The Squirrel in the Substation

When I talk to people about transportation, the conversation usually turns to trains, planes, ships, trucks, and cars: the hardware behind the movement of things. The methods and processes supporting the hardware rarely come up in conversation, which is a shame. To my mind, the methods and processes of operating a transportation network are of equal interest, if not as intriguing to watch.

As an example, let’s look at a transportation network that does not use any vehicles at all. This transportation system moves a product that can move on its own, given the necessary infrastructure. The product is weightless, has no discernible mass or volume, is usually undetectable by human senses, and yet is readily quantifiable and potentially lethal.

This product’s transportation network shares some qualities with the finished vehicle transportation network that we work with. Both networks start with large quantities of product from supplying origins, sufficient to supply large numbers of customers every day. Both networks move their product over considerable distances and distribute their product over large areas. Both networks require specialized equipment to move their product. And, both networks can, and do, deliver large quantities of product to large users and small quantities of product to single users.

The transportation network I’m referring to is the electric power grid. The grid started as a collection of small networks bringing electricity to businesses and well-to-do homes in small sections of large cities in the 1880’s. Across the globe, the power grid has evolved into networks of region-spanning high-, medium-, and low-tension power lines that cross all types of borders and quite literally power our lives.

The electric power grid is both amazing reliable and surprisingly vulnerable. During this past winter in Southeast Michigan, the region experienced weather-related power outages affecting thousands of customers for extended periods of time. We have also seen the effects of a Category 4 hurricane on the exposed infrastructure of a power grid as Puerto Rico continues to struggle with electricity supply almost a year after the storm.

The finished vehicle network is also an outdoor activity with similar challenges. We’ve seen the impact of weather events on the transportation infrastructure required for the movement of finished vehicle shipments. Hurricanes, heavy snowfalls, ice storms, and flooding have all brought both road and rail traffic to a standstill across wide areas. A severe hailstorm can damage hundreds or even thousands of vehicles at a loading location or destination ramp.

In addition to these big issues, the American Public Power Association website states that, “Squirrels are among the top causes of power outages in the Unites States.” Electrical substations offer warm, secure spaces that are attractive for nesting during the spring breeding season, as well as for refuge from the weather during autumn and winter. Engineers and equipment designers have struggled to strike a balance between providing sufficient ventilation needed by the equipment and keeping animals out.

Along with the basic drive to seek shelter, safety, and warmth, squirrels have teeth that grow continuously. So, squirrels need to gnaw on things to keep their teeth sized and sharpened. Squirrels find electrical cable insulation excellent for this purpose, making an electrical substation a good place to call home. The website states, perhaps tongue in cheek, that electric power companies consider squirrels a more pernicious enemy than cyberattacks.

The finished vehicle network doesn’t have quite the same issue. The closest I’ve seen are photos of the “guard rattlesnakes” protecting the trucks parked around Saltillo Assembly. We have our own versions of minor issues causing major problems. An inept job of spotting empty railcars is a good example. If the railcars are just a couple of inches too close together, the end doors on the railcars cannot be opened. If the railcars are just a couple of inches too far apart, the bridge plates will not reach to bridge the gap to the next railcar in line, effectively preventing that next railcar and all the railcars behind it from being loaded.

For a network to function efficiently and effectively, all of its component parts need to function efficiently and effectively. One defective relay caused the Northeast Blackout of 1965, which plunged almost all of Ontario and the Northeastern United States into darkness for more than 12 hours. Subsequent major blackouts in the region in 1977 and 2003 followed the same basic pattern: a small failure cascaded into bigger and more widespread failures until finally the entire network failed. The failures were not necessarily just failures of equipment, either. In the case of both the 1977 blackout and the 2003 blackout, human actions compounded or accelerated the effects of the equipment failures.

A local news story from suburban Detroit recently highlighted a common thread with network issues: homeowners in a subdivision have been experiencing regular blackouts. One homeowner told the television crew that there was one pole-mounted transformer that was seen to fail. The power company came out and replaced the transformer, and the replacement subsequently failed. After several more replacements and failures of the transformer in the same location, the frustrated residents called the television station to get action. I’m curious to see if anything comes of that approach. Does treating symptoms solve systemic problems? How do we deal with both the big problems and the squirrels in the substations?

Thanks for reading. To be continued!

by Bert Ruden


Rubicon VLS Wins ‘Lead Logistics Provider’ Award

Our Rubicon VLS team won the FCA Supplier of the Year Award in the category of Lead Logistics Provider. We’re proud to be FCA’s partner in the growing technology component of outbound logistics.


ICL Awarded Kaizen Excellence Award

ICL was awarded the Kaizen Excellence Award by Toyota Canada, Inc., in recognition of achievements as a key logistics partner for 2017.

Way to go, team!

Lindsay English Named Logistics “Rising Star” at Automotive Global Awards

NEW ORLEANS – Lindsay English, director of Rubicon VLS, won the “Rising Star” Award in logistics at the

Automotive Global Awards North America held in New Orleans on April 05, 2017.

The Rising Star Award is open to members of the automotive industry who have shown initiative, dedication,

and excellence in shaping their business for the future in the fields of logistics, supply chain, purchasing, and sales

and marketing. English was nominated for the award by Tom Swennes and Pat Lewis of sister-company, ICL, Inc.

English won via unanimous decision by the selection committee.

The Automotive Global Awards North America bring together leading innovators in the automotive industry to

appreciate excellence and innovation. The awards are held at the New Orleans Ritz-Carlton.

Rubicon VLS provides end-to-end automotive logistics services in North America. They are located in Rochester

Hills, MI.

For additional information, call 702.370.1689 or visit

Tom Swennes, ICL VP of strategic planning & administration, discusses real-time telematics with Marcus Williams from Automotive Logistics Magazine.

The eighth annual Finished Vehicle Logistics North America conference discussed lots of potential for connected car and in-vehicle technology to transform transport and tracking. However, uncertainties over which technology to focus on, as well as regulatory and economic questions, may hold back important software and hardware updates. Marcus Williams reports from Huntington Beach, California.
Gareth Tredway and Christopher Ludwig contributed to this report

Digital technology is turning the car into something it has never been before. Vehicles are fast becoming ‘connected devices’ in the Internet of Things and, as such, disruptive to the automotive industry itself. While the car has long been more than a means of transport, today it is increasingly a centre of communication, shopping and engagement, and will be even more so as it increasingly drives, navigates and even repairs itself. All this technology is increasingly changing the way the car is built, sold, used and maintained.

So, too, might it change the way it is shipped and delivered in the outbound supply chain. With vehicles increasingly laden with sensors and telematics, the potential for tracking and tracing their every move seems obvious. Meanwhile, autonomy could also change handling, loading and movement in yards and ports, and even routing through networks. Might much of today’s vehicle logistics industry see disruption from the very product it was designed to serve?

The answer differs somewhat across the sector in North America. Marc Brazeau, director of outbound and Mexico logistics at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles US, thinks the “car is the disruptor” and that in-vehicle technology will drive innovation in vehicle logistics. “Telematics and the connected vehicle, and the enabled technology in the vehicle, is really where the focus is going to be,” he said. “Whether it is wifi vehicle-to-vehicle [or something else], it is going to be embedded technology in the vehicle that will be driving investment.”

However, not everyone is quite sure whether or not in-vehicle connectivity should be the immediate focus of outbound logistics managers and providers. Questions remain about the impacts of a vehicle’s battery, about data security, about how such technology would integrate into existing processes and systems across plants and distribution centres, among other concerns. Other executives also question how much visibility is too much. Does the customer or the dealer, for example, really need to know that a car is waiting at a rail-switching yard in Kansas or Colorado, or waiting at a port in Germany for a sailing? Is it enough to provide an accurate delivery day and keep to it?

Or, is thinking about the impact of such technology on tracking final delivery too narrow, given the potential changes up and down the sector, from vehicle ownership models to data management?

These were questions debated at this year’s Finished Vehicle Logistics North America conference in Huntington Beach, California, as delegates grappled over what digitalisation and autonomy will mean over the coming years. In some cases, it may be that uncertainty about which technology will take hold is leading companies to hold back on investments, whether in exploiting in-car systems, or in other technology such as RFID. The conference offered examples that showed the industry moving in multiple directions.

Questions around such technology in future also come as the North American industry continues at an all-time high in vehicle sales and production, following yet another record sales high in 2016. But there are signs – including rising vehicle inventory and incentives – that the sector is headed for a pullback or decline. The policy impacts of the new administration of Donald Trump, including for the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), as well as plans for economic stimulus and infrastructure investment, raise further questions.

On the verge of true telematics
Telematics, which combines GPS data with on-board diagnostics to record and map exactly where a car is and what it is doing, has been in some vehicles for 15-20 years – GM’s OnStar system was first rolled out in the 1990s. Legislation put to Congress late last year, meanwhile, will mandate such tracking to be in every vehicle for safety reasons in the near future.

As this technology becomes ubiquitous, it could change how cars are tracked, validated and autonomously participate in the delivery process, according to experts. On the horizon, meanwhile is the so-called ‘cognitive car’, able not only to drive itself but also to learn and interact with the surrounding environment, and to influence its own delivery.

Short-range, vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) technology already exists, according to Chris Wilson, director of CW Consulting, a technology specialist who worked more than 20 years implementing connected car technology with Mercedes-Benz. He said it had further potential to create an information environment in which vehicle and device makers could create and implement applications to improve safety, mobility and the environment. Wilson suggested that there was considerable potential for such equipment to be used across vehicle handling and transport.

More from FVL North America

Carmakers including BMW and Jaguar Land Rover are already running advanced trials integrating telematics information into vehicle tracking and delivery management systems. In Europe, the Association of European Vehicle Logistics (ECG), which represents logistics providers, have established a working group with OEMs to establish standards and processes for using such technology in distribution.

In North America, while interest is rising, there appears to be some reluctance to move to this technology. FCA’s Brazeau admitted that that while there was uncertainty among service providers about the direction they should go, although he thought it was a lot clearer than it was even last year – from FCA’s point of view, in-vehicle technology will unlock value for vehicle logistics. He warned that industry players should be careful not to repeat the mistake Nokia made in 2005 when it drew up its five-year plan and failed to forecast the arrival of the smartphone in 2007, when Apple launched the iPhone.

“If you are looking at anything that doesn’t satisfy a future vision where the vehicle was the disrupter and the proactive source of data, then I would think you are considering more a bridge technology and you are betting on something that may or may not be around in a couple of years,” Brazeau said.

Others agreed with Brazeau that in-vehicle telematics would change vehicle logistics. Tom Swennes, vice-president strategic planning and administration at ICL Systems, predicted that telematics represented the best opportunities for vehicle transport and yard management, and suggested that it would achieve what RFID promised but failed to deliver over the past decade or more.

John Felitto, chief executive officer of WWL VSA, the inland services division of Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics in North America, said that the future was really about telematics and the need to connect to the rich level of information in the car – even though the provider is the process of investing in an RFID solution with Nissan. “Telematics is becoming more popular,” he said. “If we could link to the constant signal in the car this is where the future is.”

Mark Anderson, president of vehicle haulier United Road, also acknowledged that telematics offered a rich source of information for vehicle logistics, especially when exploited in the trucks used to deliver cars.

“There is so much information in telematics that you can use,” said Anderson. “It is about safe driving and being able to predict the behaviour of your drivers. It is also about the positioning and being able to predict when your asset will get to its location. Again, with things like time management and GPS data, algorithms and automated load building tools, it all breeds efficiency, more lane miles, happier drivers and overall just a more efficient network from the final mile perspective.”

Marc Brazeau, FCA2

FCA’s Marc Brazeau thinks in-vehicle technology will define outbound systems in the years to come

What to invest in and when
However, whether there is value in making real-time vehicle location and status data available more widely was called into question by some OEMs. Gerald Lee, vice-president of vehicle planning and logistics at Subaru, pointed out that constant updates tended to lead to many questions that weren’t always relevant to the final delivery.

“I thought that [telematics] was a great feature and it would unleash the data to the dealers. But as we got closer to it becoming a reality, I became afraid that there were so many questions coming from the dealers based on that information that I would have to triple [the size of] my department,” he said.

Lee said that Subaru achieves 95% accuracy on the estimated time of arrival of vehicles that it provides to dealers – a level higher than most carmakers in the built-to-stock US market. He suggested that such accuracy was probably enough and any more information could lead to more problems that it solved.

Others at the conference also expressed doubts over which technology to pursue, including worries over whether decisions made today would quickly become obsolete. “From our perspective we always look at if the investment is going to [provide a] return on the bottom line and, with the tech changing so quick, one of our concerns would be that if it is a five-year return and the technology is only useful for three, it is not a good decision,” said Glenn Clift, chief executive officer at Glovis Americas, the logistics division of Hyundai Motor.

Clift also made the point that the customer was not going to contribute to that cost. “Us being able to find a car a bit quicker doesn’t justify [higher costs],” he said. “Saving half a day on average may not be worth the investment. We keep studying it and looking for better ways, but we just haven’t pulled the trigger on any serious technology for that.”

However, providers need to pull the trigger soon, according to Tom Swennes from ICL. He admitted that putting together and making use of all the data in-vehicle technology will produce is going to require new systems and investment, but risks are going to have to be made. That is because the greater risk is in waiting for the dust to settle and missing opportunities. That had been the case with RFID over the past decade or more, which, despite now being more cost effective, never really took hold in the vehicle supply chain.

Daniel Gosson, consultant at software and technology provider, Inform, also suggested that RFID was dead because the industry had waited too long to implement it. Instead, Gosson pointed again to telematics and autonomous vehicle functions, highlighting that investment concerns were mitigated, while also pointing to the applications for the delivery trucks.

“What we need to do is leverage consumer functionalities like telematics and autonomous driving and bring them into the finished vehicle logistics world because there is no buy-in cost. It is not RFID where we have to have all of these extra systems on top to make use of it,” said Gosson.

However, providers and OEMs continue to explore a variety of technologies that may be used alongside existing systems that rely on barcode scanning – including RFID. John Felitto revealed that WWL VSA is using passive RFID tags in a new project with technology expert Surgere to manage Nissan vehicles out of its Mississippi plant in Canton. The project has already mapped the entire facility, including 6,000 bays with GPS co-ordinates. And WWL has ambitions to use the technology across the more-than 5m vehicles it manages in North America.

Gerry Lee, Subaru

Subaru’s Gerald Lee questioned how much visibility was too much visibility

We will then be able to scan all the units in and out of the facility, and we will be able to take inventory using a scanner,” said Felitto. “We are investing in the tags and the technology that Surgere is providing but Nissan needs to invest in the infrastructure at the plant.”

Felitto said the project was just starting out and would take time to be fully up and running but the “pretty sizable investment” would see a return in the savings made by a more efficient process.

Clift added that Glovis uses RFID in some facilities in conjunction with barcode scanning; once a vehicle is scanned, the information is recorded using RFID and prevents the need for manual entry. However, manual scans of each vehicle are still necessary, and Glovis currently has no plans to change this.

Electronic live polls taken at the conference confirmed the mixed picture for technology, and the prevalence for entrenched systems – 60% of respondents said their transport and yard management systems were five years old or older, while only 21% were less than two years old. Among technologies predicted in use in five years’ time, respondents were split fairly equally between still using barcode scanning primarily, shifting more to telematics, or to GPS, while fewer anticipated using RFID.

Nevertheless, some feel strongly that mobile-based technology will eventually win the race for vehicle logistics. Gosson at Inform suggested that mobile apps could be used to track incoming trucks with real time tracking, for example, processes that the company was already using for inbound logistics, including with Audi in Germany. That, and the ability to use geo-fencing to generate ETAs, meant workers at the handling facilities could be in place and ready to load or offload vehicles. He also said telematics’ ability to remove the need for physical battery and tyre checks could reduce damage because fewer people would be touching the car.

“You are also able to shift to predictive data analysis and you have better planning and optimisation,” Gosson added. “So really there are a lot of benefits to utilising this technology within yards and in transit.”

Swennes also pointed to the potential of connecting other equipment in the outbound chain. For example, vehicle-carrying railcars could transmit low-power messages about location and condition, which would be important since rail is often a blind spot in the delivery tracking process.

Barriers ahead
Swennes acknowledged that many challenges remain to carmakers and logistics providers adapting telematics into their processes. While there may be lower start-up costs, there was a lot of technology that had to be worked out to realise the end-to-end capabilities, including the infrastructure and data protocols, and the differing standards applied. There are also questions over whether engineers and code writers would be willing to add in features relevant to vehicle logistics into a car’s lines of code, which already number some 100m lines.

One of the other sticking points is battery drain, as many worry that a greater reliance on telematics to fulfil a wider range of vehicle delivery functions could harm a car’s battery life.

“With the vehicles having the technology they have, it sure would be nice to tap into that, but battery life in the vehicle is a big concern,” said Glenn Clift at Glovis America. “We already have concerns without those vehicles being hooked up all the time.”

Chris Wilson

Connected car expert Chris Wilson saw many applications for new vehicle technology and outbound distribution

Stuart Kessler, port operations manager at Volkswagen Group of America, also had concerns over battery drain, whether it was telematics or RFID.If you don’t solve the ability to keep the battery charged the cars can’t drive [with or without driver] and that will be the biggest challenge,” he said. “How do you have something stop running and what does that do to your system at 30% of your production when it physically won’t start? All of your processes become ineffective. The biggest challenges is how do we keep the physical battery capable of starting and using the autonomous capability.”

Brian Mason, vice-president planning, analysis and development at Pasha Automotive Services, also expressed concerns with battery drain. “With telematics on long storage vehicles you want telematics shutting down to save the battery,” he said, “but that is an engineering challenge. You don’t want it to drain the vehicle so you are having to recharge it.”

Others, by contrast, thought the battery question had been solved. “The barriers to [telematics] such as battery life are beginning to fall away,” said Swennes. “That point was to do with whether the telematics was on all the time or whether it could be triggered when needed. The OEMs we talk to say the battery problem is behind them.”

Chris Wilson asked why users simply couldn’t tell the car to start itself – as many cars now have that function by mobile phone – and thus recharge the battery.

The greater use of telematics also raised the prospect of data security, something Wilson was more concerned about, describing it as a huge issue. Wilson said anonymity needed to be mandated to avoid hacking and that encryption was already at “nuclear level” security. While many OEMs were not as concerned about one vehicle being hacked, a virus propagating through a whole data system was a big concern.

While data used to personalise the vehicle by the individual would be owned by him or her, there were wider questions for the industry when that data became aggregated at a higher level and what could be done with it.

“Everyone realises this aggregated data is valuable but no one quite knows how valuable,” said Wilson. He said OEMs were trying to figure out how much it could be worth. “It is an interesting dynamic about who is going to sell the data and how it should be packaged, but at that point it is anonymous,” he said.

Big data delivery
John Felitto acknowledged that connectivity and digitalisation have “sky-rocketed” to the number one key trend. Quoting findings from research analysts GMI and IHS-Markit, Felitto said that 84% of automotive executives now agreed that data was the fuel for the future business model of automotive companies.

Ben Stanley, global automotive leader at the Institute for Business Value, a consultancy division of IBM, also stressed the importance of data. He said the autonomous car would generate and consume 4,000gb of data every eight hours, which is equal to the data of 3,000 people. That means 1m autonomous cars would generate data equivalent to 3 billion people every day.

“There is a huge amount of data from which you can learn and applying analytics on all of that data will provide better [logistics] services,” said Stanley.

Felitto said the next step would be to take autonomous and connected car developments, such as auto piloting and parking, and applying the technology to logistics.

Chris Wilson pointed to a remote parking app available from Mercedes-Benz as an example of technology that could be used for yard management, not least because it allowed more compact parking and removed the need for drivers to risk damaging the cars by squeezing into tight spaces.

He also pointed to automated valet parking technology in which vehicles parked themselves using a range of sensors that picked up cues from the garage infrastructure as well as in-car responses to people and objects. Wilson pointed out that the cargo deck of a pure car and truck carrier (PCTC) was like a garage; with some upgrades to the technology, the system was directly applicable.

Bill Kerrigan, vice-president of logistics at port processor SSA Marine, foresaw a time when autonomous vehicles would lead to similar automation at vehicle-handling ports as seen today at container terminals. “On 13 decks of a PCTC you could have a longitude and latitude point for every car on that ship, and at some point in the future those cars can be driven on and off with no people in them,” he said.

Such technology would change labour needs and require a transition of workers, like in the container business, to more monitoring and planning roles. “We would have more time to plan the yards and the vessel loads and discharges.”

Felitto also pointed to robotics and autonomous vehicles in the inventory management process and said WWL VSA was committed to test the applications of the technology. While its current RFID project with Nissan would still use manual scanning, for example, in future a robot or drone could do that.

Glenn Clift, Glovis

Glenn Clift from Glovis said that new technology needed to justify its cost, while noting that customers would probably not pay extra for faster logistics

The US’s largest vehicle haulier, Jack Cooper Transport, was also catching up with developments. Alex Meza, the new president of Jack Cooper Transport, said the company was looking at truck platooning, driverless yard management, and the individual self-delivery of cars. “With the driverless yard management you have resource gains such as the better cube on yard capacity because people don’t need to get in our out of the vehicles,” he noted.

Meza also pointed other technology already in use, such as electronic proof of delivery (ePOD), as well as a network optimisation tool for its fleet. “We partnered with a company to create an algorithm and it does the job,” said Meza. “It runs twice a day and takes the fleet real time data and minimises empty miles. As our engineers have tweaked the model we have 97% acceptance of it from our customers.

“Putting massive amounts of data through a process to analyse it was worth the time,” he added.

Along with autonomous and connected vehicles, another game changer could be cognitive technology in cars, according to Ben Stanley at IBM. Cognitive vehicles would be able to understand imagery, language and other unstructured data much like humans do. In future vehicles would be able to learn, interact and extract ideas from the surrounding environment and their own performance.

Stanley said such vehicles could be active participants in their own movement; that could include interacting with transport vehicles and logistics management systems, preventing handling or routing mistakes, and learning through cognitive participation to recommend improvements to the delivery process. The application of the technology in the truck even had the potential to recognise the driver, find and suggest parking spots, and monitor the performance and health of the driver.

While such uses may take some time to be safe enough for more complex traffic situations, more immediately there were applications in controlled environments, exactly like a vehicle storage yard at a plant or port terminal storage facility, according to Stanley. Furthermore, such vehicles would be able capture and report problems or damage, and even heal themselves to some extent, whether it be with software updates or paint repair, opening up some interesting prospects for the quality assurance part of the business.


Uncertainty ahead
All this technological development promises potential change. But it is not yet the reality on the ground in vehicle yards and terminals today, where the main issue for many operators remains space and capacity constraints.

Following seven straight years of growth and a record 17.58m light vehicle sales in the US last year, as well as strong sales and production across Mexico and Canada as well, the sector has maintained a high pace of volume. While sales have shown mild decline year-on-year in the first two months of the year, the adjusted seasonal sales rate remains high. However, Brandon Mason, director of PwC’s global automotive practice, predicted that sales will decline for the next few years, perhaps to as low as 16.3m units by 2019, before recovering back close to current levels thereafter.

The full impact, meanwhile, of any renegotiation of Nafta – and how it would relate to automotive trade with Canada or Mexico – remain far from clear, as outcomes or even the precise intentions from the US government are murky at best. Brandon Mason acknowledged that the imposition of tariffs or of a border tax, however, could lead to price increases and potential declines in sales.

The reality and impact of Trump’s $1 trillion infrastructure investment pledge, meanwhile, would be welcome to many in the logistics industry. However, the shape it which eventually take is also unclear. According to Scott Davies, director of the office of marine Highways and passenger services at the US Department of Transportation Maritime Administration, there is talk in Washington DC of a new infrastructure packaging being presented later this spring. In the meantime, Davies said that there are federal programmes that could support vehicle logistics operations ranging from ro-ro ports to inland waters, including TIGER grants and low-interest loans, but most were heavily oversubscribed.

For now, until policy becomes clearer, Mason signalled a more immediate risk to the sector in the form of rising vehicle inventory. Currently, inventories are at their highest February level in a decade, at around 4.1m units. Incentive spending for both light trucks and cars has also risen. Unless changes are made to match supply and demand, the industry could see financial losses.

Shock absorbers should be data absorbers
The volume push – both from high sales and inventories – is felt across the vehicle logistics chain. Brian Mason outlined what Pasha Automotive Services was dealing with at its port terminals, which he said are seeing longer storage times at offsite facilities, an increase in volume complexity, plus more frequent waiting time at ports.

Terminal congestion and low velocity of vehicle turnover has led to offsite storage requirements; for example, Pasha is expanding to 160 acres (65 hectares) its inland facility 20 miles south of its 220-acre terminal at the port of San Diego.

Mason said the processors end up being shock absorbers for the system. Carmakers have no more space to store stock, nor do dealers; railways, meanwhile, levy charges on vehicles that rest more than three days at rail yards. That has meant more stock pushed to processors.

“At any one point in time our supposed max capacity is 22,000 vehicles on the property in San Diego,” said Mason. “We have had up to 28,000. Throughout 2016, we were at 98% capacity for over 300 days. It was a really high density, high volume year.

Brian Mason, Pasha

Brian Mason said that high inventory and slow throughput at ports was leading to space constraints

Pasha is trying to optimise throughput through better yard management including better parking, monitoring use and managing consolidation. It is also looking at multiple-day planning of production based on vehicle allocation, availability of part and accessories for installation, and accurate planning of labour demand and shop equipment use.

“We don’t want too many vehicles coming in without the equipment, such as lifts and tyre mounting, to handle them,” he said.

He also said it was important to have an accurate picture of dealer-allocated vehicles, and the truck and rail capacity to take them away.

Bill Kerrigan spoke about the need for more common, shared data platforms. “We have no multimodal communication and I can speak to that just as a port operator,” he said. “The information that we get is either late, or sometimes not even there.”

He continued: “If we are speaking to eight, nine or ten OEMs we have to go through all of their [logistics] suppliers to get the information.”

While many spoke about the new world of connectivity, Kerrigan pointed out that most information was being received via multiple platforms from spread sheets, to electronic data interchange, and even via fax in some cases.

“We desperately need some sort of open data portals where we can manage the information,” said Kerrigan.

Charles Franklin, manager of export logistics at American Honda, picked up Kerrigan’s point about the need for unified data. “All of the OEMs have cars somewhere, and we all need to move them, but there is no unified, information database saying who is moving cars when and where.”

 Franklin said his department had recently invested several million dollars in internal software development to tackle this and was also looking at externally developed software.

Box of delights


Most Tesla exports move in containers from its California factory

Software wasn’t the only solution for dealing with it vehicle throughput at ports. Christoph Seitz, a managing member at CFR Rinkens, a vehicle shipping company and freight forwarder, said that using sea containers for shipping cars would ease some of the capacity constraints at car terminals, even while he acknowledged it would never replace ro-ro.

He cited Drewry Marine Research, which estimated that of the circa-35m shipping containers moving around the world, 25% were empty. While overcapacity in global shipping contributes to this problem, Seitz said the statistic also reflected an inability by the industry as a whole to properly use empty backhaul space, which better data could help solve.

CFR Rinkens has been using its collapsible racking system to ship cars in containers for over six years and counts Tesla as its key OEM client, shipping its cars built in California to Europe and Asia.

Overall, CFR Rinkens shipped 51,294 cars in containers in 2016 and expects to move between 70,000 and 90,000 this year. Seitz said his company is likely the market leader in shipping cars in containers.

However, Seitz was also aware of the reservations in the industry to embrace alternative ideas, whether they were digital or a 20ft equivalent unit of metal. He praised Tesla for the pace in which it adopted the container method. Seitz said within a week of meeting the company, a demonstration was setup, and within five months cars were being shipped. More widely, however, in established networks, there was hesitancy.

“I think we got a bit spoilt back then thinking that is how the OEM world works and the reality is that traditional OEMs move a lot slower when it comes to trying something new and accepting something new, and giving it a shot,” said Seitz.

He estimates the containers make it from the plant in California to their destination in Europe in less than four weeks, much faster than traditional ro-ro methods. The usual route is via rail from Oakland, California to Houston, Texas and then shipped from there. The record shipping time so far is just 21 days via New York.

Better visibility for trust and respect
For many OEMs, visibility only becomes a real problem outside the walls of factories and plant yards, where multiple handovers and carriers make it harder to track each point. Scott Mabry, senior manager for planning and optimisation at Volkswagen Group, said making the different parts of a logistics network speak to each other was imperative especially with the lack of space and infrastructure deficits in some areas.

“We are not building new roads very quickly, we are not building new rail lines and the volumes of cars keeps going up, so we need to optimise the networks and our processes to keep pushing more volume through the same channels we have today,” he told delegates.

A smarter, connected network could benefit routes, such as the one his company uses for sending finished vehicles from its Chattanooga assembly plant in Tennessee to the west coast more than 2,000 miles away. That route had no fewer than ten handoffs, he explained.

“From my perspective, I am just moving my car to San Bernardino [California] but of course [class one railroad] BNSF and the carriers are handling my cars and everything else coming into that ramp.

“So what I think is relatively simple for me, for everyone else in that chain it gets a lot more complicated, very quickly,” said Mabry.

However, Mabry suggested that improved data gathering could help such issues, including dealing with unknowns such as changes in the weather. He said that in Europe, VW’s transport systems had put transparency and real-time feedback into practice, including on public roads, where the company monitors traffic flow and events to keep volumes running smoothly.

For example, variable speed signs in Germany use real-time data prevents congestion at accident sites by reducing the speed limit down the road. In finished vehicle logistics, having similar visibility all through the chain could help others on the network regulate their own flows.

“There is a lot of information out there, not only in my hands but in the railroads and the truck carriers. I think the question for us is how do we interweave that together to make the whole network run faster and better.”

Dave Fleenor, assistant vice-president at BNSF, agreed, saying that having transparency between everyone builds “trust and respect” within the supply chain.

Collaboration with the vehicle hauliers has allowed for wider acceptance among rail companies of using ‘geo-bays’ by rail companies, according to Fleenor, which assign cars to specific spaces based on loading optimisation rather than sending cars to the first available bay.

The change is significant given that BNSF’s biggest yard has 8,000 bays and is over a mile long. The company has now implemented the practice across its network.

“We’ve had a lot of communication with our haulaway partners over the last couple of years, and one of the things we have learned is that if we go to geo-baying, which is more work for the railroad because then we have to put specific manufacturers vehicles in a given row, it optimises the whole supply chain,” said Fleenor.

“Communication breeds respect,” he added. “We understand what they are up against and they understand what we are up against.”

Returning to the main concern at the conference of what new technology to invest in next and when, Fleenor said the “low-hanging fruit” had been picked and the “more difficult things now needed to be tackled”.

This includes real-time bay location using high-definition cameras, and better ways to view headlight orientation within the railcars. The company already uses drones for track and bridge inspections.

“When we look at information sharing and extended visibility there are a lot of things going on, and the cost of technology keeps getting pushed down,” said Fleenor.

Click to see poll result

As with the other speakers, standardisation of these communication channels was highlighted as an important requirement.

“If everybody has a different way of transmitting it, it is not going to be very valuable, so we need to get collaboration and consensus on what that looks like,” said Fleenor, referring to hold codes as an example.

Speakers agreed that the industry needed to come together to establish standards and priorities as digital technologies emerged. Marc Brazeau suggested that the next 18-24 months would be critical – but also “an exciting opportunity”.

“In every technological shift we fall back on what we think we need,” he said. “Now we have all this data the challenge toward digital technology, such as telematics, is to ask what valuable data do we need.”

For example, Brazeau pointed out that while the vehicle logistics industry has typically sought a “granular” level of information to solve the various inaccuracies in its processes, but that level may changed based on the service provided, customer preferences and investment choices.

“We are challenging ourselves by asking how to solve bandwidth and establish what we actually need the car to tell us and what the LSPs can fill in,” said Brazeau. “We now need to establish standards on what that looks like.”


ETA accuracy: Going up in the customer’s estimation

Carmakers and logistics providers are now starting to bring ‘Uber-like’ tracking and delivery forecasts to the finished vehicle sector…

Scott Mabry may well smile when he reflects on the inspiration for enhancements to Volkswagen Group of America’s logistics tracking system. After all, the implementation this past August of an upgraded estimated-time-of-arrival (ETA) application has significantly improved the accuracy of projected delivery windows for Volkswagen and Audi brands in the US.

Mabry, a senior manager in the carmaker’s finished vehicle logistics department, recalls some of the dealer feedback the company had been receiving in recent years as the technology market began to explode with an array of delivery tracking platforms related to online shopping and other services.

“We’ve seen the world change and our expectations have grown,” says Mabry, pointing to consumer experiences that are now dominated by quick turnarounds via online purchases. “When Domino’s first came out with a pizza tracker, dealers said to us: ‘I can track a $9 pizza – why can’t you give me better data on a $40,000 vehicle?’ They see that Amazon is tracking, FedEx is tracking, UPS is tracking and now absolutely everyone is tracking.”

The desire to satisfy such demands for enhanced visibility of tracking information among dealers, as well as individual consumers purchasing custom-order vehicles, has inspired systems that can analyse and deliver details related to ETAs on a granular level. From OEMs and transport providers improving (or replacing) legacy systems, to specialists emerging within a growing market that features tracking technology in the form of mobile applications, the amount of information available on the ETA of any given vehicle shipment has never been greater.

loading ship

Glovis’s Frank Schnelle says the success of ETA information down to the last mile depends greatly on visibility of unplanned events

“In terms of where could this go, it’s pretty endless in some ways. What’s driving this is instant gratification or a need to understand. The mobile app delivers information at our fingertips,” observes Wayne Pollock, co-founder of Car Delivery Network, whose company has grown in just six years to track the final truck transit to dealerships of nearly 3m vehicles per year. “We thought we could add value by starting at the last part of the supply chain and the carriers are finding value in the information we’ve been able to provide for them. If you will, it’s an ‘Uberisation’ of this marketplace.”

While advancements in technologies have made it much easier to access an abundance of information about movements through the supply chain, the processes behind mining the relevant data at an OEM level, and presenting the content with the most value to the end user in a quickly digestible format, can prove quite complex. Logistics professionals involved in bringing vehicles to the market are faced with the challenge of evaluating and implementing the most effective tracking platform suited to the demands of their supply chain.

For many, the focus on using the latest data systems and equipment is something new. As such, it still has quite a long way to develop, especially as carmakers look to improve their ETAs and move from providing a delivery window of, say, a week or several days to one within a day, or even a specific time. For now, many companies are still transitioning from manual, paper-based processes.

“From my point of view, technology was not the main focus on this part of the supply chain. The manufacturer concentrated on the inbound part of the supply chain with parts and not as much on the outbound,” says Frank Schnelle, general manager of Glovis Europe, which oversees the supply chain for Hyundai and Kia throughout the continent.

“We saw a change about 10 or 15 years ago in the European market,” he explains. “There’s more focus on the production stages of the vehicle and the information that is available. It has become more important to keep the promised delivery date to the customer. There seems to be a greater desire now for this information – even down to the last mile, in fact.”

An enhanced ETA platform
The enhancements to Volkswagen’s dealer-facing portal involve a process that monitors more than 5,000 route-legs with integrations across various stages including factory, vessel and port tracking system improvements for Volkswagen and Audi brands. Algorithms fed into the portal now include data from more than 3,000 locations and 37 checkpoints.

MABRYS NEW HEADSHOT“We know that if we have stable processes and meet our metrics, then it becomes a seamless experience for our dealers, who are our direct customers. They, in turn, can then help their end customers…. We want to do our job so well that we are invisible to the world.” – Scott Mabry, VW of America

“At VW, we looked at it, and each piece of the system has its own visibility. The question became: ‘how do we get the data together and how do we present it to the dealers?’,” says Mabry. “But it’s a lot of data. Take the example of last-mile tracking. Do we want to send an update to the dealer every two minutes? No, we know they don’t want the flood of data.

“Our new ETA engine is calculating historical averages to the hours of delivery. From [showing] it will be there next week [prior to the recent enhancements], we can now say it will be there during the first half of next week.”

Mabry adds that Volkswagen has also been improving accuracy down to the delivery day, with notable improvements; he predicts that the carmaker will eventually be able to narrow delivery down to the last mile and tell dealers a truck will arrive in half an hour.

“We’re not there yet,” says Mabry. “But we are down to very tight timeframes; information like ‘the truck left the rail ramp yesterday and typically it’s there 30 hours later’. We’re still giving our dealers rough windows, rather than precise times.”

Prior to implementation of the new ETA application, VW Group of America’s overall accuracy with projected ETAs stood in the region of 40%. Since launching the enhanced application, that has risen to more than 85% of deliveries.

“Each part of the supply chain informs a central system of its activities for a vehicle in a real-time environment,” says Mabry. “The ETA logic engine uses these inputs as well as routing tables and historical data to provide the current ETA. The ETA engine runs as events arrive to it and sends new results to the dealer websites.”

This level of accuracy compares favourably with others in the market. Carmakers such as American Honda and Subaru also have ETA systems that offer similar accuracy, which is adjusted as vehicles move through the supply chain. But other carmakers, such as General Motors in North America, don’t currently offer dealers ETAs – though it is likely this will change.

One of the key decisions made in the development of Volkswagen’s enhanced ETA platform dealt with the presentation of the deeper dives into the available data. Instead of providing the dealers with a new tracking portal filled with updated options that could require training time for the end users, the VW Group chose to incorporate the ETA information dealers had requested through the company’s current and familiar portal.

“With our dealer-facing portals, there’s always been an ETA presented to them – giving a timeframe of delivery. What we have changed is the logic engine in the background and the data feeds that we are getting from the outside suppliers,” explains Mabry. “These changes make what we are showing them more accurate. They don’t see all the changes that we have made, but they will get the results of it.

“There are different uses for the ETA engine and I know that the consumer-facing part of our brands wants to give the consumers the best experience.”

Managing expectations

According to those responsible for overseeing the management of tracking systems, the greatest value found within detailed ETA information is the visibility of exceptional situations. Given that most automotive supply chains run with efficiency percentages in the high nineties, the ability to rapidly identify issues and take proactive measures has become invaluable for those involved in bringing vehicles to the consumer market.

“The real exercise comes when you have to address the unplanned situation,” says Schnelle, noting that Glovis spent six years developing its current system for Hyundai and Kia. “You want to have this information visible as soon as possible. You want the right information visible to take the proper actions to address the situation.”

While ETAs are highly impacted by specific operational events or disruptions – such as available capacity or weather – some experts suggest their accuracy is just as tied to network planning and design.

“ETA is mostly perceived as a task for the operational guys, but we really believe it starts with having the right network, getting the right capacity in place and making sure that the contractual environment with your supplier base is set up in an optimised way,” explains Hartmut Haubrich, director of finished vehicle logistics systems at German IT firm Inform, where he leads a team of 30 people dedicated to developing and managing software solutions that offer optimal tracking.

“If the network is designed in the right way, it’s not only more cost-efficient, but it’s also more stable. The critical things with ETAs are the things that don’t happen. We can create events and alerts on what did not happen. We want to manage the exceptions in order to still make the ETA that you promised on day one.”

Meanwhile, Brian Hook, vice-president of operations at software provider ICL Systems, also has his team focused on flagging exceptional situations through understanding each link of the supply chain.

“Calculating an accurate ETA goes far beyond simply knowing the current location of a vehicle. If the next hand-off point has a high degree of variability, that will impact the ETA,” says Hook. “If there is a downstream route change due to congestion or diversion, that also will impact the ETA. Another factor that must be considered is dealer operating hours and holidays.”

New JLR release

JLR’s tracking system pulls GPS data from sim cards in its vehicles and captures signals that are sent each time they are started or switched off en route

Staying invisible to the world
The coming wave of technology promises to provide even closer vehicle tracking – from vehicles leaving the assembly line to those reaching their final destination at the dealership. According to Haubrich, Jaguar Land Rover has begun using a system that pulls GPS tracking information from SIM cards within the vehicle. A tracking signal is generated each time the vehicle’s ignition is engaged and switched off. BMW is also running trials with such technology, while OEMs in the US are also starting to explore it further.

“We know that meeting customer timing can be the difference [when] securing a sale, and these new technologies are enabling us to see into the network faster and more efficiently,” says Luca Kolcaj, manager of finished vehicle operations for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles US. “As technological advances are made, vehicles are now being equipped with standard features that would allow FCA US to geo-map current vehicle locations. Having real-time information gives us the ability to get the most up-to-date transport performance without having to rely on vendors or carriers to report.”

However, with both the current advancements and those on the horizon, Hook cautions that OEMs and other participants in the supply chain must become more vigilant in terms of the way new technology is integrated with legacy systems.

“The underlying data exchange process, which is still largely dominated by traditional EDI [electronic data interchange], is one area that is overdue for improvement,” says Hook. “Some OEMs do communicate with us via web services, which is essential if you want true, real-time updates. Change comes slowly to this industry, but over the next ten years, I would expect to see web-based APIs [application programming interface] largely replace the use of EDI.”

Michael Bünning, managing director for BLG Automobile Logistics, based in Germany, also believes that ETAs will become increasingly important as new technology develops, and consumer patterns change in terms of how they purchase and use vehicles.

“We will not only be delivering cars to dealers, but to the final consumer as well. They [the final consumer] will not stay the whole day at home waiting for the car,” he predicts. “They will need a much more accurate ETA to be there, knowing when the car will finally arrive.

“Whether this will create more efficiency or more throughput [in the supply chain], I have my doubts,” he adds.

Though many of the tools have been updated and may yet be totally revolutionised by technology, VW Group’s Mabry notes that the mission remains the essentially same: tracking shipments and projecting possible storage as well as finishing processes based on an expected time of delivery.

“When I first started, we were still handling manual, paper freight bills,” he recalls. “We know that if we have stable processes and meet our metrics, then it becomes a seamless experience for our dealers, who are our direct customers. They, in turn, can then help their end customers.

“Working in logistics, we need to make our part of that job seamless to the dealer and to the customer,” he concludes. “Logistics’ goal is flawless execution. We’re in that part of the world where, if it’s on time, you don’t notice – the same as if the mail shows up and if the lights turn on. We want to do our job so well that we are invisible to the world.”

Michael Bünning“We will not only be delivering cars to dealers, but to the final consumer as well. They will not stay the whole day at home waiting for the car. They will need a much more accurate ETA. Whether this will create more efficiency or more throughput [in the supply chain], I have my doubts.” – Michael Bünning, BLG Automobile Logistics

Tracking vehicles in recalls and buy-backs

Fotos para el Reporte de Sustentabilidad 2015

VW hopes its new ETA app will help create satisfied end customers during the repair and buy-back of cars involved in the recent emissions court case

In the coming year, the enhanced Volkswagen ETA platform will have a critical role to play beyond the normal outbound vehicle supply chain: it will also be used as part of a customer service role as the company works through the massive court settlement with US federal regulators and the owners of 475,000 2.0-litre diesel-engine vehicles.

The cars in question had been manufactured to conceal emissions levels that were in excess of Environmental Protection Agency standards. As part of the 2.0-litre engine settlement, VW has made provisions amounting to around $10 billion on vehicle buy-backs and in owner compensation or potential engine repairs, if approved by the authorities.

According to a Reuters report in late October, some 340,000 car owners have agreed to participate in the settlement, while approximately 3,500 others have decided to opt out. This may well place significant pressure on the Volkswagen supply chain in the near term. The settlement calls for VW to repair or buy back 85% of the total number of cars involved within two years – or face additional penalties.

“We will be delivering more cars next year, and these [enhanced ETA] systems will help us in meeting customer satisfaction,” says Scott Mabry. “Our goal is to line up behind our dealer body and give them the best tools. So, when they tell a customer that they will have the car for them on this day, the customer will have no doubt that everyone in the company – from production all the way to our team in vehicle logistics – is standing behind them to make that happen.

“That’s regardless if it’s a used car or a new car being delivered to them, or returning a car into our auction network. In all of those transactions, the ETA plays a critical role.”


Rubicon Director Lindsay English was a panelist at the Automotive Logistics Global 2016 Conference. Here is her discussion on designing the finished vehicles logistics network.


ICL Systems VP of Global Strategy, Steve Tripp, on Yard Management for Logistics Tech Outlook

Yard Management Systems

Can we skip the RFID please?

Bar Codes are a seemingly ancient technology in the logistics world.  But, they are still in use everywhere in the supply chain – from cross docks to the check-out line at the grocery store.  For years, we have been reading and talking about how RFID tags would replace them and how the superior tracking ability of RFID technology would render bar codes obsolete.

In the Automobile industry, this has been as true as any other.  This applies to the movement and tracking of parts flows into assembly plants as well as the systems that have been built to monitor the flow of finished vehicles from the end of the assembly lines to dealers, where the final customer can take delivery.

Over 17 million vehicles were delivered to dealers in the United States last year and a similar number will be delivered this year.  Most of these vehicles move through an elaborate network, with some vehicles moving on ships, trains, and trucks to get to the dealer – and sitting in many yards while waiting to get on the next truck, railcar, or vessel.  Almost all of these vehicles are “tracked” in some manner by the manufacturers- either directly or with the assistance of TMS systems built by companies like ICL Systems.

In today’s world, a key part of the tracking network that enables carriers to know when vehicles enter or leave yards is the old tried-and-true barcode.  Barcodes are typically scanned by yard operators to record movements into, out of, and within these yard. This data is critical for the current Yard Management Systems and Transportation Management Systems to function.  

Over the years, RFID has been proposed as the replacement for the barcode in these yards and countless studies, analyses, and pilot projects have been conducted in a, so far, vain attempt to replace “ancient” bar code technology.  There have been a few seemingly successful locations where RFID has been implemented. But, for the most part, the vast majority of vehicles continue to move through the network without RFID tracking.

My view is this: the cost of the tags and the towers or rings required to sense and locate the RFID tags has not been worth the trip.  Sure, everyone likes the idea of “pushing a button” and knowing instantly within a few feet where every vehicle is located.  But, the cost of that “nice to have” hasn’t been worth it.  The old bar code does a pretty good job, when used properly with good process control, which have been put into place over the years to make them highly reliable. Also consider that the bar codes themselves are at this point, virtually free: printed automatically on some other document that probably needs to be created anyway for another purpose.

So what about the future of RFID? Will it eventually replace the bar code for vehicle Yard Management Systems?

I don’t think it will.  In the vehicle world, RFID will soon be leapfrogged by telematics.  More and more vehicles are currently being built with the technology to know tons of information about the vehicle:  how fast it is moving, how the engine is running, and of course, where exactly the vehicle is located.  This technology isn’t in every vehicle yet, but things are headed that way.  As the technology to enable this connectivity continues to improve and the installation cost continues to drop, the hyper competitive auto industry will force each manufacturer to keep up, resulting in more and more vehicles eventually getting this technology as standard equipment.

Once all of a manufacturer’s vehicles have this technology and can be successfully “pinged” at any time without excessive battery drain (not an insignificant consideration, yet one I am sure will be figured out pretty soon), then the telematics that are already in every vehicle (and therefore, “free”) can be utilized to provide all of the advantages of RFID without any of the costs for tags, towers, or other equipment.

When the vehicles are “pinged,” you will not only be able to determine the vehicle’s location, but also other important attributes. Are any of the tires low on air or flat?  Is the battery getting low and in need of a charge?  Does the vehicle have enough fuel to be moved for the remainder of its journey?  This data can then be used to automatically call and schedule the fuel fill, battery charge, or flat tire repair that is necessary.

Today’s vehicle Yard Management Systems keep track of when vehicles enter and leave yards, and they also track precisely where they are parked in each yard.  The new on-board telematics can be used to determine where the vehicles are, and can be instructed to tell the yard drivers where exactly to park the vehicle when unloading from a vessel or a railcar.  Imagine the driver getting into the vehicle, starting the engine, and the car “tells” the driver, “Please take me to lot B and park me in space Z197.”.   And, at some point in the future there might be no driver at all: the Yard Management System “tells” the car to drive itself off the ship and park in lot B space Z197!

We’re not there yet, but with the incredible rate at which new technologies are moving into vehicles, investing in RFID now doesn’t seem to make sense.  The window of opportunity for RFID in vehicle shipping yards has closed. For now, we live with the ancient bar code. Soon, hopefully, this old work-horse will be replaced by “sci-fi” like communications within vehicles, some of which might be driving themselves!

August 2016 | Steve Tripp, Vice President Global Strategy, ICL Systems | Logistics Tech Outlook

Rubicon’s Bert Ruden discusses an incident from his time working for a railroad in the July edition of Trains Magazine

Screenshot 2016-06-22 14.11.33
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Automotive Leaders Summit


Automotive Leaders Summit, April 6-7, Las Vegas

ICL Rubicon

Pat Donahoe, ICL; Dennis Manns, Road and Rail; Robert Sadler, Road and Rail; Tom Swennes, ICL; Pat Lewis, ICL; Lindsay English, Rubicon VLS.


ICL founder and president, Pat Donahoe