Big Brother Keeps an Eye on Trucks

Dec. 28, 2000
For the truck operator who has wished for something close to a Big Brother to keep an eye on the trucks that he sends down the road every day, Mack Trucks has introduced what sounds like an answer. It's called SmartLink and has been developed by Mack and IVS Intelligent Vehicle Systems. The computerized system is said to, among other things:

-- Monitor trucks in operation and provide alerts on impending mechanical failures;

-- Deliver a measure of theft protection with its Global Positioning System (GPS);

-- Operate on a "real time basis," much like the telemetry setups that keep tabs on spacecraft;

-- Catch those intermittent problems, which plague all vehicle service;

-- Be set up to support over-the-road trucks or vocational units operated locally; and

-- Send its information to the truck's headquarters, the Mack support system or an independent monitoring setup. One special Mack service is a 24-hour roadside assistance program.

Information on the new product was discussed by two of the Mack executives working with the plan--Russ Raine, vice president of customer product support, and Scott Hinkson, service systems development analyst.

Billed as "a new diagnostic and life-cycle vehicle management tool," SmartLink is an exclusive Mack aftermarket product, which "uses computer technology and wireless communications to analyze, in real time, a vehicle's location, performance and overall operating characteristics."

Raine remarked, "Fleets are always trying to squeeze the maximum performance out of every vehicle. With this system, fleet managers can monitor--locally or remotely--critical fleet data and management information anytime, anywhere."

The system incorporates the GPS to track the vehicle's geographic location across the globe. In addition to providing a valuable service with respect to vehicle maintenance, it also acts as a theft deterrent. If stolen, Mack said, the exact location of trucks equipped with GPS can be identified quickly and accurately.

While the product has been extensively tested during development, Hinkson said theft protection has yet to be fully tested. The obvious reason, no prototype has been stolen. He said the units scheduled for testing in real-world work are in production with the Mack leasing operation lined up as one of the first customers. The hope is to have upwards of 5,000 units on the road before the end of this year, Hinkson said.

SmartLink is tied into Mack's 24-hour Roadside Assistance program. Trained technicians are always on hand to help diagnose a problem, immediately dispatch roadside assistance or arrange for towing to the nearest Mack facility.

Hinkson said the system monitors many operating details including coolant and oil temperatures as well as fuel consumption plus a large number of internal measures. "We feel that it can point out troubles, which are about to occur," he said. "That should enable the owner, driver and our service people to make a sound decision on when they should be repaired."

Introduction of the system is the latest in a series of developments that have put Mack in a leading position in an industry-wide swing that has manufacturers offering leading-edge technology in truck products. The company has joined other diesel engine producers in offering advanced electronic controls for the powerplants, which curb emissions, improve operations and ease the driver's work.

Alternative Systems

In addition, Mack has been in the forefront of efforts to test alternative (non-petroleum) fuels in heavy trucks, a campaign with two goals: curbing emissions and reducing the nation's dependence on foreign petroleum.

"We are pleased to see these efforts convincing customers that Mack is a technical leader in the industry as well as a producer of dependable work trucks," said Hinkson. "We plan to keep moving in both directions."

The two executives detailed how SmartLink strikes out at two nagging problems in truck service work. First come intermittent problems, which go away when someone starts looking for them, just like the aching tooth that gets better when its owner gets to the dentist's office.

Such intermittent problems are recorded on the system's computer and then transmitted to the remote diagnostic site, Raine said. That way managers can review critical fleet management data "anytime, anywhere it is available."

Just as automated diagnostics has helped by easing the collection of key service information on advanced components, the companion "prognostics" is coming along in SmartLink to collect data on likely future malfunctions. That is the plan, which helps ease the burden of upcoming service problems.

Raine said this information on "pending events" is an invaluable SmartLink service tool because it can detect "a fault in the early stages of a vehicle system failure so that action can be taken to correct the problem while it is still manageable."

About the Author

Ken Kelley

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