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A look at on-board computer evolution and today’s cell phone

By Jerome Liss

Back in the 1970s, NASA was designing and building the Space Shuttle. Specialized on-board computers were built to handle the Shuttle’s complex navigation functions. By the time the shuttle was ready to fly, NASA had installed a back-up navigation computer in the event that the three redundant OBCs failed. What did they use? Advances in computing power had enabled NASA engineers to use an off-the-shelf programmable pocket calculator, the Hewlett-Packard HP-41, as a back-up computer on the multi-billion-dollar Shuttle.

The advances in small computer technology that enabled NASA engineers to use a pocket calculator are still going on today. Most people are carrying a portable computer, which has much more power than the HP OBC used by NASA decades ago, and more power than even desktop computers from only a few years ago. The difference is that these pocket-sized machines also have advanced wireless communications capabilities. Of course, I am describing the modern cell phone.

Today’s cell phone is literally thousands of times more powerful than the navigation computers that NASA had specified for the Space Shuttle. Not surprisingly, most people still perceive cell phones as phones and are only beginning to realize the amazing power they possess. Because of this, most companies that need computing power for vehicles and/or staff in the field still think they need special on-board computers, which are quite specialized, expensive, hard to maintain and obsolete by the time they are installed.

In the vast majority of applications, today’s cell phones can be the OBC. The phones can communicate with on-board equipment such as fuel-delivery metering equipment, printers, bar-code readers and GPS navigation equipment, all of this from a device that sells for about $100 to $200 and requires no special installation.

A typical phone (OBC) installation on an oil delivery truck, allows a company’s office to send delivery information to the truck, automatically load the information into the truck’s electronic ‘fuel register,” collect the delivery information once the driver has delivered the oil and send it back to the office. In addition to doing this, the phone can load the delivery location into an off-the-shelf GPS navigation unit and provide turn-by-turn directions to the delivery site, as well as printing out the complete delivery ticket for the customer.

In a service truck, the phone (OBC) receives service ticket data, collects readings and service info from the technician, reads bar-code information that the technician collects from parts, prints out a receipt for the customer and, of course, sends the completed information back to the office with time stamps for every step of the technician’s work. The phone (OBC) also transmits the service location to a GPS navigation system so the technician has maps and turn-by-turn directions leading to the service location. Oh, by the way, the phone (OBC) is still a working cell phone.

The latest generation of cell phones now incorporates a short-range wireless system called Bluetooth. This amazing technology allows the phone (OBC) to wirelessly link with all of the equipment that needs to connect to the computer. Now we don’t even need wires between the devices. The phone becomes a truly wireless solution. No special cables; in fact, no wires at all.

All of the features mentioned come at an extremely low price. This is due to the enormous volumes in which the phones are produced and the extreme competition between the manufacturers. No specialized computer could ever compete. Where a typical production run of specialized on-board computers might be in the thousands and keep to a design for several years, typically five, the phones are produced in the millions or tens of millions, and are redesigned and enhanced in a matter of months. If a phone breaks or is lost, a replacement is available in hours at a cost typically of less than $200. Contrast this with the specialized on-board-computer. If this unit breaks, it may be days to get it repaired at a distant service center. The cost for the repair may be several hundred or thousands of dollars and the end result is still an old, obsolete and problem-prone device.

In summary, there is virtually no reason today to use specialized on-board-computers on a company’s vehicles. A revolution in portable computing technology has taken place and the results are in the palms of everyone’s hands.

Jerome Liss is the head of product development for Digital Dispatcher. He can reached by calling (215) 635-3980 or by e-mail at

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