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Sensor data acts as virtual mechanic for Daimler Trucks

When a vehicle's check engine light is illuminated, it has the power to send most drivers into a panic: What's the problem? Does it need to be fixed immediately? Or is the car safe to drive for another hundred miles or so?

If you're driving a vehicle from Daimler Trucks North America LLC, which makes commercial trucks and buses for freight and commercial transport, that panic level is alleviated with technology. The Portland, Oregon, manufacturer is leveraging sensor data to dispel the mystery -- and potential misery -- of maintenance issues. Every truck sold in the last two years was outfitted with sensors and linked to Daimler's Internet of Things. Those sensors connect fleet owners and their trucks to a Daimler call center and, if need be, a service station.

"This is priceless when you look at the customer," touted Dieter Haban, Daimler's CIO, during a panel discussion at the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium. "The next step would be predictive. So I can predict something happening before the yellow [check engine] light comes on."

Senior News Writer Nicole Laskowski chatted with Haban before his panel discussion at symposium, where he was honored as one of five finalists for the 2014 MIT Sloan CIO Leadership Award. There, they had a chance to talk about Daimler's Internet of Things and the power of sensor data.

How does Daimler talk about big data?

Dieter Haban: First of all, you have lots of data. You collect data, and people who are busy analyzing the data are collecting the data [so] it takes a long time to do it. Now, with the big data, it's vast volumes of data, and suddenly you can make decisions faster because the data collection process is now much shorter.

Before that, it maybe took weeks or sometimes months [to get] a limited set of data. Suddenly we have, let's say, we threw all the information we had -- all the trucks, all the cost information, all the material consummation, everything -- and suddenly you have a big cube of dimensions and data. We could get information much faster -- not in real-time, but in a very short time from like 20 minutes or an hour -- that we couldn't do before. Then, you can focus on asking questions, [like] 'What does it mean, though?'  You can analyze that.

You're participating on an Internet of Things panel at the symposium. Is the Internet of Things synonymous with big data at Daimler?

Haban: They are related but they are two separate things, because individual things can generate large data, big data. So, let's take another example. What we did is we connected our trucks with our Internet. That means every truck is equipped with sensors. If you drive a truck, a fault occurs, and something's blinking, and you say, 'Oops, there's something blinking -- a yellow light,' what are you going to do?

What we do is we send the information to our call center. So, we send some information that happens before the error and after the error, and then we analyze this huge amount of data. You can imagine that if every truck is equipped with that information, there's a lot of data coming into our call center. They analyze it and they know exactly where the truck is, who's running it [and] who the customer is.

We have lots of sensor information that we can use and analyze and say, the issue is maybe here. So we then inform the fleet owner and they inform the driver directly to say, 'Hey, there's an issue. You can continue because we have you covered here, but you should in the next two weeks, go to the plant service.' Or, we tell him, 'Oops, there's an issue. In that area, this is the dealer.' And we connect him to the dealer.

The truck drives onto the lot and automatically they know, 'Oh that's the guy.' So, if you come to a dealer, they [traditionally] say, 'Who are you, what do you want?' In this case, we know who you are, we know your problem, and here's the part and get you out in the short time frame. Very short time frame, because he wants to be on the road.

We connect all the dots: we connect the truck,  we connect the call center,  we connect the dealer, we connect the truck driver, we connect the parts information, and we connect the warranty system in order to have a happy customer.

For Daimler, was adding sensors to vehicles an IT-inspired project or a business-inspired project?

Haban: It's always the business together with IT. Sometimes the business has an idea, or sometimes we see something, but it's always a partnership between the business and IT.

The project had to mean a sizable investment. It wasn't hard getting business buy-in?

Haban: Once you are driving in the middle of nowhere and there's a yellow light [flashing], you're happy that somebody's there to help you. Because [now] it's like driving with a bunch of technicians in your backseat [who] say, 'Hey, this is what's happening: You can continue driving or this is what you should do.'

Let us know what you think of the story; email Nicole Laskowski, senior news writer, or find her on Twitter @TT_Nicole.

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