Ahead of the curve

For the latest diagnostics, vehicle tracking and geofencing, businesses as dissimilar as SCT Logistics, with its road haulage for an extensive rail network and Australian Pacific Touring, which handles outback tours with built-for-purpose all-wheel trucks, rely on Mercedes-Benz Telematics. Both are uncovering data to help spike efficiencies now vital to the demands of their expanding operations.

Quantifying the areas a business might gain its advantages has fast become the domain of mining data. The technology of telematics remains, for these purposes, a mandatory business practice for road transport fleets as they continue the ongoing quest to discover and amplify that, which is now considered crucially measurable.

Fuel economy, trip history and the various elements that contribute to driver behaviour can all be monitored for the insights they can provide road transport companies as they protect their investments and look to ensure they are getting the full benefit of their staff and equipment. To say telematics changes the way fleet managers look at their business models might be to undersell it.

Australian Pacific Touring (APT) runs daily outback tours during the dry season into the remotest outskirts of Australia. In the Kimberly region of northeast Western Australia, where tourists flock to see the beehive domes and Cathedral Gorge, to name two of the natural attractions of the Bungle Bungle Range, the roads are unpaved, the conditions can be sweltering and the rocky terrain is as foreboding to vehicles as any place in the world.

In order to provide access to such spectacular scenery APT buses in tourists on its fleet of built-for-purpose all-wheel drive trucks. There are 16 in total.

Half of these are Mercedes-Benz Arocs, according to Tim Grylls, APT Fleet Manager. Daimler Trucks Laverton modifies the chassis before they are sent to Brisbane, where a company called Coach Design build the bodies to specification.

Each vehicle is powered with a 350 horsepower engine, houses 22 seats and is equipped with Mercedes-Benz Telematics.

“It suits our needs a little better than the previous system we tried. From my experience it’s very user-friendly and it allows me to run the reports I need on each of the vehicles from our many  operations.”

Tim admits he is new to telematics. Although he is still in the early stages of exploring its potential as a tool, he is satisfied that it’s already bringing his business improvements in fuel efficiency and vehicle durability. He says driver monitoring, especially for range and threshold of speeds, particularly in remote areas, is of interest to him.

“For me, that is directly related to trying to keep vehicle wear and tear down. Having been a guide myself for a number of years I know the temptation is to push the limits of the vehicle”, Tim says.

“Some of that involves trying to give your guests as much time as possible out enjoying the sightseeing and then having to make up your time on the road. That’s all well and good but there’s a direct correlation between driving fast and degeneration and other vehicle damage.”

If he recognises a pattern of driver behaviour, for instance someone who has blown out several tyres, Tim retrieves the data from one of the various detailed reports that are available.

That way he can show the driver in question the exact speeds they have been travelling at to demonstrate the warranted changes they might need to make moving forward.

“This way with telematics I can present the driver with the data and give them some immediate feedback and say ‘look we can see what you’re doing now and you’ve got to pull it up,’” he says.

“The drivers are pretty good and they take the feedback on board. Once you’ve given them a bit of a warning they will slow down and the results, for us, are there to see since there is much less wear and tear on the vehicles.”

As the Mercedes-Benz Telematics is preinstalled in the cab, it doesn’t require any further reworking in the aftermarket. This means it is ready to go. Software is locally managed and updated, using one interface. Because business parameters can fluctuate, the data sharing is set-up to fulfil additional requirements, as they surface, change and evolve, for fleet managers, beyond the initial stand-alone  offering.

Michael Sommers, National Fleet Manager, SCT Logistics, whose road fleet business is largely established to complement its freight rail operations, is also a customer of Mercedes-Benz Telematics. His business has recently completed the purchase of 21 Mercedes-Benz Actros 2653s and he’s using telematics to monitor the performance of the trucks. Sometimes that can also involve lack of performance he says.

“If a truck has been parked up for too long we find out why, ascertain the repairs it requires and what needs to be done to it,” Michael says.

“At a national level we need to see how we move these trucks around. Because we’re on a maintenance contract I need to see that all trucks are doing the same amount of kilometres and escalate the process, if the vehicle is parked somewhere, we need to get it back on the  road.”

Telematics on the new Mercedes-Benz 2653 trucks, he says, is already showing key gains in fuel economy. With its B-double combinations running between Brisbane and its rail terminal in Bromelton, SCT Logistics is seeing, on average, a 2.2km/l fuel burn. According to Michael he is also seeing an equivalent figure for the single trailers his fleet have shuttled between Parkes and Sydney in New South Wales.

“Because we receive all the data live now with the new Mercedes truck we’re getting a much better fuel economy. In Parkes, the previous trucks were only doing 1.8km/l so the difference is noticeable,” he says.

Michael, in the weekly updates he receives, looks for exception reports which detail driver behaviour such as if the speed limit has been exceeded, an engine has been over-revved or if a truck is idled beyond the desired amount of time. He programs Mercedes-Benz Telematics according to the needs of his weekly performance reviews. The data he receives covers up-to-the-minute information on trips per vehicles, including start and end confirmations, distance travelled, the driving time, brake counts, gear changes and cruise percentages, among many other factors.

“From a national perspective we can concentrate on the areas that are costing us money,” he says. “You can focus your attention solely on the issues if you want. You can identify what is happening. Is it the truck? Is it the driver?”
Some drivers, he says, are prone to using too low revs when going down the hill instead of high for maximum engine brake retardation. The contrast of different drivers on the same route can show massive differences in braking. According to Michael the less a driver brakes and accelerates the less he will have to outlay, as a fleet manager, in costly maintenance.

“Telematics helps educate drivers and helps educate us as to the different conditions that might affect behaviours,” he says.

“There’s a lot, in terms of statistics, to pore over and all of it can be useful to your  operations.”

SCT Logistics has recently ordered a further 21 Mercedes-Benz Actros 2651s, which will service its business in Perth. All of these will have fully operated leases with telematics for fuel usage and maintenance confirms Michael, who also uses geofences to track mobile vehicles in a virtual mapped out geography. In this way telematics allows the vehicles to talk to the fence and transmit diagnostic information from the working truck.

Telematics, for SCT Logistics, are now customarily part of the process for most heavy vehicle prestart checklists. Documentation, now common among drivers, for each assignment, can be stored on a tablet and easily accessed. National Heavy Vehicle Accreditation Scheme (NHVAS) information, for example, that a driver will need to lodge can be entered, as when needed, through telematics. It has done away with loose-leaf paper flying around the cabin says Michael.

“With the fitness of duty all being electronic we can recall data and set up speed alerts and speedfences and geofences, using GPS which allows a mobile device to enter or leave a particular area and the options that relate to that. When you have a mixed fleet you have to be able to look at the complete picture and not just the bits and pieces.”

While SCT Logistics is predominantly a rail company, its large road fleet, runs curtainsiders, haul containers and refrigerated transport, primarily as a pick up and delivery business.

APT, in contrast, works on a different model. Its drivers double as tour guides. Their hours vary, greatly, from one hour in the saddle to as many as eight depending on the isolation of the next outback location. When they’re not driving they are still working, whether it is organising lunches, setting up meals and guiding walks. Because the telematics system can only record when the guides are driving Tim Grylls matches the results to their logbooks to confirm when they aren’t.

The remoteness of the operating conditions can make it difficult, at times, to get live data from telematics but the sim cards are on the 4G Network and according to Tim he downloads the data as soon as the trucks come back into range.

APT has a company policy where drivers are not to exceed 80 k/p/h on any dirt road. In the Bungle Bungles drivers must obey restrictions of 50 k/p/h through its vast national park.

“With this sort of monitoring we can be confident that our drivers are sticking to those speed limits,” Tim says. “It’s also for the safety of our passengers who are always our foremost concern. Everyone’s freight is important but no more important or precious than human lives. Safety is always the number one priority.”

With so many travellers coming and going in cars to these tourist locations, Tim says the drivers need to be able to read the road and adjust their driving style, tyre pressures and factor in myriad unforeseen obstacles on-the-fly, to suit the conditions.

“Keeping in mind that en route to these destinations you are sharing the roads with people who have probably never done this kind of driving before,” he says.

“Not only do you need to be able to make the right decisions, but you need to expect the unexpected from the other vehicles out on the road. Our guys are probably some of the most experienced on the road. They’re doing it every week.”

Built-for-purpose, the trucks are given, per Tim, “an incredible amount of stick,” by APT during testing to ensure they are up to task. The conditions are extreme with drivers encountering corrugations in roads heavily rutted by the wet season.

The Mercedes-Benz Arocs are all PowerShift3 automated manuals; and the terrain in which they operate is hilly, with winding roads. In order to get the most out of vehicles in the rocky conditions Tim says drivers have got to manually shift them.

“Training the drivers to manually shift when required to get more out of the vehicle and drive it more efficiently is made easier by use of telematics,” he says.

“I can look at breakdowns of the time drivers devote to idling time and the ideal revs per minute. These factors all have a direct impact on your fuel efficiency. I can give direct feedback, say if they are harsh on the brakes, and little things that help them identify improvements in their driving style.”

In the past, when chasing up odometer readings and monthly figures for fuel reports Tim would have to wait around for handwritten fuel sheets to come back in.

“If a driver is doing a trip to Darwin that might take a month to get that information,” he says. “Now I log into their current data and fuel usage and it saves me a huge amount of time.”

Mercedes-Benz Telematics can be retrofitted to selected earlier Mercedes-Benz models and other selected manufacturer vehicles. By having telematics on each vehicle in the fleet Tim plans on setting it up to get automatic reports on fuel efficiency. He expects to find more benefits from it as he pursues it more.

“We’re certainly still learning about it and I doubt that we’ve cracked its full potential just yet but I’m looking at putting it in all our vehicles before too long,” he say. “I’d like to have it in 100 per cent of our vehicles by next season.”