Vehicle self-examination and service

I recall some years ago someone telling me that technology is a way of arranging the world such that we don’t have to experience it. That seems to be happening in the vehicle maintenance arena as a consequence of vehicle technology advancing at an unprecedented rate.

One of the more prevalent themes at this year’s Mid-America Trucking Show was technology - and not just in vehicles and their components. A number of the truck OEMs unveiled new technologies for vehicle service, repair and maintenance. All of these technologies have the ability to gather new levels of information in ways that help truck owners control the cost of their operations by improving vehicle maintenance cycles, responses and repair processes.

Cummins revealed it is using new and proprietary datalogging and analysis technology to ensure enhanced performance and superior product reliability for its 2010 on-highway diesels. This technology automatically records and transmits field-use data to Cummins headquarters where it is segmented and analyzed by Cummins engineering experts.

There is the capability of sending results for 240 different variables, from engine speed and exhaust temperature to GPS location, vehicle speed, torque, fuel usage, emissions, coolant temperature and more - including on-board diagnostics. This information is time stamped to provide a graphic picture of engine and aftertreatment performance at any point in the duty cycle and at any location.

Having real-world data from more than 200 different vehicles is allowing Cummins to test and optimize engine software and algorithms, make modifications and validate operating characteristics with greater speed and accuracy than ever before. The technology also has the capability of making calibration changes to the engine, including complete recalibrations of the electronic control module.

Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA) announced it will be offering the Virtual Technician (VT), which it said is the trucking industry’s first real-time remote diagnostic system. It will begin appearing on certain 2011 model year Freightliner and Western Star trucks.

The new VT program offers vehicle system analysis through remote telemetric vehicle tracking systems. It formulates vehicle insights based on engine diagnostic codes from sensors and components that are then packaged and analyzed. The result is a series of reports and recommended remedial actions for the vehicle operator, and faster identification of emerging issues.

DTNA officials said VT can help with repair facility choice and scheduling, provide advance notice to facilitate parts and service procedure planning and improve diagnostics for reduced vehicle downtime.

Navistar International has also gone “beyond the truck” with the introduction of its OnCommand - a bundled approach to service and after-sales support offerings. OnCommand is designed to help achieve more efficient repairs and maintenance, better lifecycle value and an overall lower total cost of ownership - a combination that provides customers increased visibility and better control of their business.

Among other things, OnCommand provides an online OEM/dealer/customer communication portal, providing a streamlined interface to manage all aspects of a repair; diagnostics data for both engine and chassis; breakdown management; and four-hour diagnostic advisory and electronic communications to keep the dealer and fleet connected during the repair process. There are also Knowledge Systems to provide recommended repair solutions based on failure description and online self-guided instructional tools for in-house technician training.

Back in February, at the annual meeting of the Technology & Maintenance Council, Mack Trucks and Volvo Trucks North America officially rolled out their Internet-based Mack/Volvo Automated Service Initiation System (MVASIST). It is designed to streamline the communications and the service write-up process to improve vehicle uptime, reduce costs and increase customer satisfaction.

Mack and Volvo dealers and service providers will use MVASIST to assemble consistent, complete, professional estimates of service recommendations, including standard repair times. The system also delivers fleet and vehicle-specific information, including warranty coverage and previously negotiated parts pricing.

With MVASIST, all communications, estimates and related documents are linked to the service event and the vehicle involved.

Navistar, DTNA, Mack, Volvo and Cummins and other truck and engine OEMs are collecting more and more vehicle data and put it to work into integrated systems that can concentrate all the information into meaningful reports and diagnostics. The goal is to uncover, in real-time, issues and potential resolutions, allowing maintenance operations to be able to correct them faster.

Obviously, there are a number of benefits to real-time integrated vehicle service systems. One payoff will be an increase in vehicle uptime because parts and technicians will be standing by. Another is a reduction in labor costs associated with problem diagnosis at the service outlet due to electronic reporting, and that helps increase shop productivity.

On the downside, such systems could do away technician troubleshooting and repair skills. Skills and knowledge are gained, and maintained, through use and experience.

Will mastering the fundamentals continue to be an important component of technician training and development if systems “tell” technicians what to do?

Clearly, technicians’ skills and abilities with computers and intelligent diagnostic equipment will grow as more and more technology for vehicle maintenance is introduced. But what happens with service and repair when the electricity goes out or the batteries dies?

I welcome your thoughts and comments.