Although connected tractors have been all the talk, integrated trailer networking systems are no longer a thing of science fiction. Trucks communicate wirelessly with fleet managers from halfway across the country, so why can’t trailers? One would think it would be an easy matter, but trailer technology adoption has lagged that of tractors.
But if you ask OEMs responsible for building all that hauls our freight, they will tell you they are taking a hard look at how to connect trailers up with the rest of the vehicle and make them a truly cohesive unit. How can the flow of information be improved to create a greater sense regarding the state of the trailer or the cargo it hauls?
There are a lot of minds behind the push for smarter trailers. They believe trailers need to evolve beyond dumb boxes that merely provide the receptacle by which freight is transported. And there is some logic to this argument.
Where the Change is Coming
The push to make trailer and body communication more thorough and actionable is driven by a safety imperative. As fleets spec safety systems for everything from rollover control to advanced braking systems, trailers are not getting left out of the mix.
Systems integration is at the front of every safety technology OEM working in the marketplace today. Trucking companies require reliable solutions that can be integrated with current technologies. When data needs to be crunched and synchronized for responses to everything from roadway hazards to inspections, trailers must be considered.
Still, there is room for improvement between communication links between tractor and trailer. If the industry is going to move towards an automated future, which includes the implementation of vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) technology, automated systems must be able to identify things like trailer presence, length, weight, and other factors.
One place where this kind of implementation has gathered legs is in Europe, where they already require direct communication between the trailer and the truck driver. Could we soon see a day where a trailer has its own direct computational link to the tractor’s CAN bus? How soon might the implementation of trailer talking to tractor come to pass? With wireless systems and computational power advancing at an incredible rate, this day may be coming sooner than later.
OEMs Get to Work
Trailer OEMs have been working for decades on preparing for the automation eventuality. Finding ways for the trailer and tractor to relay information back and forth is the holy grail for trailer designers trying to implement technological solutions into their equipment.
One of the problems OEMs have run into is interoperability between systems. Motor carriers generally spec their safety and other technological systems from different providers. When they are trying to get pieces of equipment talking to each other, all while gathering actionable data, system interoperability is extremely important.
Some think there will be a leap in the evolution of the trailer and it will start with the communication and monitoring systems. Eventually, we may also see a reduction in the flow of interfaces connecting the systems, thus relieving technicians of numerous headaches trying to administer them.
Just look at it from the perspective of the truck driver. There are so many systems they already must work with, having one central location where all the necessary information is stored and accessible is key to them getting the job done safely and effectively.
Everything from the temperature in the reefer to the tire pressure, the last thing a busy truck driver focused on safety wants is a myriad of competing interfaces all vying for attention. Will the next evolution in these technologies represent a far cleaner interface with higher levels of system interoperability?
Consider the Functions
The imperative for smart trailer technology comes from the variety of functions that trailers fill. Trailers and trailer bodies are built for so many applications, it seems that technological integration is logically the next step.
Applications include smart lighting systems, hybrid braking systems, and movement-detecting auto liftgates that help keep truck drivers safe when the lift is in action. Combining the efforts of each of the systems involved in tractor trailer functionality opens the way to a broader set of capabilities.
The platform designed to handle all the data and calculations must be both robust and scalable. How will the information be displayed to the end user, whether it be the truck driver or fleet technician? Companies are already being formed specifically to answer these questions with technological solutions.
The answer may lie in open-source efforts so that technology companies manufacturing these solutions can use their own proprietary technology to communicate with each other. In some cases, this eliminates the need for the trailer to relay the information back to the tractor’s CAN bus.
Motor carriers utilizing technologies like these might be able to locate a specific trailer in the yard at a simple click of a button on a back-office desktop or yard tablet. Pre-trip inspections can also be performed to make sure the trailer is ready for the road, all without taking from the truck driver’s allotted hours of service limit.
While on the road, cargo-specific information, fault codes, unexpected events and more can all be monitored from home base and from within the cab. Combining the power of smart trailer technology with already-available telematics systems allows fleets a new way to track their vital assets.
By taking a long-term look at the needs and benefits of trailer intelligence, fleets are provided with better options, from cargo-specific information, weights, axle load distributions, brake issues, tire pressure, and much more. The smart trailer informs where truck drivers and dispatchers need it to.
Once these advanced capabilities are combined with current diagnostic systems in a total interoperable and efficient manner, fleets will suffer less CSA-related faults or failures and increase overall truck driver productivity and satisfaction. In the age of the never-ending truck driver employment shortage, fleets need solutions like these. Fleets can prolong equipment life and increase service interval levels by having more information on the status of their trailers.
Phillips Ups the Ante
If one company has stepped in and accelerated the rate of change for smart trailer adoption, it is Phillips, who’s Connect Technologies department made big strides around smart trailer development. They have created an agnostic software solution that consolidates smart-trailer sensors – no matter the supplier – into one central integrated hub.
They have also built in a singular data set so that alerts sent to the truck drivers are understandable, readable and uniform. Phillips hopes to partner with many different sensor OEMs to integrate technologies, find ways to capture customizable fleet information on a centralized dashboard and so much more.
The problem that Phillips has identified remains the same. Fleets generally have all these capabilities spread around different manufacturers and software solutions. With all the data channels built under different communication platforms, Phillips aims to simplify the hierarchy of data, allowing motor carriers to better utilize the information for improved fleet performance.
The downfall of a flood of new resources built around smart technologies is the disparate data plan and network of communication. Opportunity knocked when they discovered a way to consolidate the sensors on tractor and trailer to get an accurate, up-to-the-second look at the trailer’s performance.
Partnering Up and Selling the Tech
To make sure they are not tackling this problem in a vacuum, Phillips has already formed sixteen partnerships with OEMs who make smart trailer components. The challenge has been convincing company owners that the best way to move forward is to create a platform that everyone can work on so that motor carriers and owner-operators can make educated decisions on the solution they want to implement for their business.
There is a compelling reason for these owners to participate in the process. Phillips has developed some truly compelling solutions. Their Sensor Distribution Model (SDM) acts as the central hub through which all the data flows. It includes an internal mode specifically designed to interface with popular sensor platforms, such as Fleet Complete and TrailerNet.
Their Sensor Interface Board can be installed to function either wired or wirelessly and is designed to be the universal translator that allows sensor data to be seamlessly sent across the network to each other, distilled into actionable information and then provided to either the truck driver, dispatcher, or other interested party.
They have even considered the physical electrical harnessing that allows the wires to be configured in a safe and effective way. With so many innovations packed into the trailer, from door lock and unlock features to trailer lockdown mechanisms that cut the airflow to the brakes, Phillips is forging ahead.
How trucking companies, from OEMs to fleets themselves, embrace technologies like the ones Phillips is developing, remains to be seen. Technology has the capability to make trucking safer and more efficient, yielding benefits for everyone involved in the global supply chain.