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What Is Telematics?

Fleet telematics can help construction companies increase equipment utilization and profitability.

Combine telecommunications, especially wireless telecommunications, with informatics, a branch of computer science that involves information systems, and you get telematics. The context these days is usually vehicle or fleet telematics, which can provide actionable information to fleet managers, including construction fleet managers. 

Simply put, “Telematics is the remote monitoring of equipment and vehicles via any number of electronic methods,” said Mike Bierschbach, director of fleet intelligence and technology for United Rentals.  

A telematics device, aka “black box,” typically contains a GPS receiver, a small computer control board and a cellular or satellite antenna. It collects and stores data and sends it wirelessly to a cloud server and ultimately to the user interface, accessed on a computer or smartphone.  

These devices can be installed by the manufacturer in the factory or by third parties. When the manufacturer installs the device, it’s often hardwired into the CAN bus, the machine’s “brain center.” Construction OEMs such as John Deere, Komatsu and Volvo install telematics devices in many of their construction vehicles. Each manufacturer has a corresponding telematics software system.  

When United Rentals adds telematics devices to vehicles and equipment in its rental fleet, it uses a custom wiring harness to connect the device to the engine and other key components such as the fuel gauge. 

The data provided depends on the telematics system. It can be as simple as location and run hours or as advanced as hydraulic pressure and capacity overloads. Some systems can monitor fluid levels and/or the temperature of critical engine parts, for example, and then send alerts via text message or email when the equipment needs maintenance or is in danger of breaking down. In the case of on-road vehicles, information on speed, turning and braking can clue a manager into aggressive driving habits.   

Fleet telematics can help construction fleet managers: 

  • Use equipment more efficiently. Managers can easily see equipment that’s sitting idle and allocate it to other jobsites or return it if it’s rented.  

  • Reduce equipment downtime through predictive maintenance. 

  • Prevent unauthorized use of equipment. A telematics system can send alerts when a piece of equipment moves outside a certain geographic area (geofencing) or is used outside of a given time frame (time-fencing). Some systems enable operators to remotely disable a machine to prevent it from operating outside of those parameters. 

  • Lower insurance premiums. Targeted driver training based on identified driving behavior can reduce the risk that vehicles will be involved in accidents or that drivers will get ticketed while on the job. Better driving records can help managers of on-road fleets get breaks on insurance premiums. 

Telematics benefits managers in industries such as power and mining in addition to construction fleet managers.  

“Telematics/GPS tracking allows for our company to make more informed business decisions based on the data from current work being completed or historically,” said Daniel Mahlberg, supply chain manager for Terra Millennium, an industrial services provider and a United Rentals customer. “The estimating division can take information from a previous job and use it to structure new bid documents. Additionally, we are able to use the data to determine operator productivity on jobs and determine if we need to return or rent additional equipment.” 

As OEM telematics systems in particular become more sophisticated and offer more data, some construction contractors may find themselves faced with having more information than solutions. But using telematics to see even the most basic data points, such as where equipment is located and whether it’s idle, can help reduce costs by boosting equipment utilization.  

Beyond fleet telematics, telematics solutions for construction tools and also materials are on their way. Their advent will likely make telematics an even larger driver of increased productivity on jobsites.  

Freelance writer Mary Lou Jay writes about business and technical developments in a variety of industries. She has been covering residential and commercial construction for more than 25 years. 

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