Decades ago, whether realistic or fantastical, there were visions of flying cars and civilizations on Mars by the year 2000. Computers would be hand-held, or in extreme cases maybe imbedded into our very minds allowing us to close our eyes and search the web on the back of our eyelids.
It may seem that we are far from that level of technology, but our comfort levels with the technological conveniences to which we have become accustomed are growing and have us asking for more.
The automotive industry has been using key fobs, keypad entry and other various keyless systems for years. Those conveniences are now being adapted into mobile off-road equipment to give drivers the same level of comfort and security they would experience on their drive to work.
Access solution providers such as Southco, Concordville, PA, and TriMark Corp., New Hampton, IA, now offer a multitude of electronic access control solutions to meet the growing demand for convenience and comfort in any vehicle.
For security purposes
A recent market research survey conducted by Southco at the 2008 ConExpo-Con/Agg show in Las Vegas, NV, compiled by the Industrial Research Center, revealed interesting results in regards to electronic access solutions for off-road equipment. Only people who took the survey and indicated they were in a position to select, approve or influence the purchase of off-highway equipment were included in the results. Steve Potter, business development manager - transportation, Southco, says of the survey, "What we wanted to find out was what end users were really interested in so we could relay that information back to our OEM customers."
The survey concluded that 70% felt that security of the equipment was very or extremely important when considering purchasing equipment, and 38% rated the importance of electronic entry access very or extremely important.
"In the off-road market, security is becoming more of an issue with more expensive electronics in the cab," says Dave Magner, advanced new products engineer, TriMark Corp. "With the use of electronics and the RFID (radio frequency identification) technology, end-users can have an inexpensive and effective way to have both convenience and increased security at the same time."
There is a limitation with the security of existing mechanical hardware. Equipment manufacturers often have a single corporate key that will open the door to any piece of their equipment, which significantly lessons the security of each piece of equipment should a key disappear.
Options for additional security, as seen by Southco's Potter, that do not include a universal (or corporate) mechanical key, are unique keys, much like the automotive industry utilizes. Each piece of equipment would have a unique key code to allow access to the machine and the ability to start it.
The other opportunity is a jump right to electronic access, which would surpass mechanical key-entry technology. This is where most of the automotive industry is now with key fobs and numeric key pads. "In some of the later models [of cars] they use intelli-keys, so not only are you getting away from using your key to get in to the vehicle, but you don't even need it to start your vehicle," says Potter. "It's a proximity switch.
"That's really the basis for why we asked, what do the users want?" Do they want a unique key or do they want electronic access?" Many people saw security as an issue, especially, Potter says, equipment owners near the border who said the equipment is being stolen and taken into Mexico. Even with tracking devices, they can't go into Mexico and get their equipment back. "They're spending a lot of money securing their equipment overnight, putting it in caged areas."
Southco also learned that many owners would like to get away from padlocks as an additional security measure. A padlock is just another part that needs to be purchased, and it is then up to the individual operator to ensure the lock is on and properly secured every time.
TriMark's Magner agrees. "With integrated electro-mechanical systems, OEMs can provide simple-to-install and retrofittable solutions that provide users with the comfort of mechanical systems, but with added convenience and security.
"People are still hesitant to get rid of all of the mechanical linkages, so a lot of times the installation is redundant. Vehicles can be unlocked mechanically, but as the automotive industry raises the comfort level with electronic access, it's becoming easier for people to trust the technology and understand that it can be just as reliable as the mechanical system."
There are electronic access overrides including batteries, unique keys, key pads and even air pressure giving many alternate ways to override electronic access systems besides universal keys until owners and users are comfortable relying solely on electronics.
Comfort and convenience are far from the only reasons to pick up a fob and start unlocking doors. There are several ways that electronic access actually makes the operator safer.
Off-road equipment is not known for being little, gentle, or soft when an operator falls off. "The approach to the door is very difficult. It's high up in the air and maybe a little hard to get at, so if the door can unlock and even open automatically, that would not only be convenient, but also be an improvement in safety," says Magner.
Oftentimes a job can entail excavating for a major project 24 hours a day. "With users working 2nd and 3rd shift, as they approach the vehicle they may want to turn on a light. You can be 100 feet away and press a button for the light," he says.
With the press of a button, operators can approach the vehicle with safer footing in rough terrain, locate the vehicle more easily, and ensure there isn't a person around the vehicle. And, if there are people close to the machine, the light lets them know it will be running and in use shortly. Those additional benefits are added with a simple push of a button with electronic access systems.
"If you think of equipment like a wheel loader," says Potter, "where you have to climb up to access the cab, if that piece of equipment's door is locked and the operator needs to get a key out of his pocket while holding on to a railing or handle, stick the key into the latch, unlock it, open the door and get in, there are a lot of opportunities to get injured.
"If that same lock can be unlocked with a key fob before the operator even climbs onto the ladder, all he has to do is open the door. It frees up the operators hands so he can be safer on the job site when getting into his equipment."
Electronics also give the user the ability to add all kinds of features, including safety features like lights, sirens and horns.
A point on both security and safety of the job site is the ease of blocking certain people out of the vehicles. A disgruntled employee can have his specific access-frequency restricted, more easily than worrying if he still has a key to open and start every piece of equipment on the site.
Electronics also enhance audit trail capabilities to know who accessed an individual piece of equipment and when. Mechanical keys allow a system to know which piece of equipment is running at what time, but don't hold a specific driver accountable. Each electronic key can have a different frequency for each operator to know who accessed the equipment, when and for how long. This, of course, helps the owner know when machines need to be serviced as well, helping with maintenance and repair issues.
An electronic access system can be a simple unlocking mechanism, but a further enhancement can actually allow the door to be opened for you by a motor.
"A characteristic of the cab design is that, due to the nature of the elements and the dusty rugged environment, the cab manufacturers want to keep the noise and the dust out as much as possible," says Magner. "The result is that it puts a lot of stress on the door latch and the door itself, so it takes a little more effort to open and close the door because you have to overcome a large compression force of the seal.
"As doors need to be sealed tighter, the opportunity to have a motor assist becomes more prevalent."
One challenge in this industry is that normal consumer electronics standards aren't suitable for automotive and even the next step up, off-road equipment. "The environment, the longevity of the product, really requires an exceptional design and validation program," says Magner. Normal electronics of an iPod or cell phone may have a 2 or 3 year life cycle, but a tractor or dozer and their equipment needs to last for many more years, and in a rougher environment.
Using Southco's survey, people agreed that electronic access would be great, but concerns about whether it was robust enough were raised. Southco works with potted controllers where the electronics are placed into a resin which will protect them from dust, moisture and vibration. The mechanical side of the access system really doesn't change from other automotive electronic access systems.
Electronics for the pacifist
If an operator would prefer to not have to push anything at all, but rather have all of the doors open by the time he reaches the vehicle, there are some options, one of which is quite possibly the most futuristic option of them all.
A passive entry system involves an RFID transponder in the pocket of the operator. As he approaches the vehicle the doors unlock, a sort of proximity sensor. The next extension is a sensor that can recognize that the operator is in the seat. Simply pushing a button on the dash could start the machine. The passive entry system could potentially eliminate the need for physical keys altogether.
One technology, that both Magner and Potter agree is not ready for the off-road industry, is the use of biometrics, or biological identification, such as a fingerprint scan. Magner's biggest concern is the ruggedness of the technology, especially for the harsh environmental conditions of the off-road industry. "I think it needs some work yet. What may leapfrog biometrics is the RFID transponder in your pocket, which might be easier for the end-user to use because it is automatic and doesn't require a fingerprint scan."
With fingerprint scanning, while it would be an excellent security benefit to equipment owners, the conditions users are in does not adhere to the needs of the technology. Fingerprint scanners need a near perfect match of a fingerprint in both similarity and quality. If an operator is working in dirty conditions, he may need to thoroughly wash his hands before being able to enter his vehicle. Even the act of taking off gloves to scan a print takes away from the convenience and safety of the technology.
The most intriguing and outrageous technological option is identification chips actually implanted in the operator. This may sound outlandishly excessive for security and safety, but there are already experimental programs in other industries in Europe. Elite hotels, clubs, and societies include the "I.D. chip" technology in the membership. "There are things like that going on, but I think that's a little futuristic for our industry," says Magner.
However far-fetched the technology, the demand is growing for added safety, security and convenience. And whatever the demand, manufacturers and engineers will continue to supply the product that meets the equipment user's wants and needs.