactly does the term "telematics" mean?

The term has been well used in recent years by commercial vehicle engineers and logistics planners in developing different truck components, data recording and retrieval systems, communications systems and other projects. And it is popping up more and more on the consumer vehicle side, with such services as OnStar.

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The Greek word "tele" means "far or distant," while the term "matic" – although it doesn’t appear in most dictionaries ®€“ is generally interpreted to mean "works or performs." So the derived definition of "works over a distance" seems both logical and descriptive. It also fits most of the current usage on both the commercial truck and consumer vehicle sides.

Today’s telematics concept involves the sending and/or receiving of data, information, or at least signals, over distances greater than traditional hard-wired or mechanical hookups have allowed.

In other words, satellite technology.

Filling A Need

This all got started about two decades ago when truck diesel engine manufacturers found themselves in a technology squeeze. Faced with somewhat opposing demands – customers wanted improved performance, including better fuel economy, and federal regulators mandated lower emissions ®€“ engine makers needed to move past pistons and valves and into the computer age.

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Mechanically controlled fuel injection systems were replaced by new electronic control systems that sensed critical variables such as ambient and engine coolant temperatures, turbocharger boost pressure, throttle position, etc. Quickly following were fuel injectors that could be electronically controlled to provide precise fuel quantities and injection timing.

Once these control systems were developed, it became possible to program engines for specific duty simply by making changes in the electronic control module settings. Preset limits could be programmed to force the engine into a reduced power or shutdown mode if critical thresholds were crossed, such as low coolant levels or loss of oil pressure.

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It also became possible to troubleshoot many engine malfunctions by using these on-board electronics to display fault codes or "talk" to diagnostic shop tools, making the engines, in a sense, self-diagnosing.

Early on, truck users, especially large fleets, were very vocal in insisting that engine manufacturers standardize communications and hardware hookups used to troubleshoot maintenance problems – at least to ensure that common tools could be used in servicing multiple truck and engine brands.

Through efforts of the Technology and Maintenance Council, truck operators have benefited from the advancing technology produced by competitive products, while still maintaining consistency among servicing tool hardware vendors.

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If this path sounds familiar to those who have watched passenger vehicles evolve over the last 30 years, it’s because the tale is virtually the same on that side of the market. However, because the customer base for cars and light duty trucks is not at all as concentrated as the trucking market – bigger buyers that can wield bigger sticks ®€“ automakers have been slow to consider such standardization.

Satellites Aid Advances

Other data and communication technologies soon began to appear on trucks. Satellite-based global positioning receiver/transmitter systems offered real-time location tracking and logistics enhancements that are now common. These systems were an ideal solution to multiple customer service and loss issues facing the trucking industry.

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The GPS-enabled ability to know exactly where every tractor/trailer rig is at any given second has allowed fleets to closely schedule their trucks to meet the growing requirement of just-in-time manufacturing and sales operations. As a result, the in-plant inventory reductions and elevated production efficiencies created by the ability to deliver raw materials and work-in-process shipments to assembly lines with near precision timing have helped producers lower costs and remain globally competitive.

Side benefits of this satellite technology include better equipment security and more efficient road service. Since the location of trucks can be determined with pinpoint accuracy, any truck thief can be caught and any service emergency handled in minutes.

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Today’s advanced pager and cellular phone technology now allows instant text and voice messaging to drivers, advising them of updated delivery schedules or any route changes.

Since timely freight deliveries are the most basic product of the trucking industry, it’s appropriate that much of the satellite technology effort has been concentrated on logistics issues.

Current Consumer Services

By now, you have surely seen the TV commercials with Batman touting all amazing things OnStar can do, or at least heard the radio spots featuring real-life situations where OnStar saved the day.

OnStar is a subscription-based telematics system available to owners of primarily GM cars, though Acura and Audi/VW also offer the service. Monthly rates range from a group of base services for $16.95 to a more elaborate menu of services for $69.95.

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But for the price, users do get variety of 24/7/365 safety and convenience telematics services like vehicle tracking, remote door unlocking, directions and roadside assistance, airbag deployment notification, accident assistance, and remote vehicle diagnostics.

Other telematics systems either in use or in development around the world deliver in-car traffic reports and mapping, news and stock market updates, and rear-seat entertainment like movies and video games – all delivered by satellite. In Japan, for example, the government provides live traffic updates and rerouting options to drivers, flashing the data to in-car LCD video screens.

Cost Reduction Driven

So where do tires fit into the telematics picture? Whether it’s an 18-wheeler or a sport coupe, proper tire inflation is critical to treadwear, durability and fuel economy. So the opportunities to leverage satellite technology to improve tire care – lower fleet operating costs and/or advise drivers of potential tire problems ®€“ is an easy answer. But the future of telematics and tires may well improve your opportunities, as well.

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Consumers are going to get their first wide-spread taste of tire pressure monitoring systems (TPMS) beginning next year when the TREAD Act-mandated systems appear on new cars and light trucks. Commercial vehicle operators, who have had at least a little experience with these systems, want far more than simple in-cab driver warnings.

For a fleet, conventional by-hand inflation checks are effective at protecting tire investments. But they are also cumbersome, time consuming and labor intensive. Because of time and labor costs, detailed inflation checks are often not conducted with sufficient frequency to assure the desired results. Many fleets want to use automated tire pressure monitoring and real-time control of inflation pressures (not merely assurance of inflation above some low-pressure threshold) as effective maintenance tools to lower operating cost-per-mile.

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Electronic sensing would offer this opportunity, but it must be accurate, reliable and cost effectively communicated. On-board sensors sound tempting, but must be integrated with other vehicle components, and must be uplinked somehow to another location. And decisions must be made about how the data is communicated and to whom.

One option would have the home terminal message drivers if a tire problem were sensed, and pre-arrange replacement tire and service at the nearest preferred provider. More routinely, tire inflation checks could be conducted by wireless gate readers at fleet terminals and fuel stops. Real-time exception management could then trigger decisions about tire service/repair.

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These options, of course, require inflation pressure sensors that are cost effective and will survive a rigorous operating environment. If the sensor is a permanent part of the tire, the pressures and temperatures of retreading must also be considered.

As we’ll discuss later in this article, communication methods – radio, cellular or even Wi-Fi ®€“ are the key in determining how much on-board information about truck component performance can be utilized.

What Telematics Could Mean

According to Solid, a telematics developer, "In-vehicle telematics holds out the promise of services like remote maintenance, as well as providing vehicle usage and fault records as invaluable feedback to vehicle R&D. This information can also be shared with the vehicle sales value chain from manufacturer to local sales and service offices."

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It’s that last point that is of most interest to tiremakers and tire dealers on both sides of the business. For the purposes of exploring future potentials, we’ll look at the consumer tire side, but most of this look forward could include commercial tires.

With the arrival of consumer vehicle TPMS, we have the first step in what could be a far more intricate system that would enhance not only driver safety, but also expand the technical knowledge of tire engineers and capabilities of tire companies, not to mention the market intelligence knowledge of dealers.

As technology increases, cost goes down. That simple business equation will surely lead to more effective TPMSs that deliver more data yet cost automakers less to install. Today’s cheap and simple ABS-based TPMS can only guesstimate when tire inflation pressures drop below an established limit, basing its report on wheel revolutions per mile monitored by the computer-aided braking system. Various direct systems, with wheel- or valve stem-mounted sensors, can deliver far more precise readings, but are currently more expensive.

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In the very near future, though, computer chips embedded in tires might be able to report exact real-time inflation pressures and tire temperatures. Further down the road, technology may allow for live treadwear readings and mileage projections, temperature readings at specific positions within a tire, or even early detection of internal damage that could lead to sudden tire failure.

The safety and convenience aspects of this type of live data are obvious. Also beneficial would be the capture of that data by tire engineers. With embedded chips and telematics, engineers would have the ability to track real-life tire performance by product and vehicle, by geographic area, by season and weather conditions, by load/vehicle weight, by road surface and by driving style.

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Equally important, such technology would permit tiremakers to precisely monitor the tire maintenance practices of consumers, which would have a direct impact on warranty and product liability claims.

Having the ability to track each tire on the road, tiremakers could also monitor consumer tire buying habits. Marketing and sales groups would know what brands, models and sizes are selling best – by vehicle type, by owner profile, by geographic region and even by dealer ®€“ and this market intelligence with eager dealers.

Tire production and inventory management could also be tied back to this data, with the obvious positive results of better fill rates and greater anticipation of consumer demand. And dealers could even get a heads up from their tire supplier that, for example, the tires on a specific customer’s car were nearly worn, triggering the dealer to contact that customer and initiate a replacement sale.

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The potential impact of telematics on tire manufacturing, marketing and sales on the consumer tire side is as endless as your imagination, and only as reachable as cost, practicality and OE and consumer demand dictate.

Obviously, most of these also apply to the commercial side, and operating cost reduction potentials will play a huge role in further acceptance.

But technology has only gone so far to date. Telematics in the commercial market today is far more advanced than on the consumer side. Commercial fleets look at telematics as a cost-saving tool. Unless they are educated otherwise, consumers will only see telematics as a convenience product, and decide its application fate based on cost vs. value.

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Beyond the Tires

On-board electronic controls are critical to the performance of vehicle components, and are also candidates for future telematic enhancement.

ABS is now standard on all new North Americanhighway trucks, tractors and trailers. These braking systems include mechanical actuation and electronic control units. European trucks have advanced to include electronic actuation, or brake-by-wire, which is expected to carry over to North American trucks in the future.

Many transmissions now have electronic modules to control shifting and/or allow users to tailor shifting performance to specific conditions. These transmissions must "talk" with the engine to optimize shift points, match rpm, and deliver enhanced fuel efficiency. Future brake and transmission systems could also communicate directly with a fleet’s home terminal, providing real-time performance data and alerts should something go wrong.

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There are certainly many other electronic signals active in a typical modern truck. Just think what real-time reporting of all this critical performance and diagnostic data could mean to vehicle uptime and cost control.

Communications Conundrum

Acquiring data that could be better leveraged via telematics is already fairly well accomplished. Communicating that information, however, remains a major sticking point.

Save for tires, existing on-board technologies can easily acquire useful real-time data for stationary downloading. But distance cannot be so easily overcome.

Let’s consider the various forms of communication currently available – radio, cellular and Wi-Fi. Each can be characterized by location of the sender and receiver, by signal strength and connection reliability, and by practical application.

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If the sender and receiver are in the same place, communications is simple. Trucks or cars in the shop for service can be wired to diagnostic service equipment. Data downloading for commercial trucks can currently also be accomplished via stationary gate readers at fuel islands, service centers or truck yards, technology that can be repurposed for consumer vehicles.

But if one of the parties is remote – i.e. on the road ®€“ wireless communication is required.

Radio waves, transmitters and antennas are already used connect non-hard wired components on trucks. Traditional two-way radios can be used for remote communications, but only over limited distances. Terrain and atmospheric interference also limit usefulness.

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Cellular phone technology works over longer distances, provided there is local coverage by relay towers and the vehicle isn’t rolling through a "dead cell." Cellular coverage, however, is relatively expensive and subject to signal loss, so it is not very practical for real-time monitoring applications.

The Internet provides another communication option, though it, too, is restricted by land-line or cellular phone technologies and availability.

Laptop computers have become must-haves for over-the-road drivers, and could be used to capture vehicle performance data. But transmitting that information to a home terminal requires an Internet connection. And while Internet connections are becoming popular at truck stops and rest areas, connection and/or time fees are charged and the vehicle must be stationary – hardly the recipe for real-time communication.

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Satellite-based communication works over long distances and doesn’t suffer from too many lost signal issues, but it can become expensive and security measures may be required to prevent information theft.

Satellite communication is already used for available telematic services like vehicle tracking or consumer offerings like OnStar. But these are relatively simplistic application of the technology – telematics only requires the vehicle to read existing information (like GPS signals) or respond to an electronic call (for vehicle tracking).

Active two-way communications via satellite to some remote receiver will likely require powerful – and physically large ®€“ sending equipment. And while the technology is certainly there, cost issues must be overcome.

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Alternative wireless connections may be the ultimate answer, at least to some proponents. Options are emerging where periodic contact is sufficient or limited ranges are acceptable. Wi-Fi (wireless fidelity) is one high profile contender. This involves the use of "hot spots" strategically located along highways that allow wireless connection to the Internet.

These "hot spots" are relatively inexpensive to construct and may be driven by normal marketing incentives. For example, Starbucks, McDonalds and Borders plan large numbers of in-store Wi-Fi connections to draw customers who want surf the ‘Net while sipping coffee or munching on a hamburger.

Because it allows wireless use of multiple portable computers from single broadband receiver/transmitter, Wi-Fi is also expected to become popular for in-home and business applications. Limited ranges and security issues currently exist, but these obstacles are being overcome by technology advances. Larger businesses, including UPS and FedEx, already use in-house Wi-Fi installations to enhance worker productivity by eliminating restrictions of hard-wired communication.

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Ultimately, though, wide spread effective use of real-time vehicle and tire performance data acquisition will require consistent – and cost-effective ®€“ communications. Because it’s not restricted by geography, wires or "hot-spots," satellite technology seems to be the prime long-term contender.

Fresh data from real-time monitoring would be a quantum leap in not just fleet cost control, but in tire performance enhancement and tire producer opportunities. Not to mentioned enhanced driver safety, and real-life data-driven sales and marketing.

We haven’t gotten there yet, but the vision is there and advancing telematic and tire science technologies will play an important role.

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