The Evolution of Vehicle Telematics: How we Got to Now

Telematics – the remote monitoring and collection of vehicle data – is nothing new. Through the use of location, speed, and engine computer data, telematics helps to reduce fuel and maintenance costs, improve coordination and scheduling, and helps with safety and compliance. With all these great benefits, what took so long for this technology to arrive? Public Global Positioning System (GPS) and commercial vehicle navigation systems have been around since the 1980’s.  However, modern telematics includes much more than these early location tracking systems. How did we get to telematics today? Let’s take a look at how the convergent evolution of GPS, vehicle On-board Diagnostic (OBD) systems, and wireless networks have come together to form modern telematics.


The roots of telematics started with vehicle location tracking. The GPS network of satellites started as a military project in the 1960’s with growing precision as the technology improved and more satellites were added.  Though the initial commercial use case was airline navigation, other applications quickly emerged.

On-board Diagnostics

Location is one thing, but telematics also involves the transmission of other kinds of vehicle data. Engines are incredibly complex systems. Over time they have made growing use of electronic sensors and computer systems to coordinate various sub-systems and optimize performance.  This data can also be used to identify when something is wrong.

Wouldn’t it be nice if vehicles had a simple interface to give you all the data they have? That’s exactly what On-board Diagnostics (OBD) systems do. OBD systems interface with the vehicle’s built-in sensor systems to report on vehicle status and problems. Initially these systems had proprietary interfaces that could only be read with specialized equipment from the vehicle manufacturer. This data was great for repair technicians, but the many different interfaces and data formats left the market created a fragmented market. In an effort to help reduce emissions through standardized reporting, the state of California started to push the industry toward a single specification. In 1996, a standard system, called OBD-II, was mandated for all cars manufactured in the United States, creating a market for interfacing with these systems. OBD-II included the SAE J1962 connector that is still in common use for passenger vehicles today. Similar systems were later required for some commercial vehicles as part of Heavy Duty On-board Diagnostic (HDOBD) specifications   These systems evolved from providing simple “check engine” messages to supporting dozens of sensors or more with detailed diagnostic information that includes everything from fuel usage rates to cylinder misfires.

What can you do with all this data? OBD data was originally designed to be read by technicians who had physical access to the connector. Telematics takes this data and sends it remotely so the technician does not need to be physically there. Remote access to this data is not only convenient for identifying issues, but it can also be used to help prevent the need for major repairs in the first place. Rather than waiting for something to break, telematics can be used to identify when a its time for lower-cost, routine maintenance.  A central dispatcher can keep an eye on a large fleet and schedule pro-active maintenance appropriately – when it is needed but before its too late. As an added bonus, telematics data often includes speed an acceleration data that can be used to identify bad driving habits that no only lead to more wear but increase accidents.


Wireless Networks

Generating a lot of telematics data does not do much good if you can’t economically send it anywhere. The third piece that has evolved considerably to enable telematics is wireless networks. Initially vehicle location systems relied on two-way radio networks that were restricted to specific areas. As cellular data networks evolved, vehicle location systems started to work anywhere in the country. These systems were initially large, power-hungry, had spotty coverage and were expensive. The mobile phone industry helped to miniaturize components, make coverage near ubiquitous, and significantly reduce prices. As the electronics became smaller and mobile data networks became more commonplace, it started to become cost effective to put dedicated mobile data radios in vehicles and accessory devices.  To better service he growing market for Internet-enabled devices, commonly known as the Internet of Things (IoT), mobile phone providers are now offering specialized wireless network services optimized for these devices like LTE-M and LTE NB-IoT.

Today, a complete telematics system with GPS, OBD interface, and nationwide coverage can is no more than a few inches in size. The main reason it isn’t smaller is because it would be too hard to plug in! Many vehicles, especially high-end commercial ones, now have telematics as a standard option built-in. As new technologies like drive-by-wire and autonomous driving are introduced, vehicles are producing more and more data. Manufacturers uses this data in aggregate across models to look for design flaws and to make improvements.  Many manufacturers now provide software updates that can improve performance without any physical changes.

Interested in learning more about Telematics and how it can help improve your fleet’s efficiency and safety? Greg Arlen, Tenna’s Director of Product, hosted a webinar on this topic with Construction Executive where will be digging into Telematics’ many benefits and where this technology is going. Watch webinar on demand.

Transportation Compliance and What it Means for Fleet Managers

Commercial drivers and fleet operators must comply with a number of regulatory requirements. These have strange acronyms and may seem burdensome, but in reality they largely can codify good business practices that aren’t difficult to implement with the right tools. In this post we’ll explain these acronyms, explore some of these regulations, and see what fleet managers need to do for compliance.

Who makes these rules?

Acronym Guide – general transportation regulations

Acronym What it stands for Description
US DOT United States Department of Transportation A federal Cabinet department started by Congressional Act that has overseen transportation since 1967
FMCSA Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration An agency in the US Department of Transportation that regulates the trucking industry to reduce accidents
CMV Commercial Motor Vehicle Regulated vehicles used on highway for interstate commercials – typically large trucks and busses
FMCSRs Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations Regulations covered by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration

Vehicle and driver rules don’t come out of nowhere. In most cases they are funded by Congress and regulated by the US Department of Transportation (US DOT). The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration within the DOT regulates large trucks and busses. FMCSA does not cover everything though – generally off-road and heavy-duty construction equipment is not subject FMCSA regulation.

Driver Logging with ELD

Acronym Guide – driver time logging

Acronym What it stands for Description
HOS Hours of Service Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration regulations that specify drive duration and break duration rules
RODS Records of Duty Status A mandated time log kept by a driver to record driving time and rest periods to ensure they comply with Hours of Service requirements
AOBRDs Automatic On-Board Recording Device An electronic device that interfaces with the vehicle help record a Driver’s Hours of Service specified under an older ruling
ELD Electronic Logging Device A recent requirement mandating that Hours of Service logs kept by drivers that keep Records of Duty Status, log their entries electronically on a compliant device or smartphone app

A tired driver is more likely to have an accident, so it is no surprise that that DOT FMCSA sets rules for monitoring how long a driver can go without rest. Until recently, drivers either kept these records on a piece of paper or electronically with the assistance of an Automatic On-Board Recording Device (AOBRD) – a devices that interfaces with the vehicle under a rule passed in 1988. More recently the FMCSA established mandatory electronic logging requirements. Devices that comply with these requirements are called Electronic Logging Devices. ELD rules allow some AOBRDs to be grandfathered in, but generally ELDs are newer devices that plug into the vehicle follow the new rules. These ELDs usually include a complementary mobile app the driver can use to see and display the log information.

The Deadline for ELD went into effect on December 18, 2017. Grandfathered AOBRD devices must be replaced with ELDs by December 16, 2019. This means that Fleet Managers need to make sure their regulated vehicles have a tracking device installed.

Fleet Managers can combine ELD data with vehicle telematics information. Telematics can provide useful safety data such as when speed limits are exceeded that can be inputted into a driver safety score card systems. Together, these electronic records can be used to reward good performance and monitor for issues.  In addition, new driver harassment policies place clear liability on dispatchers who knowingly tell their drivers to violate HOS rules. A good system will help not only the drivers, but the dispatchers too to help reduce liabilities for the operator.

Vehicle Inspections with DVIR

Acronym Guide – vehicle inspections

Acronym What it stands for Description
DVIR Driver Vehicle Inspection Reports FMCSA rules that require drivers perform a formal inspection of the vehicle at specified times in their shift and log these results

No one should drive an unsafe vehicle. DVIR regulations help to verify vehicle safety by mandating regular inspections. Drivers must report issues and sign-off on repairs. Fleet operators must address issues and log repairs. An electronic tracking and check-list system, like the one offered by Tenna, can be used to help coordinate data entry by the driver and review by the fleet operator. Vehicle telematics data can be included in this database to help identify subtle malfunctions that might be missed during normal inspections.

In the end, a proper DVIR system helps both the driver and the operator by preventing expensive and dangerous break-downs.

Fuel Tax Accounting with IFTA

Acronym Guide – vehicle inspections

Acronym What it stands for Description
IFTA International Fuel Tax Agreement International agreement between the lower-48 states in the US and all Canadian provinces to simplify fuel use reporting for tax accounting purposes.

IFTA is a little different from ELD and DVIR in that is not a DOT FCMSA requirement or driver compliance requirement at all. However, logging fuel spend and travel routes is often a company requirement to help with fuel tax accounting. IFTA is setup to accountants at tax time and reduce driver paperwork. Every state has its own fuel tax rates. Rather than the paying each state individually during a given trip, IFTA simplifies this system so long as mileage is tracked by state.

Fleet managers can automate their IFTA data entry with specialized programs for recording fuel purchases and leverage GPS data to determining tax jurisdictions. This simplifies life for the driver and makes fuel tax reporting easy in the back office.