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Tumbling down the truck data rabbit hole: The realities, possibilities and dangers of trucking’s datafication

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Jason Morgan is the editor of Fleet Equipment. He has more than 14 years of B2B journalism experience covering the likes of trucking and construction equipment, real estate, movies and craft beer industries.

Let me tell you why you’re here. You’re here because you know something. You see how data and telematics technology is re-shaping the trucking industry. ECU info streams off of your trucks as they roll productively down the road, as does the location data from your smartphone as you drive into the office and take off for lunch. Data is all around us. It’s a growing entity that can be harnessed and put to work. Soon, expertly acting on that electronic knowledge will be just as impactful as spec’ing the right powertrain for your application.

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The best way to understand truck telematics is to experience it for yourself. So, I’m going to give you a choice: You can take the blue pill and turn a blind eye to the importance of truck telematics; or you can take the red pill and find out how deep the data rabbit hole goes.…

The ‘real’ world

Clearly, a massive amount of application data from electronically controlled and monitored truck equipment exists. As a fleet manager, you see it on the dashboard of your telematics application and it’s going to continue to play an even more important role in how you manage your trucks in the months and years to come. Data-driven decision-making is here to stay. I caught up with Matt Pfaffenbach, director of connectivity for Daimler Trucks North America, who served as my Morpheus-esque guide through the depths of data-drive telematics.

“The reason why we pursue these technologies is, ultimately, because we think it can give our customers an advantage with our product. Just as a fleet might deploy different technologies within their fleet, the common goal more success, increased efficiency and reduced cost. That’s what we are trying to do as well,” Pfaffenbach said. “Where I see [telematics] benefiting customers the most, primarily, is around education. I had an engineer once say, ‘We think we know how the vehicle is working in the real world, and we do our best to create those situations through our development cycle, but the reality is that information can sometimes educate us on what we don’t know.’

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As an example, Pfaffenbach pointed to the use of predictive cruise technologies. Fleets spec that technology with the expectation that it increases efficiency, but if the driver isn’t properly educated as to the use of predictive cruise, the benefit of the technology is wasted. Similarly, fleet managers need to understand how telematics information can be valuable. As more data streams to OEMs and telematics service providers, they are able to put more information into your hands to, perhaps, confirm your equipment usage assumptions or highlight trends you may have not discovered otherwise.

A fleet of any size can definitely make use of as many data points as possible, but it’s easy to get lost in spreadsheets. It’s important that your telematics service provides intuitive, easy-to-understand data dashboards that crunch the numbers and do the heavy data-analytics lifting, which enables you to get a 50,000-ft. view of your equipment’s usage and make a decision.

“Not overwhelming someone with data and helping to direct them to where the problems are can lift the performance of the fleet. That starts with how people interact with technology,” Pfaffenbach explained. “That’s a new frontier for our industry. That’s something we are placing a huge emphasis on, not only for connectivity but also inside the vehicle.”

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Pfaffenbach noted that how the end-user—whether it’s the fleet manager in terms of telematics or the driver in the case of the predictive cruise example—interacts with technology is a completely new topic for the trucking industry and has already changed dramatically from a couple of years ago.

“When was the last time you rode in a truck and all the safety systems were going off? Collision mitigation warnings, lane departure warnings—you name it. There are a lot of alarms and messages appearing on the dash: the check engine light was on—is that a problem or not?” Pfaffenbach said, rattling off the multitude of warnings to imitate the avalanche of info that can inundate a driver.

That analogy applies to fleet managers and telematics.

“Inevitably, every fleet has a macro data analytics wizard,” he said. “This person is crunching a lot of data, and he or she is trying to make intelligent decisions, but effectively, it can only be done on a relatively small population of trucks. As you get into a larger fleet, that’s more and more difficult.”

It’s an opportunity that Pfaffenbach and Daimler are addressing with the development of the new Detroit Connect portal, as well as Detroit Connect Analytics fuel efficiency and safety upgrade packages that will also be available as an option with the new connectivity platform. Pfaffenbach even teased a new Detroit Connect app that is in development, which will provide access to Detroit Connect Analytics.

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Data-driven dangers

Today’s trucks are mobile data-generating machines. While increased efficiency and productivity should be top of mind when you consider telematics, data security should be a close second. It seems like there isn’t a day that goes by without news of another data security breach—ranging from the highest levels of the government to your credit card company. It’s important for fleet managers to understand that your trucks’ data is just as vulnerable. That’s not meant to be an alarmist statement—it’s a realistic one.

“We take the position that the data is vulnerable,” Pfaffenbach said pointedly. “We look for responsible ways to mitigate the risk, and the way to do that is to consider what the value of the data is and how difficult it is for somebody to access it. When you start prioritizing your work to secure the data with that framework, I think it leads you down a responsible path. But the reality is that the data, I’m sure, can be accessed.”

When it comes to data security, Pfaffenbach is tight-lipped about practices and procedures—and rightfully so. Data thieves don’t need any help targeting specific datasets. That said, just as OEMs like Daimler are on the front lines securing truck data, fleet managers need to be vigilant in vetting new technology providers to ensure that the equipment you are putting in your trucks are secure.

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One of the biggest vulnerabilities to a truck is the introduction of third-party devices. There have already been situations in which third-party devices caused equipment communication problems, which led to the malfunction of a powertrain. These are vital hardware components being impacted by technology-focused devices. Pfaffenbach confirmed that fleets have had these experiences.

“You have a bunch of products come to market that are increasingly vulnerable, but because of the size of the company that developed them or the lack of thought or care about what their product could do, they make our customers vulnerable,” Pfaffenbach said. “As an OEM, that’s a real concern. If a customer of ours buys a device that has a vulnerability, they plug it into our vehicle and it causes them a problem, who do they go to for help? The industry has to start considering what information is available on the vehicle network that third parties can use. That means that there’s going to be some limitations to third parties, unfortunately.”

There are many third-party telematics providers who ensure that their fleet customers and OEM partners data is secure and productive. Omnitracs, for example, built its security platform on more than 20 years of experience with secure communications coming from trucks.

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