The trucking industry is taking a lesson from electric car and SUV maker Tesla by embracing over-the-air updates to keep freight moving, reduce costly vehicle downtime and free technicians to work on more complex repairs.
Tesla began using the over-the-air technique in 2012 to make significant changes to its vehicles, such as adjustments to brakes and ride height.
Truck manufacturers are a long way from executing those kinds of changes to their vehicles because, unlike electric cars, they remain more machine than device. But as more functions are digitally linked to the truck’s engine-control module, the opportunity for over-the-air updates has grown.
Three truck makers recently added enhanced over-the-air option packages. Corporate siblings Mack Trucks and Volvo Trucks North America each offer subscription packages of 50 updates that allow fleets to wirelessly raise or lower a truck’s top speed and adjust a range of other parameters.
“We’re running long hours, especially in the summer, so it can be an issue to run to a dealer for a simple software update,” said Kevin McCann, fleet manager at Silver Streak Inc. in Maple Valley, Wash.
Tesla is a passenger car company, and its automated updates represent a customer convenience. But for fleet operators who need to keep their trucks moving, there’s a measurable cost saving with over-the-air updates and software fixes, said Mike Ramsey, senior research director at Gartner Inc.
Mack Trucks, most of which are used in off-highway construction and for other industrial uses, began offering limited over-the-air updates in 2017. That has allowed customers to avoid a combined 1,900 days of downtime, said Tim Wrinkle, Mack construction product manager.
Other manufacturers offer similar systems.
All Navistar International Corp. LT and RH Series trucks equipped with A26 engines built after this coming June will be ble to receive updates via cellular in addition to WiFi, which the company began offering in 2016.
Navistar’s new generation of over-the-air programming can update a truck even while it is on a route. Once the driver confirms the truck is in a safe location, the status of updates appears on the vehicle’s instrument panel.
“With this technology, there is no need to delay important calibrations that improve engine performance, fuel economy or reliability,” said Joe Edmonds, Navistar project manager for connected services.
While Mack handles updates through its call center, Daimler Trucks North America leaves the timing of over-the-air updates to the truck owner’s discretion.
“They can initiate updates when they see fit,” said Lauren Attinasi, connectivity product strategy manager.
The most requested OTA updates are changing maximum and cruising speeds. Adjusting the truck’s engine idle shutoff also is popular, she said. Keeping the engine running to power the heat or air conditioning to a sleeper cab burns fuel and increases emissions. Turning the engine on several times a night to stay comfortable is a hassle for a driver.
Daimler regularly asks its customers what they want to be able to do via over-the-air updates.
“Getting that feedback helps with our future development and enhancements that we make,” Attinasi said. The more Daimler can do with remote updates, the fewer visits its truck owners have to make to repair facilities.
For service technicians, who typically are paid a set rate per job rather than by the hour, performing fewer software updates frees them to work on better-paying jobs like engine overhauls.
But easing the workload with over-the-air changes to trucks hasn’t helped alleviate a shortage of heavy-duty truck technicians, said Robert Braswell, executive director of the Maintenance and Technology Council of the American Trucking Associations.
“Someone still has to fix the vehicle and intervene if the onboard diagnostics set ghost codes,” Braswell told Trucks.com.
But it does hold promise.
“Over-the-air programming is just starting to be practical for heavy-duty fleets,” Braswell said. “It has the potential to speed software updates and reduce physical touches to the vehicle.”
One hurdle is keeping the technology safe from hackers, and malware remains a concern.
“Anytime you’re connecting with a device and you’re transferring information there and back, you’re a vulnerable endpoint for attacking an enterprise,” Ramsey said.
Kenworth Truck Co. expressed that concern three years ago, when over-the-air updates for trucks first appeared. The Paccar Inc. unit still does not offer over-the-air updates, spokesman Jeff Parietti said. Nor does its sibling, Peterbilt Manufacturing Co.
Samsung Electronics subsidiary Harman International Industries is working to address the trucking industry’s concerns.
Harman, which supplies 23 vehicle makers with over-the-air support, recently announced an upgrade that scans the source code at the component level throughout the supply chain to identify weaknesses, said Oren Betzaleli, senior vice president of software platforms.
Another approach is targeting over-the-air updates to a truck’s body-control module while shielding communication with the vehicle’s public network, according to Navistar’s Edmonds.
Daimler approaches cybersecurity globally, using the same hardware in North America, Europe and Asia. Each region tests and shares what it learns with the other regions. The company also hires hackers to try to penetrate its system while over-the-air updates are underway, Attinasi said.
“I think the important concern for companies is that when they are delivering new software, they’re not causing a problem,” Ramsey said. “So, it’s first, ‘Do no harm’ to the vehicle itself.”