Intelligent trucking

Intelligent trucking

When Mercedes-Benz launches a vehicle, you can be sure the event will be memorable, particularly when the manufacturer in question has both trucks and cars in its arsenal – and is in the mood to showcase both, writes NADINE VON MOLTKE.

Mercedes-Benz pulled no punches at the recent launch of its new extra-heavy series, the Actros III.

Held at the Zwartkops race track in early September, the launch was a clever blend of driving fun, coupled with subtle reminders of not only how powerful and elegant Mercedes-Benz vehicles are, but how technologically advanced as well.

A class leader since its introduction to the world in the mid-1990s, the Actros immediately grabbed the attention of the manufacturer’s assembled guests and clients as a row of perfectly spaced and impressively fast trucks muscled their way along the track.

The drivers showcased their control of the vehicles by maintaining perfect following distances from one another, and the sheer size and deep rumbling of the truck-tractors was enough to earn a grudging respect from the battle-hardened truckers present.

Not even the C 63 AMG that burst on the track after the trucks had exited received the same reaction – and I now know why the Germans prefer truck racing to cars, there’s not much that can match a truck in terms of sheer displays of power.

Guests at the event were invited to test drive both the trucks and AMGs on the race track (with a driver-skills trainer on board of course), and a gymkhana course on the skid pan allowed those who were willing to experience the Actros’ impressive handling abilities, effortless power steering and completely automatic controls while concentrating on negotiating tight turns around tiny orange cones.

And of course, true to Mercedes-Benz’s reputation as a technological leader, each driver was monitored throughout the day. In this case, Big Brother really was watching, and the result was prizes for the most economical drivers throughout the day – down to a fraction of a percentage point.

How, you ask, was Mercedes-Benz able to calibrate this information? Through FleetBoard, an onboard telematics system launched locally at the Johannesburg International Motor Show in October 2008’ that will henceforth be a standard feature of the Actros, and arguably the star of this show (in conjunction with the Actros of course).

A pioneering spirit
Since its initial launch in South Africa in 1998, the Actros has been a trailblazer in intelligent technology. The Actros III, launched locally in early September, has continued this trend as the first truck to come standard with an onboard telematics system designed and operated by the truck’s own manufacturer. Mercedes-Benz has named the system FleetBoard, insisting that this technology will change the world of trucking as we know it today.

“With the introduction of Actros I, we were the first local manufacturer to offer Telligent vehicle technology,” opened Kobus van Zyl, president of commercial vehicles at Mercedes-Benz South Africa (MBSA).

“Actros was also the first truck series to offer an automated transmission as standard,” he continued.

“Today, there are 600 000 Actroses on the road worldwide, making it the single most popular Mercedes-Benz truck in the world. And most impressive for us, all three generations of the Actros have won the award for International Truck of the Year, in 1997, 2003 and now in 2009 for the Actros III.”

According to Van Zyl, much of Mercedes-Benz’s success lies in not only being a class leader in what he terms “thought and mind” technology, but in having the right technology at the right time.

“We are launching the new Actros with FleetBoard as a standard feature because we believe the South African market is ready for this next step in intelligent trucking technology,” explained Pascal Weiss, manager of FleetBoard at MBSA.

“Rising fuel, vehicle and maintenance costs, as well as increased time pressures, mean that fleet managers need to operate their fleets as economically and efficiently as possible.

“This means knowing how well a driver performs and having the necessary information to recognise and improve on poor driving,” continued Weiss. “It means being able to pre-empt any mechanical or technical problems, thereby fixing them timeously and avoiding downtime. It even means avoiding unnecessary services and extending our service intervals. And of course, real-time monitoring can result in significant fuel savings.”

In a nutshell, FleetBoard provides relevant up-to-date information in an instant to help fleet managers make informed decisions that will improve the efficiency and profitability of their business. However, this in itself, in a technologically advanced time where GPSs and telematics systems are practically par for the course, is hardly ground breaking.

Intelligent truckingWhere FleetBoard, and indeed the Actros, differ is in Mercedes-Benz’s ownership of the product. Since the manufacturer owns the intellectual rights to FleetBoard, this telematics system is based on the manufacturer’s own codes. While aftermarket telematics systems make use of international fleet management system (FMS) protocols which manufacturers must make available for their products, a system such as FleetBoard contains Mercedes-Benz’s codes: vital fuel, brake and systems information that allows the system to measure fuel efficiency to a degree of accuracy other systems simply cannot achieve, or even measure brake wear to a percentage point.

“We are not going to give away our codes – they are what make our products what they are,” explained Weiss. “However, through the development of FleetBoard, Mercedes-Benz trucks are now fitted with a CANBUS that can access and read the most minutia of information.”

What marks FleetBoard even further is that it will now come standard in all Actroses. “Any Actros I or II can be retrofitted with FleetBoard,” said Weiss, “but the new Actros is pioneering the idea that this technology should be a standard feature.

“Operators will need to activate the technology, but the option is there, built-in.”

In fact, FleetBoard as a standard feature is not only a local first, but a world first which is being tested in South Africa.

“We have a strong, loyal Actros customer base in South Africa that is neither too big, nor too small in terms of test markets,” Weiss continued. “Operators here know what they want, and they are looking to better their operating costs. We believe it’s the perfect market to test FleetBoard as a standardised feature of the Actros. And if it does well, it will become a standard Actros feature across a number of Mercedes-Benz markets across the globe.”

The FleetBoard on-board computer is about the size of a car radio and comes with an integrated GSM/GPRS modem and GPS receiver. The simple and easy-to-operate layout with buttons for service call (if a truck has broken down), event call and home call ensure smooth driver and management communication. The home call button can also be used as a panic button, while free text messages can also be sent to the driver, which will appear on the steering-wheel screen.

Drivers are issued with either a FleetBoard driver card per vehicle or a personalised card for each driver to optimally rate their performance. This SIM card can also be used in neighbouring countries without any additional cost. The card allows data to be collected from drivers on speed, braking and brake distance, pedal movement, coasting distance, gear ratios, and a number of other driving factors. “This detail is particularly valuable in reducing fuel and maintenance costs,” explained Weiss.

“Fuel, maintenance and downtime costs make up 50% of the running cost of a transport business and with FleetBoard we have managed to bring about savings of up to R60 000 per vehicle per year.”

Of course, while the system supplies more information to an operator than he has ever had access to before, it does require a hands-on approach. Operators need to access the information and then act on it. Knowing how well (or poorly) a driver performs is meaningless unless corrective measures are taken.

“Most drivers will naturally follow better driving principles if they know they are being monitored, but on the whole it is important for an operator or fleet manager to really use the information FleetBoard supplies to his advantage,” insisted Weiss.

Globally, the FleetBoard system has been in operation for 10 years, it has been sold to 1 200 customers, and has been installed in more than 50 000 trucks.

Locally, all Actros III trucks will come fitted with the FleetBoard computer system and users will have free use thereof for the first four months. After the trial period an activation and monthly fee is payable.

It will be interesting to see if the local market is so enamoured with this technology that the idea will receive a global rollout.

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