Telematics Systems: How Streaming Data Is Used in Transportation

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Industries operating vehicle fleets with installed telematics systems generate huge streams of data. Let’s take John, a truck driver who delivers cargo across the USA. John’s truck has Internet access to transmit and receive data in real-time and a telematics device plugged in. This sort of vehicle is called connected. John alone sends approximately 25 gigabytes of data to the cloud every hour.

There are thousands of such trucks (or other vehicles). Together they create an unbelievable amount of data daily. With the right telematics system in place, this data can become a deep pool of valuable business insights for companies engaged in transportation and logistics.

In earlier writing on the topic of fleet management software, we touched on the telematics topic. In this article, we’ll dive deeper into the data aspects of telematics systems. We’ll explain how these systems work, what data they generate, and give tips on how to choose and implement a suitable telematics solution to become a data-driven company.

What is Telematics?

Telematics is the merging of two tech fields ‒ telecommunications (a branch of technology dealing with long distance transmission of information by cables, phone lines, etc.) and informatics (the study of computational systems).

Telematics emerged in the 1960s when the US Department of Defense together with the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University started to develop GPS (Global Positioning Systems) to keep track of military equipment and troops. Paired up with the invention of the Internet and GPS satellites launches, telematics became a powerful data-rich tool.

The term telematics came from the French word télématique in 1978. It was first used in a report to the French government about the computerization of society.

At the basis of modern vehicle telematics, there are systems ‒ hardware and software ‒ allowing for collecting, storing, and exchanging data points between fleet vehicles and central locations. Telematics deals with building a network of vehicles and telecommunication devices, and as such it falls under the IoT (Internet of Things) umbrella.

How do telematics systems work?

Benefits of telematics systems are enormous. Companies involved in transportation and logistics make use of such solutions to

  • reduce fuel and operating costs,
  • optimize fleet management and driving standards,
  • perform remote diagnostics,
  • improve driver and vehicle safety,
  • make more informed decisions, and
  • provide efficient customer support.

To understand how these benefits are achieved, let’s have a closer look at components of telematics systems and the data that makes them work as a single unit.

The working principle of telematics systems

The working principle of telematics systems.

The TCU (Telematics Control Unit) is an embedded, onboard device that tracks and examines a vehicle’s performance, position, speed, etc. The device collects the vehicle data via GPS, CAN (Controller Area Network) bus port, and onboard diagnostics. Once collected over various interfaces, the data is then sent to the cloud server via the GPRS module, a cellular network, LTE (Long-Term Evolution) communication, or other channels.

Telematics Cloud Server is the cloud infrastructure, consisting of a web server, an application server, and a database that hosts collected data. Before information reaches the cloud telematics server, it is converted into MQTT messages. MQTT is the abbreviation for Message Queuing Telemetry Transport, and it’s a simple lightweight messaging protocol commonly utilized within IoT platforms. Data stored in the cloud is available to the end users via a web/mobile app.

Telematics web and mobile applications or other software allow end users to access the data stored in the databases of the telematics server and extract insights from it. Apart from monitoring and controlling fleet vehicles, users can apply more advanced analytics to the collected data by feeding information into external software through APIs.

Telematics data connects vehicles and management teams by turning every car into a sort of data gateway. Not only does telematics data come in all shapes, but it also derives from different sources as a never-ending flow at high speed. That’s why it’s referred to as streaming data and used in the context of Big Data. All telematics data can be classified into three main categories.

  • Basic data records provide general information from a travel log of a certain vehicle. The records include such items as GPS data, the status/purpose of a trip, driver ID, time and date, etc.
  • Behavioral data refers to the ways drivers use vehicles. This data sorts out the bad driving issue. Key metrics considered are speeding, harsh acceleration, and/or braking, and idling time, to name a few.
  • Diagnostics data comes in the form of reports on vehicle condition. This sort of data encompasses metrics like tire pressure, vehicle malfunction, fuel consumption, and many more.

The whole thing is possible owing to the GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System) that provides PNT (positioning, navigation, and timing) services globally.

Now that we know a bit about telematics components, it’s time to discuss how to track these data streams and use them.

Telematics software modules, and data use cases

Different types of data mentioned above can be mixed and matched to build feature-rich telematics solutions. Let’s explore key software modules of such systems and the data they use.

Advanced alerting functionality

Telematics data used: all types

Both transportation and logistics spheres deal with events that require timely actions to be taken. Comprehensive alerting functionality contributes to the effectiveness of fleet management as it provides both operators and drivers with live data and notifications.

The notifications dashboard

The notifications dashboard. Source: Geotab

Say, a driver is exceeding the speed limit, or an engine is idling for longer than it should, or some vehicles parts are due for checkups, you want to be sure that a system will alert to those issues.

Not only do real-time notifications on vehicle condition and driver behavior help you sort out problems right away, but they also reduce possible risks in general.

That said, most providers offer a limited number of notifications functionality out of the box. Advanced alerting features come at a custom development level. For instance, you can set up mileage alerts to get notified when a vehicle exceeds the mileage threshold or adjust geofence monitoring to be aware of entry/exit times.

GPS vehicle, cargo, and delivery tracking

Telematics data used: GPS data

While this component is the heart of such systems, it’s a misconception to think that the only thing telematics does is pinpoint a vehicle’s GPS location.

Live vehicle locations on a map

Live vehicle locations on a map. Source: KeepTruckin

Once installed in the fleet, devices allow you to get accurate information about the location and movement of each of your vehicles in real-time. You will be able to track the journey from the moment of departure to the destination with all the stops and idle times along the way.

Transportation companies can take GPS tracking to a whole new level. By integrating a telematics system with weather forecasting services and injecting map-based algorithms that show real-time traffic patterns, drivers can get up-to-date information about dangerous areas and pick a safe route.

Since systems can generate maps showing the exact position of all vehicles in the fleet here and now as well as routes made over a certain period of time, logistics and transportation companies can manage fleets more effectively and inform customers about delivery times.

Driving behavior measurement and monitoring

Telematics data used: behavioral data

The human factor is fundamental in the transportation business. Due to this, good telematics systems should be equipped with features that enable monitoring and measuring driving behavior.

A dashboard with reports on driver behavior

A dashboard with reports on driver behavior. Source: Movolytics

Responsible driving enhances productivity, reduces the risk of accidents on the road, and contributes to brand image. With the module analyzing episodes of harsh acceleration, harsh braking, prolonged idling, speeding, and other unsafe actions, companies can share feedback with drivers to help them develop good habits and prevent accidents. Not to mention that timely driving monitoring and feedback helps decrease maintenance and fuel costs.

On top of the basic features, you can implement unique functionality like assigning tailored training content to those drivers that have certain driving issues.

Fuel management

Telematics data used: diagnostics data (fuel consumption)

With prices for gasoline going up every now and then and fuel costs representing a major part of the budget of transportation companies, effective fuel management is always on the agenda.

Fuel consumption tracking

Fuel consumption tracking. Source: Geotab

Modern vehicles are equipped with the Engine Control Module (ECM) that, among other things, sends miles per gallon/kilometers per liter information to the vehicle dashboard and signals when a refill is needed. By monitoring ECM data along with fuel levels in the tanks and the frequency of fills, companies can calculate and optimize average fuel consumption for a particular vehicle and/or route.

The module also enables determining if fuel theft or leaks have occured. For this purpose, fuel cards can be assigned to a truck vehicle or driver within a telematics system. By opting for the services of software developers, fleet organizations can make use of API integrations and build custom connections between telematics and billing systems for accounting purposes.

Route planning

Telematics data used: basic data records

Back in the day transportation and logistics companies had to create fleet routes manually. These processes were rather time-consuming and labor-intensive. Modern telematics technology allows for optimized route planning.

Optimized route planning in telematics

Optimized route planning. Source: Verizon Connect

It is possible to save time and fuel by monitoring the execution of routes, assigning orders to those vehicles that are the closest to the destination, mapping out plans of future trips thoroughly, and adding more deliveries without adding more miles. Taking into account different factors such as driver shifts, delivery addresses, and vehicle sizes, systems can provide the best possible routes for each driver and optimally allocate loads to vehicles.

Telematics has no limits in use cases, especially when it comes to custom designed features. For instance, your software can be packed with algorithms that will automatically plan routes in such a way as to allow vehicles to avoid left-hand turns.

Vehicle maintenance and monitoring

Telematics data used: basic data records and diagnostics data

Vehicle sensor data can be used for predictive machinery maintenance and analytics. It can help figure out if and when a particular vehicle component will fail.

Service reminder forecasting dashboard

Service reminder forecasting dashboard. Source: Fleetio

The system monitors service records and provides automatic alerts for diagnostics checks. By analyzing a vehicle’s maintenance history, managers can track the tendencies for parts to wear out or break and make more informed decisions regarding routine fleet maintenance. A customized module can even indicate repair centers so that a driver can access the nearest one when needed.

Remote diagnostics is the telematics-based service that’s gaining in popularity but isn’t offered out of the box. The technology allows for collecting data such as fault codes to conduct timely diagnostics and preventive maintenance remotely, which helps to sort out the issue of unplanned downtime.

How to implement telematics systems into your fleet

Hope we made it clear that it’s impossible to manage a fleet without receiving, understanding, and analyzing the data it brings. Now that you know the importance of such data for your business, it’s time to figure out how to implement a data-driven telematics system in your fleet.

Set up your business goals in advance. Simply implementing the first system you can approach and hoping it will work out by itself won’t do any good. Before choosing a provider, make sure you did research and figured out the kind of data you’d like to track. Having a strategy mapped out in advance is half distance to success.

Decide on features and desired outcomes. Before you compare existing providers of telematics systems, it is advisable to make a checklist of functionality you want to have. Determine what outcomes you expect, so that you can measure the vendors based on their capability to match those outcomes.

Compare providers. Before you narrow down the list of providers, research solutions thoroughly as there are quite a few telematics vendors. When comparing, pay attention to the functionality brought to the table, pricing plans, usability, support options, and integration capabilities.

In our articles about fleet management software and trucking software, we’ve singled out a couple of tools worth trying.

Ask for a demo. The best way to test the waters and see whether a particular system works for your fleet is to ask each vendor for a live demo version.

Kickoff a pilot program. We recommend launching a pilot program on a couple of vehicles before installing the solution across the board. This will help you gauge the solution’s cost-effectiveness.

Draw up an installation plan. In most cases, telematics implementation takes some time. So, it is important to list all vehicles you’re planning to install the system on and commit to a schedule. Always check whether the installation is done properly.

Set up the right data frequency reporting. Depending on what you want to measure, you’ll need to determine the data frequency reporting. Lower data frequency, for example, two or three times a day, fits the bill if you need to track after hours use. However, if you want to monitor driving behavior, opt for a high data frequency rate.

Get your employees involved and informed. The changes you make influence not only your management system but also your employees. Don’t keep them in the dark, but rather share your goals and expectations. Also, encourage them to share feedback as it can help to improve the system.

Keep updated. The changing face of data requires you to keep an eye on updates and improvements that can be brought to your telematics fleet management. In case you feel the provider you picked doesn’t meet your needs, be ready to look for another option.

When to opt for custom telematics software: common scenarios

There are cases when off-the-shelf commercial solutions simply cannot meet the unique needs of a company. Take a look at the most common scenarios that make going for a custom telematics solution worth it.

Scenario 1: You have lots of integrations to implement

If you operate a large or midsize fleet, chances are you need to integrate your telematics system with other third-party services to automate mundane tasks and increase effectiveness.

“Having one integrated platform that can make sense of the data, provide predictive analytics and enable businesses to tackle large-scale problems will be the future for fleet management operating systems,” claimed Sherry Calkins, Vice President of Strategic Partners at Geotab.

Making different apps, parts of software, and tools work as a single unit is advantageous in lots of ways. The approach allows for streamlining business operations and sharing data across departments on the fly. So, whether you look for a way to integrate telematics software with your back-office dispatching, customer relationship management (CRM), HR, enterprise resource planning (ERP), or any other systems, teaming up with an external integration provider will be beneficial.

Scenario 2: You need to customize your existing software

Ready-made solutions are commonly equipped with basic features that cover the standard fleet management needs of transportation and logistic businesses. And yet, companies aren’t identical when it comes to dealing with daily operations. It is not really possible to create a product that would work well for all companies without exception. If you already use telematics software but you want to improve it by obtaining new functionality that covers your specific needs, hiring a development team to customize it is your best bet.

Scenario 3: You want to address unique tech challenges

Only unique products can address unique technology problems. If your company has them, don’t hesitate to opt for custom software development. For instance, we at AltexSoft helped one of our clients to develop a custom fleet optimization solution for advanced driver training, safety, and risk management capabilities. The idiosyncrasies of your company workflow may require a different set of features like extensive driver profiles or in-house communication channels.

While the most costly and time-consuming, customization is worth it as the end result is a software product perfectly tailored to your company’s unique requirements.

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