The impact of eCall on fleet telematics

The impact of eCall on fleet telematics

Despite rapid advances in telematics in the past five years, penetration with European OEMs remains low. A few car manufacturers have waded into the telematics market (notably BMW, Fiat, PSA, and Volvo), but most have remained on the bank tepidly tapping their toes.

From this perspective, eCall is positive legislation for the telematics industry, as it will force car OEMs to implement a basic telematics platform by 2014. “eCall will make an excellent platform for bringing more services to the vehicle,” says Per Lindberg, global business development executive at Telenor Connexion. “Once the basic infrastructure is there, it is very cost efficient to add more services. In fact, not leveraging the investments made in eCall for other services seems like a wasted opportunity.”

On the fleet side, it’s less clear what eCall’s impact may be. For one, penetration of fleet management solutions with truck and bus OEMs is stronger than with car OEMs. All major European truck manufacturers (from Mercedes-Benz to Volvo, Scania, Renault, MAN, DAF, and IVECO) offer OEM telematics solutions as part of their product portfolios.

Secondly, eCall won’t be mandated for truck and bus OEMs the way it will be for car OEMs, so fleet manufacturers will have to take the initiative themselves if they want eCall in their vehicles. “I’m certainly skeptical that eCall will provide any spark for advanced fleet management services in the years to come,” says Michael Sena, an industry expert in the fleet management sector.

Do fleets need eCall?

As it stands today, eCall will only be mandated in vehicles up to 3.5 tons. Trucks and busses have been excluded from the legislation for several reasons. First, the drivers of trucks and buses generally emerge from accidents unscathed due to the heft of their vehicles. Airbags are relatively rare in trucks, and crash sensor systems are generally perceived as ineffective.

With professional fleet management solutions already tracking many trucks on the road and with smartphones providing additional tracking, some have questioned the value of adding yet another integrated system. “The benefit of eCall is mainly for the drivers and passengers of vehicles in single accidents,” Lindberg explains. “In heavy vehicles like trucks and buses, it is more infrequent that these professional drivers are affected. They are also much more protected by the vehicle than a driver in a passenger car.”

In Russia, legislators have taken a different tack, not only requiring eCall in all trucks and buses but also requiring a more advanced standardized telematics platform, one that includes GPRS, SMS, and in-band, rather than just a basic in-band modem. “They’ve developed a much more capable system for doing real work,” says Sena. “Fleet management with diagnostics, stolen vehicle tracking. Europe’s eCall is more of a one trick horse.”

The eCall platform

The basic eCall platform in Europe will provide an in-band modem that can deliver a data message over a telephone call between a vehicle and a public safety answering point (PSAP). The technology is similar to GM’s OnStar, and as such can’t provide more advanced solutions that require multiple packets of information to be sent at once. “It doesn’t do anything more than provide that little data stream, and building a solution, something more robust, something that would involve fleet management, on that platform would not work,” says Sena.

Nonetheless, it’s easy (and practically cost-free) to add support for GPRS and SMS into the in-vehicle hardware once it’s there, which will cost between €50 and €300 for OEMs to implement. Indeed, the additional cost for adding more services than eCall will not come from the in-vehicle hardware but from the back office server infrastructure that’s required. If OEMs care to make that investment, there’s no reason they won’t be able to provide a whole suite of ancillary services, from navigation to real-time traffic to vehicle tracking to fuel monitoring. “These technologies are by no means mutually exclusive,” says Lindberg.

The OEM outlook

Despite the potential of the platform, the probability of truck and bus OEMs integrating eCall without being required to is low. The platform is redundant in some cases and unwanted in others. “I do not think that truck and bus OEMs will implement eCall on their own without legislation driving the issue,” says Lindberg. “The main reason for that is that it is much harder to see the benefits for the users than it is for passenger vehicles.”

But that doesn’t suggest an industry-wide aversion to advanced telematics solutions, Lindberg adds. “OEMs are not waiting for eCall any longer, they are moving ahead with their own connectivity plans, eCall or not.”

The research firm Berg Insight forecasts that fleet management solutions will grow at a compound annual growth rate of 21.7 percent between now and 2014. Potentially pushing that rate higher is a new directive from European Parliament for the broad deployment of Intelligent Transport Systems in the field of road transport.

As political pressure on green fleets increases, and as fleets themselves start to see the value of real-time feedback, driver management, and fuel improvement, fleet management solutions could find ever greater market penetration. “The fleet management industry is very healthy right now,” says Sena, “but it’s debatable whether eCall has a role to play in it.” (For more on fleets, see ‘How to make insurance telematics work in the fleet space’, ‘Why green means ‘go’ for fleet telematics’, and ‘How telematics can green the fleet’.)

Andrew Tolve is a regular contributor to TU.

For more on telematics and fleets, join the sector’s thought leaders at Fleet & Asset Management USA 2011 on November 16-17 in Atlanta.

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