What are the most important characteristics in a perfect fleet telematics system? Of course affordability is always a factor, and features such as ease of use and ease of management are vitally important. However, when it comes to technical considerations, the relative importance of product features will change from one year to the next, depending on consumer expectations and needs. What is a “nice-to-have” today may become a “must-have” tomorrow –EOBR, in-vehicle cameras, in-vehicle alerts are just a few examples.
Are there any hard and fast rules for technology that makes certain features critically important from one model year to the next?
To answer this question, it helps to examine a space that’s parallel to fleet telematics but that is further along in its evolution. The connected car—and the consumer infotainment and telematics systems within it—provides a set of guideposts for the road ahead in fleet telematics. Clearly the requirements imposed by managing multiple heavy-duty service vehicles make fleet telematics a much different beast than a typical consumer navigation or infotainment system. But between the fleet and consumer sides of the telematics coin there is a common lineage, a similar environment, and a shared technological background. We can get a peek into how fleet systems will evolve by examining two major trends in the trajectory of its consumer cousin.
Entrance of apps
This year, Google and Apple have increased their influence on infotainment, which has made things especially interesting for the connected car. Android Auto and Apple Car Play are sparking a significant revolution in the way consumer infotainment systems are being designed. Besides adding a recognizable brand and consumer familiarity to the car, the smartphone giants have created software platforms that introduce app developers to a brand-new automotive market. Those developers are creating apps that give the automaker new ways to extend and refresh their vehicle’s infotainment content.
One of the biggest reasons behind Google and Apple’s entrance into passenger vehicles is due to the difficulty of creating an automotive app platform that can attract third-party developers. The sheer number of independent automaker app solutions makes it difficult for developers to target any more than a handful of cars. Addressing multiple OEMs can be done, but only if the company is big enough to spend an inordinate amount of time and money creating individual apps for multiple platforms. Google and Apple significantly reduce this barrier to entry, by providing common, well-known platforms with the developer support system fully fleshed out.
Apps and fleet
Do we need apps in the fleet space? The majority of smartphone integration features are of questionable value for a fleet application. Navigation is typically already provided, streaming radio is a distraction, and social media is out of the question. When it comes to apps for fleet, is there any point? Most definitely. It’s important to understand that apps in the consumer automotive context aren’t only about revenue, games, or gimmicks. They’re about the three pillars of updating, extending, and customizing, and those same values are certainly applicable in fleet telematics.
Updating gives fleet companies the ability to fix bugs and roll out new enhancements in a simple and straightforward way. Although fleet managers can schedule time when each vehicle is back in the garage and have a tech physically reprogram each module, it’s a coordination hassle and a time waster that discourages managers from making any updates at all. The automated update system that apps can provide is far cleaner and trouble-free, and each vehicle can update itself over cellular in real time. That ensures the fleet always has the latest, bug free software.
Extending a vehicle’s capability is similar to updating, but better. It gives the ability to grow the system with completely new features, such as driver scoring, fuel economy, tire pressure monitoring, accident notification, and the like. Because the apps are separate and isolated system components, they don’t impact the rest of the system, and they can be trialed or swapped out without worrying about retesting or re-validating the rest of the system.
Finally, customizing apps for fleet isn’t about making wallpaper, ringtones or favorite apps. Breaking down fleet features into apps that can be selectively installed on each vehicle gives your fleet tremendous flexibility. What if some of your trucks have a side loader and others don’t? What if your fleet has different fuel reporting requirements for different jurisdictions? What if some drivers are qualified to perform a task and others are not? Installing apps that control specific features on the trucks, routes, or drivers that need it, is just clicks away.
Rise of consortiums
Although there are the rare exceptions (such as development of the CAN bus), the general automotive space has traditionally had an uneasy relationship with consortiums. As an automaker, how can you create workable solutions hand-in-hand with your closest competitor? But as infotainment and telematics systems become more and more complicated to build, the benefits of collaboration start to outweigh the drawbacks of competition.
These increasingly complex infotainment systems have given rise to a number of consortiums in the auto space. GENIVI is one of the biggest; it allows automotive OEMs and their first-tier suppliers to share an OS platform. (Ford has contributed its App Link technology to GENIVI as Smart Device Link in an effort to split the development load among multiple OEMs.) The Connected Car Consortium (CCC) is another one; it is building a standard interface (Mirror Link) to allow mobiles to connect and display info on the infotainment unit. A third example, the W3C, is defining a standard for automakers around HTML5 application interfaces.
Carmakers are using these consortiums to help collaborate and build systems. In this way they share the burden of creating building blocks while preserving the ability to differentiate on the final product. Eventually, this trend towards common platforms and shared standards will allow an interchange of software between automakers that isn’t possible today.
Consortiums through fleet glasses
What lessons do the rise of consortiums within consumer telematics teach us in the fleet telematics space, and what parts can we leverage?
The consortium effort is primarily centered on creating open and/or standardized platforms that give developers a consistent technology to work with, thus reducing the effort needed to create, deploy, test, and extend systems. Having a consistent software platform is something that could definitely help the fleet market as well, although the reasoning is slightly different than in the consumer space.
A standard platform isn’t needed to engage with a large number of out-of-industry developers; the fleet space is too niche to be attracting much in the way of third party development anyway. But it will help the relatively small fleet ecosystem use their existing resources wisely. Using a common platform allows each company to focus on providing distinct value. This avoids the tremendous burden of creating a developer ecosystem with the frameworks, tools, documentation, help, and support necessary.
Just as the automakers have struggled between keeping their platforms distinct and collaborating for the common good, it’s sometimes hard for suppliers in the fleet space to see the value of a common platform. The natural fear about creating industry-wide standards is that they will open doors to competitors. Co-opetition is a mash-up between cooperation and competition, and yes, it’s a pseudo-word. But it’s more and more common in the connected car space where companies are learning to work together—sometimes cooperating, and sometimes competing—to win the same customers.
If you’re a fleet software supplier, using a standard platform will allow other companies to bring their expertise to your customers. While you might view this as competition, remember that those competitors are going to be knocking at your customer’s door regardless. And proprietary systems that serve to keep your competitors locked out work both ways. You can be denied from many customers that otherwise could use your services. More importantly, you don’t need to focus on the energy needed to build and support your own custom software and hardware platform. If you share the same architectural framework, partnering is easier; you may be able to lean on another company’s resources when you’re unable to supply what your customer needs.
If you’re a fleet manager, the benefits are obvious. You have less concern about vendor lock-in and proprietary systems that may not have support as long as you’ll need it. You have the benefit of having a system broadly tested by multiple parties. You have much more flexibility with the widest choice of suppliers and capabilities available to you. And if your system supports apps, you can extend, update, and customize your fleet to keep your software investment relevant for years to come.
If this sounds like a win-win, it’s because it is. However, staying on the “connected-car route” requires a steady hand.