Implementing technology could be the biggest challenge to data standardization

 (Photo: Shutterstock)
(Photo: Shutterstock)

The freight industry witnesses millions of data points being created on its everyday routine, and is now waking up to a reality where using the data and making decisions over analytics is an approach that could help foster growth. But one of the inherent problems associated with big data is standardization, the lack of which can make data sets worthless.

Data standardization is critical in the freight industry, and with a lot of stakeholders in the picture, bringing everyone to the table to agree on a common standard is an issue. Jan Unander, the coordinator of Data Openness In Transport Solutions (DOITS) is looking to address this problem in Europe by creating a platform where all the parties involved could discuss issues plaguing the system.

“I took this initiative in 2013 after a discussion with Volvo Trucks that complained about the slow pace of standardization of APIs in the transportation ecosystem,” said Unander. “I invited key European truck manufacturers, telecom operators, EBS suppliers, After Market Fleet Management Solutions (AMFMS) providers and organized a meeting to search for a way to approach this challenge.”

The strategy of DOITS is to bring the strongest parties on the market together and provide them a platform where they could come to an agreement and create industrial harmonization. “DOITS believes in the power of the commercial system and that when the main players come together, standardization will be made quicker than if political initiatives are the driving force,” said Unander.

Unander insisted that to move forward, it is crucial for the industry to “agree on something” consistent and to include them in their solutions. “We do not work with algorithms. We instead focus on how cross brands harmonize undisputable data like on/off and 0/1 – where definitions of the data or how it is generated may differ and when used in a larger context, will lead to compatible measures,” he said. “The issue with algorithms is that companies make their own and believe they have the best ones, trying to convince people on standard APIs is hard.”

Data being generated today lack uniformity as companies define it discretely, leading to confusion amongst users of different FMS solutions. DOITS focuses on data that is essential for building services and looks to help in creating a common data standard that would be universally beneficial. “If we get to agree on some basics, it might make it easier for the end users to trust the data and have a market that really utilizes FMS data to become efficient, improve safety, and reduce environmental impact,” said Unander.

DOITS has come up with specific key measures to be defined by its working group. One such parameter is the truck brand neutral idling measure that is used when calculating fuel consumption, considered as one of the primary negative data variables of the truck – also used as a yardstick to determine the efficiency of drivers. “It is important to note that DOITS does not standardize, but helps the actors decide to change it in their software and create harmonization,” said Unander. Truck manufacturers do the actual standardization, and DOITS works closely with them as an advisory group.

Recently, Unander has been fascinated with the idea of blockchain and its potential to usher in reliability and transparency to data standardization. DOITS perceived that to support the blockchain implementation it would be ideal to harmonize with the objective to finally standardize the ID exchange of VIN number between the trailer and the truck during a connection situation, to ensure that the equipments are rightly paired.

“To achieve this, we need to involve the suppliers that deliver EBS systems to the trailers. Their software is prepared to keep a record of the VIN number of the trailer and if the VIN number can be exchanged between the trailer and truck, over the EBS CAN bus, a reliable function for this handshake is created,” said Unander. “If the VIN number is combined with a position and timestamp of truck and trailer while connecting and disconnecting, trustworthy information of when and where the pickup and delivery of the trailer were done is created. The truck will also deliver its position throughout the trip so that the goods are tracked real-time via the trailer VIN.”

The problem here is more organizational than technological, contended Unander. “People that buy trailers do not always type in the VIN number of the trailer in the EBS system, but rather a serial number of their trailers or some ID like a name – sometimes even just a part of the VIN number. This makes the data coming out of the EBS CAN not to be consistent,” he said.

That apart, truck manufacturers have not implemented a function in their electronic systems that ask for the trailer VIN number. DOITS has proposed this function to the FMS standardization group of ACEA to implement this in all European heavy trucks, which was accepted at their meeting in June 2017. The real challenge now, is to define the exact detail that the truck would need to ask the driver to capture the VIN number. Nonetheless, extensive work has been done with regard to standardization and all that remains is implementation.

To work this out, the general prerequisite is that businesses involved in making these types of functions to come true need to have a balanced interest, where all the parties involved in a transaction support a specific solution and have vested interests in it. This can be seen everywhere, including the VIN number predicament. Ideally, DOITS looks to have the truck relay its VIN number to the trailer but the truck manufacturers do not support this today, as they have no incentive in doing so and thus two-directional VIN data exchange is not possible.

Though a standard can be easily implemented in new trailers, the actual challenge is also to update fleet softwares in existing trailers, so that drivers and transport coordinators have precise VIN numbers in their system. “We are seeing a complicated issue when it comes to negative functioning. Technically not that tricky, but implementing it is a challenge,” said Unander.

Blockchain could be a lodestar, but Unander cast aspersions on the technology being used to create multiple proprietary solutions instead of one open standard. “The problems we face on the truck and trailer communication with how the data generated is defined and delivered might differ between different players and proprietary blockchains and that can end up in a similar situation to where we are in,” he said.

The key is to make sure everyone agrees on a specific way of defining, measuring and recording data, which could take a long while. Developing an open standard should not be a hindrance to product development or the business in itself, and it would be interesting to see how long it takes for companies to come together and find the common denominator for creating a transparent platform where data can be shared easily.

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Vishnu Rajamanickam, Staff Writer

Vishnu writes editorial commentary on cutting-edge technology within the freight industry, profiles startups, and brings in perspective from industry frontrunners and thought leaders in the freight space. In his spare time, he writes neo-noir poetry, blogs about travel & living, and loves to debate about international politics. He hopes to settle down in a village and grow his own food at some point in time. But for now, he is happy to live with his wife in the middle of a German metropolitan.