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Time is money: The benefits of over-the-air updates

Managing Editor of Fleet Equipment Magazine

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Art by Tammy House

You’ve heard all the sayings: time is money; time is our most precious resource; a stitch in time saves nine (though to be honest I have no idea what that last one means). These are all cliches, but they became that way because they are all true—with such tight delivery schedules and profit margins that hinge on making all your scheduled stops without any unexpected interventions, there are few resources more valuable to a fleet than time.

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That’s where over-the-air updates come in. Introduced across all major engine OEMs over the past five years, over-the-air (OTA) technology enables its users to update software on their trucks, well, over the air—the updates are sent to the truck directly via cellular networks and can be activated, either in the shop while working on other routine maintenance, or in some cases by the driver while on a break. This allows fleets to fit these updates into their existing schedule without adding another interruption. There are enough potential interruptions to a truck’s route that can pop up in a given day; why add one more?

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And even if you have to visit the shop anyway, OTA updates can be easily added in while other work is being done.

“While Connected Software Updates [CSU] from Cummins can be completed while the truck is on the road and only take about five minutes, fleets seem to prefer doing the CSU updates at a service location since service technicians can complete additional work, such as inspections or oil changes, as the update is transferring,” says Aparna Venkatraman, director of digital product management for the Cummins Engine Segment.

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The OTA details

OTA updates have different functionality and options depending on your engine manufacturer, so it’s good to know what is offered by each.

Daimler Trucks North America began offering OTA updates back in 2018 for its Detroit heavy-duty engines, and today touts improvements to the end-to-end security of the overall OTA process and the expansion of the scope of target vehicle ECUs (and subsystems) that can be programmed remotely. 

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For example, Mack now offers driver-activated updates, eliminating the need for coordination phone calls with agents. 

“Driver-activated updates are twice as fast – most are completed in less than 13 minutes, while parameter updates are less than five minutes,” shares David Pardue, Mack’s vice president of connected vehicle and contract services. “Driver-activated OTA means that customers can now make their own software updates at a time most convenient to them around the clock. Mack OneCall agents remain available 24/7 to assist whenever needed for scheduling and activating updates for trucks that are not DDA capable. The driver-activated feature can be retrofitted on Mack Model Year 2019 and new vehicles through Mack Premium Tech Tool, a Windows-based application used by technicians to assist with a number of diagnostic and repair operations. 

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“Mack also offers unlimited parameter updates that can be set through Mack OTA, including maximum road speed, parameters that control the Mack mDrive automated manual transmission and multiple idle shutdown parameters and kits,” he continues. “More than 35 different parameter changes can be made.”

Volvo Trucks also recently introduced Driver Display Activation (DDA) for remote updates. 

“DDA moves the activation step into the cab and the hands of the operator, adding flexibility and another option over having to call a Volvo Action Service agent to initiate a remote update,” explains Ashley Murickan, product manager for Volvo Trucks North America. “This significantly reduces administration and updating time and opens the service up to 24/7 availability.”

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Along with DDA, Murickan notes that Volvo Trucks recently decided to offer unlimited parameter updates to all customers with a subscription to its Remote Programming service. 

Navistar recently launched Intelligent Fleet Care, a suite of connected vehicle solutions that is standard on its new trucks. This provides OTA and advanced preventive maintenance and fleet health monitoring to customers for five years.

Peterbilt and Kenworth both began offering OTA in late 2019.

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Peterbilt Class 8 trucks with model year 2017 or newer PACCAR MX-13 and PACCAR MX-11 engines and an active SmartLinq Remote Diagnostics subscription can update engine and aftertreatment software via the PACCAR Solutions Portal and PACCAR Over-the-Air app.

Customers can also manage service events online through the PACCAR Solutions Service Management portal. Peterbilt dealers also offer Rapid-Check expedited diagnostics services and mobile service units throughout North America.

On the Kenworth side, Kenworth Class 8 trucks equipped with 2017 or later model year PACCAR MX-13 and PACCAR MX-11 engines can receive software updates remotely. Active Kenworth TruckTech+ customers can access these updates on the PACCAR Solutions online portal, or through the PACCAR over-the-air mobile app from the Apple App Store or Google Play Store.

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The fleet and driver reaction to OTA

OEMs interviewed by FE for this story said that the reaction to the introduction of OTA updates has been overwhelmingly positive.

“Any time a truck can be updated remotely, it is not only a huge business advantage for the fleet, but also a significant convenience feature for the user. It is no surprise then that overall the reception to OTA updates from the fleet and driver have largely been positive,” says Anil Khanna, director of product for the Connectivity Services Group at Daimler Trucks North America.

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Mack’s Pardue says that customers have responded very positively to Mack OTA, sharing that some have delivered feedback to the OEM calling the technology “a game changer” and “a huge time saver.”

“Fleets have really liked the visibility to how many of their units are up to date and running the latest software,” Cummins’ Venkatraman says. “Many fleets are working to integrate the OTA updates as part of their regular business process—coordinating with planned preventative maintenance, for example.” 

“One national retail chain mentioned that drivers initially expressed resistance to the new option, but quickly came to appreciate the new DDA feature after one try,” Volvo’s Murickan shares. “The customer was able to complete approximately 400 software updates in less than four weeks, with each vehicle taking minutes to convert instead of the typical three hours as previously experienced. Fleet and dealer technicians realized that DDA is much easier and faster than pulling out a laptop for performing updates. They saw firsthand how this feature immediately added efficiency and decreased administration time.”

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In addition, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has certainly increased the benefits of a contactless service like OTA.

“Pre-pandemic, OTA was gaining traction with fleets to enhance the vehicle performance and uptime. With the pandemic, the contactless service has gained even more importance and customers are more interested in using OTA than before,” shares Srinivas Mallela, director of connected vehicle platform/OnCommand Connection at Navistar.

After reading this you may be wondering, what’s next for OTA updates? OEMs answer that question here.

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