It was only a question of time until the global app craze would reach the transport equipment industry. With anything from banking to grocery shopping now manageable via smartphone, the advent of an app that could access critical trailer data was merely the next logical step on humankind’s journey to a fully connected society.
To date, however, many a foray into the field has failed to deliver tangible value for transport businesses – mainly because keeping up a wireless feedback cycle between trailer and smartphone is still a relatively complex undertaking, but also because the information collected with first generation services simply didn’t hit the spot. With an infinite amount of information accessible via modern electronic control systems, extracting – and managing – usable data has become the true challenge of the digital age.
Based on the company’s Intelligent Trailer Access Point (iTAP) hardware – first unveiled at the IAA Commercial Vehicle Show in 2014 – Knorr-Bremse’s latest FleetRemote software could be one of the first Wi-Fi based telematics systems advanced enough to overcome the data palsy that accompanied the first generation technology, in turn creating the first genuinely ‘transparent’ cohort of commercial vehicles in the world.
Developed in collaboration with TIP Trailer Services, the software was tailored to suit the often overlooked trailer industry and does not, as many a product in the field, build on a truck-based telematics or tracking device. Instead, it is based on iTAP as a separate trailer unit that is directly linked to the Electronic Braking System of the trailer (TEBS).
The data extracted via FleetRemote is distributed via open Wi-Fi hotspots while the truck is still on the road and passed on via central servers to a two-way smart phone or tablet app that not can not only display the information to the driver, but also act on it and adjust certain parameters remotely.
“There is nothing wrong with a good telematics package in a truck,” says Peter Sijs, Sourcing/Services Operations Director at TIP’s Amsterdam head office and the mastermind behind FleetRemote’s most recent incarnation. “In fact, it’s essential for a modern transport operation, especially in terms of performance monitoring and load security. But to keep track of a pulled unit, you need a different solution. You don’t necessarily need to know where the vehicle is – the truck will tell you that kind of information – but you need to know how it is and be aware of potential hardware issues.”
According to Sijs, the latest iTAP/ FleetRemote generation does not provide any classic GPS tracking function, thereby reducing power consumption to a minimum. Instead, it is able to collect the kind of trailer-critical data a traditional telematics solution would usually ignore. By accessing some six million new and unique data points per trailer, it is effectively leaving truck and fuel diagnostics to the truck-based system and focusing solely on trailer-specific metrics.
“One critical variable the iTAP/ FleetRemote system is able to measure is tyre pressure, for example. By keeping under-inflation to a minimum, you can greatly reduce the risk of overheating, which in turn is a fire hazard. With FleetRemote’s algorithms, based on the existing iTAP platform, we have come to a point where we can predict a loss of pressure up to six days in advance,” he explains – pointing out that for TIP’s 50,000-trailer strong fleet, every risk taken out of the safety equation can lead to a substantial saving.
“The same is true for the bearing on the axle or the braking system – the data we get is incredibly accurate. With every brake application, iTAP is checking 67 individual data points to ensure we know how the brake is behaving, and whether there may be an issue down the track. As a maintenance specialist for our own and third party fleets, we want to be able to exchange the brake pad at the perfect time and not when the driver becomes aware of a drop in performance, so that kind of feedback can be worth its weight in gold.”
Sijs adds that the iTAP data now available on the smart phone screen is so specific that FleetRemote could even help transport businesses simplify the thrice yearly MOT inspection required to operate in the UK – simply by providing the relevant data remotely instead of physically presenting the vehicle again after the first check-up. “Imagine the time and cost-savings possible. Yes, it’s nice to know how fast a trailer is moving or where it is, but if you can use telematics data to simplify complex technical inspection processes, that’s when it’s starting to get interesting.”
What’s special about TIP’s take on FleetRemote is the way information is relayed back to head office, according to Sijs. Instead of using a 3G or 4G network, or a traditional SIM card, it can automatically detect Wi-Fi hotspots en route connect to them automatically and use them to share system-critical data with the control room. A recent 250km test drive in The Netherlands has shown that there is a a Wi-Fi hotspot every 850m that iTAP can connect to – enough for it to paint an on-going trailer status picture without added cost.
“The Wi-Fi ability is so simple, yet so revolutionary,” says Sijs – admitting that the system has also been enabled for use with a SIM card to provide transport companies not sold on the hotspot idea with additional peace of mind. “Wi-Fi is everywhere. In Germany and The Netherlands, more and more cities already provide free public Wi-Fi as a standard service, and the rest of Europe is quickly following suit. We will soon be fully surrounded by a gapless free Wi-Fi network.”
The real achievement, says Sijs, is the FleetRemote platform at the back end, though. “Wireless connectivity is great, and obviously having some very specific functionality is important too. But the way you analyse and present the data you collect is where most fail. That’s why FleetRemote can handle the data in a way that is actually useful for a fleet – with live readings available via smart phone 24/7.
“There’s a lot of stuff I don’t need to know as a fleet executive, so finding out what’s really helpful was the first main achievement here. Naturally, with us having access to one of the largest trailer fleets in the world, high quality, in-depth feedback was readily available. Luckily, Knorr-Bremse was willing to take it all in, with the result being a product that is much more complete, and much more useful than anything I’ve seen in the market.”
According to Sijs, Knorr-Bremse didn’t hesitate to provide TIP with full access to its research facility in Munich when he first approached the company in 2011. “Back then I just wanted to collect and store select data over a period of time to assess how specific components would perform,” he says. “From there we started talking about taking away the wiring between the trailer and diagnostic tool, and then Wi-Fi and eventually smart phone readability came into play. It’s been a long time in the making, but that’s arguably why it’s so effective now.”
The potential backlash from making the iTAP/ FleetRemote system available to the competition is not a consideration for Sijs. “We’re making it available across the board, with OEMs like Schmitz Cargobull and Krone now offering it right off the production line,” he explains. “As an industry-leading company, I think we have an obligation to drive innovation in our field, and I firmly believe that our work will reflect positively on TIP Trailer Services as a business, too.”
Sijs is so confident in the new product that he has ordered some 2,500 units for the initial rollout across the TIP fleet, with the rest soon to be converted. “The age of simply tracking and tracing equipment is over in the trailer industry; we are now moving on to the age of useful data. Instead of checking if the trailer is speeding – why not leave that to the truck? – we are now checking the system pressure during the coupling and uncoupling process, for example. Now, that’s a data point I need, and iTAP can send it straight to my iPhone. There’s no middleman, no satellite, no service centre, just smart software.”
According to Sijs, even TIP Trailer Services’ extensive research has only just scratched the surface of what iTAP and FleetRemote are potentially capable of. “I think we’ve only explored about five per cent of the system,” he says – pointing out that the next project will be to create an ‘energy bill’ for each trailer that can take into account the stress it is exposed to and the resulting wear and tear on critical componentry. “One day we will be able to measure the precise cost of running a trailer and evaluate exactly where each unit stands in terms of service life and maintenance.”
With trailer-specific telematics technology still in its infancy, Sijs says TIP and Knorr-Bremse have finally created a mature system with a smart, mobile interface that is providing “real, tangible” value for fleet managers. “The problem is that you often see data people trying to create a trailer product, and they fail. We have changed the whole process – now it’s trailer people developing a data product. Everyone is going crazy about apps these days, but it has to make sense for you economically. Otherwise it’s just a toy.”