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Old 11-13-2008, 09:49 AM   #1
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Trailer Automaton - Market Research

As a very short introduction, I created a start up company nearly six years ago and have provided patent pending technologies to various industries, including some systems currently in some of your trailers. Although it may not be readily apparent yet, vehicles and trailers are becoming an integrated system, interconnected using various types of networks, optimized to operate under various electrical and environmental conditions. Forums do not allow advertising and I promise not to do so, but forums are one of the best places to get input from "real end users" and thus this thread.

Although some limited examples exist, it won’t be long and the devices within trailers will be interconnected with a control network, “hopefully” creating an integrated system. Personally having 30+ years experience in factory automation systems I can clearly state your trailer can have almost anything you want, for a price. The question is what features would you like the most?
To be successful, these systems will have to provide added value beyond traditional systems, at a reasonable cost. The primary question is; What “problems” or features would you like in your trailer?

Possible areas to consider are;

Power Management: Things like “power shedding” where various non critical loads are disabled after some criteria is met to maintain battery power longer. Other areas include improved battery charging systems from vehicles, greater awareness of battery charge conditions, and so on. More easily answered, is there anything you don’t like about your trailer power system today? Any diagnostics you wish you had, but don't have today?

Lighting control: With the newer LED lighting technologies this may not be an issue, but is there any functionality you would like to see in you in trailer, and/or in your down the road lighting systems of your trailer?

Water system: This includes drinking water, waste water and so forth. Although not directly applicable our technology is probably in your home water softener if it is less than 3 years old, so we understand these types of subsystems. Is there anything you would like to see in your water and waste systems?

Security & Fire: Integrated systems enable quite a range of functionality in this area if you assume every sensor and every actuator can share information within this system. We would appreciate any ideas you would like to see in these systems?

Leveling, actuators, etc: When these systems exist, it is relatively simple task to “auto level” if this is desirable feature, but not sure this is of any value. Various forms of “extension” techniques for various accessories appear to exists for trailers, but they all appear to be “proprietary” solutions that won’t integrate well. Anything you like, or don’t like, relative to these subsystems?

Diagnostics: Whenever any system contains electronic devices you do not want the experiences you may have had when taking your vehicle into a dealership for “hopeful repair” where multiple devices may be replaced and you aren’t sure they were all required. Additionally you don’t want the failure of one device to fault other systems in your trailer. This should not be a problem with our approaches and thus assume the system tells you the problem, assuming a fault can be automatically detected. This is one area where some level of product expense is incurred to add numerous diagnostic features, and thus wise selections in this area are important. We are extremely literate in these areas having provided “extremely leading edge” technologies into our customers products and are confident we can give you what you are “willing to pay for” within a device. If we get a reasonable level of responses to our posting we will provide multiple surveys in this area to provide some “end user insight” into the product cost associated with various features to try to determine what is “required”, “highly desired” or “desired by not required”. We can provide various "white papers" to describe various issues since product supplier decisions WILL impact the end user experience and thus we prefer "informed decision making". What have you seen in the area of diagnostics that you like, and what you have experienced and don’t like?

Product packaging: This is perhaps one of the more difficult areas, since different control devices may be required to meet different criteria. For example, a braking system is exposed to the elements and thus must be environmentally sealed and must still be able to dissipate the heat its electronics, motors, valves and so forth produce. Devices in the vehicle cab may have to tolerate a coffee spill, but don’t have snow, salt and gravel pounding against them. Our research indicates most “in trailer” control devices, worst case, seem to fall into the vehicle cab scenario where most are actually housed within sealed boxes, and thus almost no special conditions are required. Any electronic packaging likes and dislikes? Is there a certain "package size" that would be required to fit in various existing locations? Is there a preferred mounting technique?

Wiring: Do you prefer screw terminals, push on spade terminals, plug in connectors containing screw terminals for wiring, special crimped wiring harnesses, pre wired harnesses with wire splicing?

If you would like to participate in “what could be done” and “what will be done” either post your comments here or you may send me direct emails if you prefer a less public view of your comments. All direct communications will be held in confidence.

I clearly understand that most “market research” is done where all possible competitors can see the feedback provided,. My automation experience has found that issues exist in all industries where almost everyone knows the problems but many think they are “the only one that really knows the problem”. Having twenty combined years at Rockwell and Eaton I clearly understand that knowing the problems is only the first step, where providing acceptable quality solutions will determine the success of these coming trailer systems. I clearly understand that “perception is reality” and that there is no such thing as a "bad comment" or a "bad opinion", so please do not hesitate to provide your input.

In return for your input I would be more then willing to provide some insight into actual product development, what can be done easily, what can be done cheaply, what can be expensive so you had better "really want it" and so on. Since we support almost every vehicle network accessible at the OBDII connector from all popular vehicle manufacturers and various industrial networked devices and are very familiar with certain subsystems on trailers today, as long as I don't run into a "non disclosre agreement" problem I will provide answers to most questions in "generic terms". As I prefer to fault on the side of being "more then ethical" I may not provide answers in a "gray area" or may require an OK from one of my customers before providing an answer. If a customer allows me to reveal their product to answer a questions, I could provide more concise answers. Again, this is your chance to impact the future to "trailer automation" and all input will be taken seriously.

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Old 11-13-2008, 10:32 AM   #2
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I would love a system monitoring panel that was accurate.

I'd rather be boon docking in the desert.

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Old 11-13-2008, 10:56 AM   #3
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We've all been exposed to the benefits of automation in our newer tow vehicles and autos. On the downside there is no doubt that I have in many cases lost my ability to service and maintain my vehicles. We now have so many electrical and monitoring hooks in our vehicles, that you now require advanced tools and training to do repairs. My ABS light came on in my Honda. Possible problems may be the ABS computer, wheel sensor, or wiring issues. Is ABS good, yeah but it adds a level of complexity to repair and maintenance to my vehicle.

My trailer is a fairly simple vehicle. Yes some of the components have grown in their sophistication level, but all in all it's not beyond the scope of our ability to service. Adding any level of system control and automation you now add in a new layer of wiring infrastructure, sensors, and the need to provide diagnostic tools for the automation itself.

Quite honestly I use my trailer for weekend camping and vacation time. Does it need to grow into this electronic being that for all intents takes servicing totally out of my hands? Maybe this is a good idea for the Motor home folks who might be able to use some of this in their vehicles. Or you might consider the full timer who has some need for a higher level of control of their units. To me this idea seems to be a little too much overhead for a vehicle whose only job is to provide me temporary shelter for short periods of time.

It all comes at a price and in today's economy we don't need to be inflating the cost of our toy's with things that really don't have a good return on the investment based on our usage expectations.

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Old 11-13-2008, 11:07 AM   #4
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Jack, I have to agree with you. We went from a tent to our Airstream five years ago and the simpler the better. The beauty of our Airstream is that it is well built, a design classic, simple systems for great camping. I don't want to add more $ to the bottom line, I don't want my TV talking with my AS. I don't want to be paged by my AS when my grey tank is half full. I don't think I need to interface my laptop with battery to tell me the black tank is full not do I need communications between the galley area and the bed. I also really do not want yet another do-dad that I can't get to work and start yet another thread on the forum about. Sorry, but feel the AS does not need to head into the 26th Century.
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Old 11-13-2008, 11:20 AM   #5
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Other than monitoring of power available and ensuring that my appliances actually function adequately I prefer the simpler is better mode as noted by the others who have posted. The ability for RV dealers to actually repair anything highly technical is, in my opinion, a big hit and miss situation right now and their costs to ramp up with tools and education would put the already high costs of owning an Airstream over the top for many. Being able to diagnose and repair a system in a campground several hundred miles from a capable RV repair center is a huge consideration and I would only purchase a unit that I was capable of keeping going. You break down in your tow vehicle on the road it is relatively easy to rent another TV while yours is fixed. That is not the case with your Airstream.

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Old 11-13-2008, 11:28 AM   #6
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I agree with all comments thus far, which is the "historical problem" with automation. Some is good, some is bad. For example, few of us would give up our TV remote as it did "add value". Perhaps consider this; would you like to be altered in the vehicle if you are driving down the road and "smoke" is detected inside your trailer? Perhaps there is added value there, where turning on the lights adds no value. Even better, if the source of a short could be identified and disconnected, that might be a good thing. So doing automation for the sake of automation is for hobby people. I am an old automotive gear head (drag racer) and loved carburetors and such, but I do like my fuel injection as it does provide milage and performance. Simple is better is absolutely correct, which my fear is trailers following the "automtive approach" referenced above and thus being more aggravation then it is worth. Some products currently coming down the road, when introduced, will show some of the added value and I will be able to "say something" at that time. Again I am looked for "good stuff". Relative to the "monitoring panel that is accurate", please excuse my ignorance, but could you be a bit more specific? Others on this forum probably know exactly what you mean, but I am new to many areas of RVs and trailers and what values are being monitored and what values are in error? Again, I really appreciate your inputs. By the way, relative to reading automotive PIDs and such if we don't do better then that we should be shot. In reality, my current "trailer device customers" are more then concerned about diagnostics like identifying a bad sensor easily and I believe when they introduce product you will agree they understand your concerns.
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Old 11-13-2008, 01:13 PM   #7
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Holding tank sensors and their reporting systems have been notoriously one of the most prone to failure components of RV's. Sensing methods have been floats, sensors on the sides of tanks to the newer pressure type sensors which have some ability to determine the volume in a tank. In each case you are dealing with having to detect levels of liquid which are clean (fresh water), somewhat clean (sink and shower water), to dirty (toilet holding tank). Due to the debris that may or may not be left in the toilet tank (we call it black water), this tank is most prone to have a sensor malfunction. In the newer Airstreams they use a device which senses pressure which somehow translates into level setting. Apparently it's less prone to fouling by debris. Unfortunately it's not been the total answer since we have seen instances of monitor panel failure, sensor failure or inability of the system to keep its calibration that is used to determine the volume of liquid in the tank and how it relates to the fullness condition. This calibration is critical since Airstream uses different size holding tanks per length of model of the trailer. The calibration at one time was loaded to the monitor panel via a Palm device. Bottom line is that no one really has gotten a good solution on a method that will operate for years without failure.

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Old 11-13-2008, 03:52 PM   #8
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Gee, do you know me? Bottom line is I actually have a prototype device for tank guaging, as it is one area of expertise in a prior life. In effect you can calibrate it for your specific tank, dents and all. The device would allow any form of voltage or current sensor input. In effect you can think of a tank guage as a glorified "look up table" where the sensor voltage is measured, then a volume is "looked up" in a kind of spreadsheet. For every voltage there is an associated volume. Now the whole theory is that "everything is level" as calibrated and that the output voltage of the sensor does not drift with temperature and such. So trailers and vehicles are a little more tricky, where "tilt" has to be taken into account and where the "look up tables" can get a little more complex. You also implied the issue of "fluid density", where say water expands and contracts with temperature, and mix in some solids and the averge density of the system changes. My guess is probably being calibrated on water would be good enough, but based on your comment that may not be the case. The issue is "plugging a cheap pressue sensor" if it is not a "flush mount" sensor. In process control (prior life) one uses flush mount pressure sensors which are NOT cheap, but they would clearly work. Another way that is used on the huge silos you see by dairies and such is called a "bubble tube" were a very low air pressure constantly pushes air out the tube, where the liquid pressre where the bubbles exit is measured at the sensor, located remotely in nice temperture and environmental conditions. I don't know if trailers have a "air source" that could be used for this purpose, or perpahs just a blast of pressurized water from time to time to just "clear the tube would be fine. Bottom line is this problem can CLEARLY be solved and made quite accurate. It is not uncommon to provide "temperature compensation" to adjust for drifts due to temperature at the sensor or at the fluid, so this is really no big deal. This was an EXCELLENT comment and is exactly they type of feedback I am looking for. I am EXTREMELY pleased at how active this site is and exceeds all my expectations, but confirms what I have been told many times by existing trailer industry customers and even RVIA adds relative to how friendly everyone is in this industry. Providing an improved tank guage is quite straight forward and although I did not hghlight all the issues for guaging systems, I believe we can solve that problem. Do you care about the "display technology"? For example, a low end small LCD of 16 to 20 total characters could do the trick, but LCD's don't like the cold. Another alternative is color, like the size of a traditional cell phone. It costs a bit more but is really impressive when alrams go red, different colors for differnt conditions and so forth. In these types of "sytems" I personally believe the most cost effective approach is to have a display device, like the little color one, that is then shared by everything in the trailer. IF you want to upgrade to a larger one, or use a very low end one like the LCD I referenced, you could unplug one and plug in the new one, and in a "good system" would be good to go. I would VERY much appreciate comments on the desired display technology as well as packaging. For example, would something like a "thermostat control, wall mounted" be desired, or plug in hand module one the end of something like a flexible phone cord, or ?
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Old 11-13-2008, 04:10 PM   #9
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Sounds complicated—and expensive.

Others have said and will say it better than I, but here’s my 2 cents.

This particular forum has hundreds of members who are restoring older Airstreams. 1950’s models are still quite common with a few from the 1940’s still rollin’. I have a 35 year old camper that I am restoring from the ground up. I am amazed at the items that still work after all of these years. A couple of everyday examples. The 35 year old rectifier that came with the Airstream new, still works, not well, but it does work (a rectifier converts 110v ac to 12v dc to run many of the systems in RV’s). It will need to be replaced. I doubt very seriously that 35 years from now any rectifier produced today will still be around. Refrigerators are another example. The fridge that came in mine still worked when we bought it a few years ago. It now needs to be replaced. For some reason, many modern models have circuit boards in them that self destruct after a couple of years. None of this is inexpensive to repair.

So, why would I want to complicate things with extra sensors and controllers that will inevitably break (sooner rather than later). Today’s consumer electronics have a tendency to be very, very poorly made. Break it, throw it away, buy a new one. No thanks.

If you could devise a way to do all of these things inexpensively and give warrantees that run years and not months, there may be a market. Would I buy these things? No. I really don’t need them, nor do I want the headache. The electronic “upgrades” on my camper include a new car stereo and a small HD TV. That’s about it.

Maybe there’s a market for the truly high-end RV market, but most of us here are not part of that market.


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Old 11-13-2008, 04:49 PM   #10
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Your service concerns, with todays technologies, can be handled much better then most of what you see today. The kind of system architecture trailers could utilize would simply require that you plug a USB cable into one of the devices in the system into your laptop. If you can connect it to the internet, then remote access is possible. Although I won't disclose too much here, I personally prefer the ability to download a series of diagnostic applications to the end user. These would provide a step by step sequence following directions on the laptop to "drill down into the system" and the "devices in the system" to identify the root cause of a fault. In this way, the applications can stay with the customer in case he needs it again, or he can even give it to his friends. Besides, you don't always have intenet access and thus an architecture that provides the ability to "look at anything inside any device, only when needed", and when the existing diagnostics are not sufficient, "download additonal diagnostics" after "removing the prior diagnositcs" and thus keep the memory costs down is, in my opinion, the preferred approach. We do this today, so that is not the issue. And I don't know about you, but I really don't like it when Norton or someone else with "marginal software" is cruising inside my machines. For those whom want someone else to "look into your system through the internet" that certainly can be done and is not precluded as long as that capability is part of the system design. Personally I think diagnosing a problem, and then having a part waiting for you at your closest dealership would be my opinion of "quality service". So in conclusion, if a device and the system are not designed from the start to support whatever level of diagnostics that are needed to indenfity a problem, then everyone will always be asking for better diagnostics. The reason you have problems in diagnosing vehicles is because "all those devices are different" and "none of those devices supports diagnostic capabilities" described here. I could continue to ramble on and on, but lets just say that if the communicating trailer devices follow the same road as industrial controls took in the early 80's, or the PID approach used by current "automotive manufacturers", a marketing manager I worked with said it like this; "If you continue to do what you did, you will continue to get what you've got"! As end users of this stuff be happy that perhaps this transition is occuring at the right time where technology now enables this industry to follow a different path. I will ask numerous questions relative to "preferred diagnostic interfaces", and with all your help, hope to "keep it as simple" as I can.
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Old 11-13-2008, 04:56 PM   #11
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I am not interested in a computer controlled travel trailer. When I go camping it is to get away from it all, simply. I don't want to lug my laptop with me on the chance my waste water monitor will stop working. As long as I have something that tells me how much fresh water I have, how much crap is in the tanks, and if my battery has a charge, I'm happy.
Now, if I had a million dollar motorbus, I would expect it to do everything, down to dropping a replacement roll of toilet paper in place when a roll empties.
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Old 11-13-2008, 05:11 PM   #12
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Simplicity is good (the old "less is more" theory)...which is proven over and over in our world. However, remember that what we think of as "simple" today is light years more "complicated" that what our grandparents grew up with...and their parents probably thought what they had was too complicated. It's a matter of perspective. Don't get me wrong...I love vintage Airstreams...and restored cars, etc, fact, I restored a VW bug convertible that I absolutely loved because of its "coolness" and it's relative simplicity. But even so, I much prefer driving my new truck as a regular means of transportation. "Complicated" is a matter of perspective. We have a newer Airstream that we really like...but I think it would be kinda cool to be able to plug it into my laptop and have it help diagnose the systems and let me know that all is well. That would leave me all the more time to enjoy camping in "relaxed" mode... By the way, welcome to the Airforums, Don!
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Old 11-13-2008, 05:21 PM   #13
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I work in the service department of a Mercedes Benz dealer and see this stuff every day. Talk about complicated!

But.. since you asked.
What about a "reliable and accurate" tire pressure monitoring system that could be integrated into the vehicles display. This will be the norm as manufactures perfect this technology. I would love to know whats going on back there as we all have concerns about the tires under our heavy airstreams already. And since your at it we could integrate a weight sensing device that might look for overloading. This is a common problem familys have since we like to bring everything and afterall .. there are all those cabinents..

just these two safety related features would get me thinking the RV industry is catching up..

"Old fashioned service on your late model Airstream"
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Old 11-13-2008, 06:23 PM   #14
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Originally Posted by C5Don View Post
Perhaps consider this; would you like to be altered in the vehicle if you are driving down the road and "smoke" is detected inside your trailer? Perhaps there is added value there, where turning on the lights adds no value. Even better, if the source of a short could be identified and disconnected, that might be a good thing.
This is the kind of example that people will say 'of course that's a good idea', but would anyone pay extra for that in their trailer? Mine has been towed around for 40 years without having a fire inside it, let alone while being towed down the road. So I'd have to say we've been doing just fine without a product like that. Just to point out that people might say that's a great idea when asked, but actually shelling out money for it is another matter.

I'm with the folks who say they are happy keeping everything as simple as possible. Luckily mine is so old there's nothing to worry about automating. If we want to know how full the black tank is, we just open the toidy and peek down the hole


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