Credit: Photo: Qualcomm Inc.

With onboard computers, drivers and dispatchers share information like load assignments and hours of service while vehicles are out in the field. Here, a driver has pulled over and is consulting the mobile terminal installed in his truck's cab.

Although it's a major city, St. Louis optimizes the routes and monitors the health of its street sweepers, refuse vehicles, and snow trucks the old-fashioned way: with paper maps, trial-and-error test drives, and drivers who tell the shop between preventive maintenance checks when there's a problem with a vehicle.

The city's fleet manager, Chris Amos, wants to change that. And thanks to the convergence of telecommunications with computer technology—known as “telematics”—he can.

Depending on his budget and goals, Amos can see if a truck has been idling for a long time, if a driver takes his vehicle outside his designated route, or if something is about to go wrong with a major component and needs immediate attention—all in real time on his home or office computer.

Broadly defined, telematics is any blending of computers and communications technology. In the fleet world, the systems gather and transmit information from an electronic engine monitor mounted on a truck or piece of equipment.

Some systems read information over a short-range wireless connection as a vehicle returns to the yard. Others work while a vehicle is on the road, transmitting vital operational data and global positioning system (GPS) information via satellite, cell phone, or long-range radio system.

“As implementation options expand and price points drop, more fleets will start using telematics—either batched-yard or real-time cell-phone-based—for the ‘big brother' value if nothing else,” says Amos, a certified automotive fleet manager whose team manages a diverse fleet of 2500 vehicles including fire trucks, police cars, ambulances, street sweepers, and refuse vehicles. “I'm considering implementing the technology in our refuse collection and street-cleaning fleets next, to monitor truck functions and help operations managers optimize routes.”

Truck and construction equipment manufacturers are teaming with manufacturers of telecommunications equipment to begin marketing real-time telematics systems, upgrade their offerings, or enable customers to add a system.

Beginning this month, for example, Mack Trucks of Allentown, Pa., is offering full factory installations of Road Connect on both its Granite construction trucks and over-the-road Pinnacle models.

A special antenna on the vehicles picks up GPS signals from low-orbit satellites, and signals from the truck are sent back through the satellite. When a dispatcher requests information from a specific truck, the request travels via the Internet to the satellite and then to the vehicle. The dispatcher accesses Road Connect through an Internet service provider.

Vehicle information and messages from the driver are collected in an onboard electronic control unit and sent on demand or on a pre-set schedule to the dispatcher.