Photo by Tudor Van Hampton for ENR
An ICUEE visitor test-drives a machine made by Vermeer, which recently launched a new telematics portal.

Telematics—the ability to pull data from a machine in the field—is a growing source of headaches for equipment fleet managers, surpassing even diesel engine emissions as the industry's major migraine, some say. A massive effort to set standards is under way, though, and stakeholders hope a deal may be only months away.

Managers at Hertz Equipment Rental Co., which operates a fleet of more than 60,000 pieces of equipment across some 260 branches, are on the front lines of the telematics war. Checking on a vehicle's location, utilization, engine health or maintenance schedule is no easy task, as each manufacturer has its own data protocol and web portal. A fleet manager at a company like Hertz needs to coordinate with hundreds of vendors to gain access to its data—with scores of user names and passwords to maintain—then spend countless hours cleaning up the numbers.

According to Gregg Nierenberg, vice president of fleet operations for Hertz, "There is no standardization out there. Every manufacturer is doing this on their own." The inefficiency is "driving the customer base crazy" and hindering new revenue streams, he told a packed room of fleet managers in an Oct. 1 session hosted by the Association of Equipment Management Professionals at the International Construction and Utility Equipment Exposition in Louisville, Ky.

Telematics is important because most machines now run on some type of electronic programming, and managing the data coming from machines' sensors can affect up to 70% of a fleet's operating costs, Nierenberg said. The task is getting harder: Roughly nine million pieces of equipment globally are now producing such data, he estimated. New machines now share a third of the annual $10-billion commercial telematics market.

For years, industry committees have been working to crack the telematics code, and relief may be coming soon. "We hope to have some resolution in part by CONEXPO," said Stan Orr, president of AEMP, referring to the trade show coming to Las Vegas on March 4-8. In 2008, AEMP made its first moves to standardize telematics and brought aboard the Association of Equipment Manufacturers.

Car and truck manufacturers already have solved this puzzle, but it took decades and came only after regulations forced the issue. A first step, in 1996, brought a standard on-board diagnostic port to all vehicles; later, CAN-bus protocol arrived across the board in 2008. What makes AEMP's effort unique is that it is happening voluntarily, Orr notes.

After reviewing more than 100 relevant data points, AEMP and AEM members are close to defining some two-dozen specific points for fleet tracking. Contractors also are pushing for change. "It's a huge issue," echoed Thad Pirtle, vice president of Traylor Bros. "For a mixed fleet like ours, I don't want to have 25 different websites to clock into."