Thursday 14th Dec 2017 - Logistics Manager

Mixed signals

Technology, as everybody knows, moves fast. And nowhere is it moving faster than in the realm of vehicle telematics, as the ability to monitor vehicles, drivers and loads remotely brings hitherto undreamed-of levels of control to the fleet manager. Little wonder then, that a recent report from marketing consultants Frost & Sullivan suggested the value of the European commercial vehicle market for telematics systems would grow from €169.5m in 2001 to a staggering €4.7bn by 2009.

But amid all this excitement, the technology has not moved far enough or fast enough yet to support the use of such systems across Europe as fully as users might want.

Some sectors, of course, fare better than others. Vehicle tracking and tracing, for example, is among the most well-developed telematics applications from a pan-European point of view. As most vehicle tracking systems depend on satellite (GPS) technology, all they need is an onboard GPS unit to be able to locate their position to a high degree of accuracy anywhere on the planet. So if all you want to do is view your fleet out and about across Europe, modern track and trace systems are usually well up to the task and there are many examples of users doing just this.

Even so, things are not always entirely straightforward with pan-European tracking. For one thing, GPS requires a line of sight from vehicle to satellite – by no means guaranteed in European city centres with tall buildings and definitely not guaranteed in the middle of the Mont Blanc tunnel or onboard a ferry.

More prolonged ‘blindness’ is also inherent in the use of mobile phone (GSM) networks to transmit GPS location information back to base. Given the patchy nature of coverage offered by the GSM network, both within individual countries and across Europe, visibility could be an issue for long periods, depending on what region your trucks are in and how long they stay there.

‘GSM is pretty ubiquitous in the main European countries – but not in the outback of Uzbekistan, for instance’ says Andrew Tillman, director of Minorplanet Systems. ‘That’s why in a lot of cases, telecoms companies tend to quote coverage of 99 per cent of the population – not 99 per cent of the country,’ he adds.

You don’t have to depend on the GSM network, of course. You can use satellite communications, for example, although this is ‘hideously expensive’ according to Tillman. Nevertheless for some applications it’s a must, says Ian McLaren, sales and marketing director of systems integrator, Bluefinger. ‘If you’re sending a vehicle from London to Berlin or Madrid, a GSM solution can be fantastic but if you’re sending it from Yarmouth to Vladivostok the only way to maintain connectivity is via a satellite,’ he says. Having said that, adds McLaren, it all depends how often users want to feed positional information back to base, because even when GSM is temporarily unavailable, an onboard system can still be collecting information for download later on.

Detailed maps
There can also, of course, be problems getting hold of detailed maps for some areas of the Continent. While street-level mapping is readily available for many parts of Western Europe, the East doesn’t fare so well; often only major roads may be included and whole regions, if remote, could be omitted. It’s a problem that affects not just vehicle tracking systems but also satellite navigation systems, which can give you turn-by-turn route instructions only in places for which detailed street level mapping is available.

‘In 1996 there were no street level maps for the UK that were any good,’ says Tillman. ‘Now, it’s a lot more accurate and there are street level maps for most of Western Europe. In developing countries, however, these are still being put together.’

Parts of Eastern Europe are a particular problem, he adds. ‘Maps were a secret issue in Russia until not so long ago, for instance,’ says Tillman. ‘But I think street level mapping will become available across all of Europe within the next five years, providing there is demand for it.’

A lack of compatibility
A further consideration with modern tracking systems is their lack of compatibility with one another. So if you kit out a fleet based in the UK with one system and then strike up a partnership with a company in Hungary running another, you won’t be able to add the Hungarian fleet to your on-screen display in the UK – at least not without a fight, according to Stephen Clark, business manager for vehicle tracking systems at Bluefinger: ‘You’d need to get the units in one fleet commissioned to work with the other system,’ he says. ‘If you get the intellectual property rights to the vehicles in the Hungarian fleet, for instance, you can probably use the data and transfer it to your UK hub – but you do need to deal with the Hungarian service provider to do so.’

Rather than getting vehicles to report in to a different tracking system, there is of course another option – to maintain two independent systems but allow them to share data at the back office level.

Sadly, however, there is little compatibility on this side either. ‘There’s a commercial issue there,’ explains Stuart Brunger, business manager of Tracker. ‘Everyone seems to be trying to define their turf in the market and they don’t want to give away their protocols as a result. But standard protocols and connectivity would encourage the whole market – and we’d all win.’

With so much incompatibility between vehiclebased systems, the recent emergence of alternative mobile phone-based services looked to some like it might herald a new age of interoperability with its standardised hardware, automatic roaming capability across countries and the wide range of locationbased services fast becoming available on such systems; tracking and tracing, route navigation, and dialin traffic information being just three examples. Such systems are certainly cheap, compared to dedicated vehicle-based equipment, not least because lots of people already carry the necessary hardware around with them. And it’s also very quick to get handsets added to a tracking system; you just have to tell your service provider which phones to track.

Frustratingly, however, such location-based services often cannot be used effectively outside the country of origin, according to Andrew Overton, managing director of Overview Mapping. ‘While you get automatic international roaming with voice, it’s not the same with location-based services,’ he says. ‘Because calls on UK-registered phones, for instance, are routed through the UK, if you tracked a phone in, say, Switzerland, it would just give you the switch location in the UK,’ he says. ‘It will happen one day – but we’re not there yet,’ he adds.

Another issue with mobile phone tracking – which uses mobile phone masts to triangulate a phone’s position – is accuracy. This depends at any given moment on the number of phone masts a phone can ‘see’. In built-up areas, it can be enough to differentiate between one person and the next on a busy street. In remote locations, however, accuracy down to 300-400 metres is more likely. This might not bother you too much if you’re sending a truck across Europe and don’t need high accuracy, but it won’t be much good for security-related applications, where a vehicle’s exact position could be crucial. Phone manufacturers are now starting to add optional GPS modules to phones which don’t cost a fortune and will improve accuracy considerably, says Overton.

Neither do mobile phone tracking systems allow for monitoring of things like engine revs, opening doors or ‘geo-fencing’. ‘And they’re no good if they’re switched off or left at home!’ adds Minorplanet’s Tillman. ‘They are a good cheap idea for location information, but no good for things like timesheet management or job scheduling, which you will get with a true vehicle management system. As a result, I don’t see them as real competition for vehicle management systems,’ he adds.

Different needs
‘Different fleets have different needs,’ concedes Oren Nissim, chief executive officer of location-based services provider Telmap. ‘If a fleet manager wants to know where his people are and manage their tasks, then a mobile phone solution gives him exactly what he needs. If he wants to know about fuel consumption, vehicle performance and doors opening, however, I don’t think you can that from mobile phones.’

Having said that, adds Nissim, using a GPS unit along with a mobile phone and sensors onboard a truck communicating with the phone via wireless technology could give users the option to monitor truck performance in the future, as well as greater accuracy in positional information where needed.

Things are just as complicated when it comes to pan-European coverage in terms of specialised stolen vehicle tracking systems. Because GPS-based tracking systems can be easily jammed, stolen vehicle tracking systems often use alternative technology for position information – typically radio communications. Tracker’s stolen vehicle recovery system is among the best-known examples. But unfortunately, the effectiveness of such systems cross-border is severely restricted by the allocation of radio frequencies in each country. Unless a radio-based system uses the same frequency in every country, its ability to report a vehicle’s position across Europe is effectively scuppered.
 
Tracker only achieved parity between its UK and French stolen vehicle recovery systems earlier this year and so far, the UK and France are the only two countries in which it is effective across borders.

Of course it is technically feasible to create a system that detects changes of country and switches frequency accordingly, but cost is a barrier, says Brunger: ‘Technically, it would be possible, but you’d probably be talking about increased cost. And the other issue is that if you have a truck stolen in Naples and it’s monitored by an organisation in the UK, you need to have the contact with the Italian police. There’s a set-up issue there and if it was only used infrequently, the processes would get forgotten anyway, especially by the police in a small village in Italy, for instance.’

Anti-crime response service
It’s precisely this problem that Tri-Mex addresses, however, with its Eurowatch service. This is basically an anti-crime response service that gives vehicle operators 24-hour access to police in 23 European countries through a single telephone number that can be dialled from any country. Via a central control centre in Oslo, police in any of the 23 countries covered can be called in their own language, and real-time data on the vehicle’s position can be forwarded thanks to the option to pull data from any existing onboard GPS system.

Network extension
Mark Schwartz, chief operating officer of Tri-Mex, says over 10,000 vehicles currently use the service and adds that another two or three countries will be added to the network by the end of the current year. The service, launched in May last year, is already used by plenty of large transport operators and freight forwarders, he adds.

Road traffic information is another application for which onboard telematics systems are ideal within national borders, but again, once you’re involved in cross-border operations, things suddenly start to look a little less attractive.

Among the best-known names on this side of the business is Trafficmaster, but chief executive David Martell admits that while you can get good information in the UK about traffic flows and jams, nobody has got very far yet in making the same kind of information available on a pan-European basis. Trafficmaster’s own system covers only the UK and Germany so far.

Low demand
Martell says: ‘It’s market-driven, and market demand for a pan-European service is very small. Technically, however, there’s no reason why you can’t do it. The technology is totally there. Part of the dilemma is what it would cost; to set up a pan-European infrastructure would be enormously expensive and it will be some time before the market has developed enough to do so.

‘At some stage, there will be a pan-European system, but we’re just not there yet,’ he adds.

Martell’s words apply equally to the current state of play with pan-European telematics systems. Hopefully, all these problems, costs and incompatibilities will get resolved at some point to give pan- European operators access to the telematics technology they really deserve. Sadly, however, that day still seems a good way off. And until then, given the opening up of the EU next year to ten new member states and the anticipated rise in pan-European trade and transport that will result, the problem of incompatibility between different telematics systems and different countries looks set to grow almost as fast as the European market for telematics systems itself.