No Longer Afterthoughts, Trailers Are Getting Smart

March 14, 2018 by Emma Hurt

As the use of telematics, sensors and computerization in tractors has skyrocketed, comparable technologies in the trailers hooked behind them have not kept pace. That is changing.

More telematics options for trailers and trailing equipment are available than ever before, giving fleets unprecedented tools to capture untapped value.

“Up to this point, trailers have been pretty dumb,” said Dennis Skaradzinski, chief engineer at Great Dane Trailers. “Today, trailers are becoming smart.”

This means big opportunities for carriers, “and we literally have just begun to scratch the surface of what’s possible,” said Sue Rutherford, vice president of marketing at Orbcomm, a machine-to-machine communications company.

Basic GPS tracking technology has been available for years. Further capabilities are continuously added to those devices made by companies like Orbcomm, SkyBitz, Qualcomm and a newcomer, BlackBerry Radar. In a pivot away from mobile phones, BlackBerry has developed cybersecurity software and services. That includes a truck trailer telematics product, Radar, as well as an embedded automobile software platform and even autonomous driving projects.

These devices can track location and mileage, when doors open, plus the temperature, humidity and load capacity inside trailers. This means big changes for fleets that have never had this level of visibility into their trailers.

great dane trailer

Great Dane is building telematics sensors into its trailers that can send information directly to maintenance departments. (Photo: Great Dane)

BlackBerry Radar will result in an average of 7 to 10 percent increase in fleet efficiencies, said Philip Poulidis, the company’s senior vice president. This can include avoiding lost trailers, helping drivers find trailers in a large yard more quickly and helping drivers more accurately bill for detention time, the time they are stuck at docks waiting to load and unload.

Detention time robs U.S. truckers of an estimated $1.1 billion to $1.3 billion in income annually, according to a Department of Transportation office of inspector general audit.

Both drivers and motor carriers are trying to reduce losses created by long loading dock waits.

USA Truck just finished installing SkyBitz trackers fleetwide and is looking forward to billing for detention time to “maximize the revenue potential per asset,” said Allen Lowry, vice president, safety and risk management for the Van Buren, Ark., trucking company.

Much of the industry has not taken full advantage of the asset tracking technology available, Lowry said.

Canada Bread Co. just installed a BlackBerry Radar product across its fleet and can already see benefits, said Scott Plumley, its senior manager of transportation, operations and assets. The company originally hoped the technology would allow it to reduce its fleet size by 6 percent. “We will beat that for sure,” he said, likely to 8 percent.

Previously, connectivity was added to trailers as an aftermarket product. Now it is becoming more and more integrated into the trailer itself.

“In general, connectivity is moving from bolted-on to built-in,” said Matt Srnec, senior engineer at Thermo King. The refrigerated trailer manufacturer has made its reefer telematics portfolio standard with its trailers. “Before you could definitely see where the sensors are. Now you might not be able to,” he said.

Great Dane is building telematics sensors directly into its trailers with the potential to change the way maintenance happens. Its Fleetpulse product began beta testing in the summer of 2017. It is a fully integrated telematics system with more capability than just tracking location and door opening events, though it does that too, said Greg Scoggins, national accounts manager for Great Dane.

Great Dane Smart trailer fleetpulse

These systems will define and identify problems ahead of out-of-service events, even before the driver hits the road. (Photo: Emma Hurt/

About 200 vehicles are testing it now.

Great Dane has been able to plug into its trailers’ wheels through a unique partnership with its anti-lock braking system supplier. With sensors in each wheel, Fleetpulse can monitor miles traveled, weight per axle and inflation issues in real time. The product also tracks whether the clearance lights are working.

“We’ve never had that ability before,” Scoggins said. To sense a broken clearance light or a flat tire, “[fleets] have been relying on the driver.”

Fleets could send that information directly to their maintenance departments.

“The whole idea of the system is to get ahead of out-of-service events and define and identify problems before [the driver] goes out on the road,” he said.

Maintenance could then dispatch service teams as soon as they see an impending need.

Today, maintenance schedules are generally set based on a time window. This technology could mean that fleets schedule maintenance based on real-time tire mileage, squeeze more value out of their tires and avoid needless time-based servicing.

If a tire comes in for its scheduled six-month maintenance with 25 percent of its tread left, technicians will still replace it because they know the trailer will not be back for another six months, Scoggins said. Mileage-based scheduling would eliminate that wasted capacity. Tires are one of the most expensive maintenance costs for fleets, he said.

To address data integration — one worry of fleets whenever a new technology like this is mentioned — Great Dane will make its data available for free integration into any other in-cab telematics system, Scoggins said. “One thing customers do not want is another proprietary tracking system.”

As with semi-tractors, smart trailers will only become more and more vital, especially in the world of automated driving.

Great Dane Smart trailer

The industry will see rapid development of smart trailer technology. (Photo: Great Dane)

“A driver knows when he has a flat tire. How is an automated truck going to know?” said Gerry Mead, executive director of innovations at Phillips Industries.

The industry will see rapid development of this technology by Great Dane and others.

“The sensors are going to get cheaper and cheaper,” said Chris Hammond, Great Dane’s executive vice president of sales. “You’re going to be able to measure everything at some point. The sky is the limit.”

Read Next: Loading Dock Wait Times Cost Truckers Over $1 Billion Annually

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