The Future of Vehicles is on the Roof

Aaron Thomas started work as a courier. Fast forward 20 years he founded TRAILAR, a startup that uses solar technology and IoT to make the logistics industry greener and more efficient. How did that happen? He simply wanted to make a difference.
The question of why people do the things the way they do isn't all that easy to answer sometimes. Aaron Thomas is experiencing that kind of moment right now: How can he best explain the fast-paced development that his company TRAILAR and he himself have experienced over the last seven years? How did he change from an employee into the co-founder of a start-up? A start-up with a clever product that makes the logistics industry more digital and sustainable? The 42-year-old thinks about it, taking a quick glance at his office ceiling as if the answer were written up there. "I guess that it's somehow normal for me to work outside of my comfort zone," he says. "That's how I worked my way up in business."

Aaron Thomas, co-founder of Trailar, started as a courier   

Aaron Thomas, co-founder of Trailar, started as a courier Aaron Thomas comes across as friendly and focused. Someone who listens well and makes the impression that he would rather act and make quick decisions than mull things over for a long time. After finishing school, which he says he did average in, he started working for a transport company. First as a courier, then as a warehouse employee. Aaron changed jobs every two or three years because he specifically sought out new challenges. Bit by bit, he took on more responsibility. At 23, he was a Shift Manager at DHL and responsible for 50 employees.

"Logistics HAS always been my thing," says Aaron. "I like the energy and the people in the industry. And you can move things forward if you have a good idea." TRAILAR, the company that he founded together with Denny Hulme, is a good example of that. The company installs 3-mm-thin, flexible solar mats on the roofs of trucks, trailers, vans, buses and electric vehicles. The solar energy they collect powers the electrical devices on board the vehicle, from the tail lift to the lights and air conditioning. That saves fuel, CO2 and maintenance costs through better battery management as a result of the solar charging.

Installing solar mats on the roofs of trucks saves resources

In addition, the cloud-supported digital telematics systems enable customers to analyze and optimize the vehicle's operational performance. "That makes fleet management significantly more efficient," notes Aaron. "And we're helping make the world a bit greener."

From idea to startup

But how did it happen? A quick look back: Aaron and Denny met at a DHL Management Program in September 2015 and soon became friends. Their task was to come up with a new, innovative business idea that could disrupt the transport industry. They researched, considered, and brainstormed. In Europe alone, light and heavy commercial vehicles account for around 38 percent of all CO2 emissions. They asked themselves how they can reduce that number. "Somehow Denny and I started talking about solar energy. That it's a clean and free energy, growing in popularity. That's when it clicked," explains Aaron.

Could something work there? Can we connect the solar and commercial vehicle industry? And if so, what would a convincing business idea look like? They couldn't stop thinking about the idea and threw themselves into it headlong. Sometime later they presented a prototype to the DHL Board, and the Board was enthusiastic. Aaron and Denny tested the system extensively and determined that it is capable of saving between 2.5 and 5.2 percent of a vehicle’s fuel consumption. "The facts gave us a powerful boost," says Aaron. In March 2018, they prevailed over 152 other startup ideas in a global DHL start-up competition, winning and securing substantial funding. That was the starting signal for TRAILAR. Today, the company employs 30 people and has over 100 customers all over the world who have equipped more than 3,000 vehicles with their system.

Technology that works: Cumulocity IoT dashboard

“Basically, our technology is a door opener that gives our customers increasingly detailed knowledge about the vehicle and its use," notes Aaron. "It has great potential, especially when we’re talking about electric mobility." With commercial vehicles that have electric motors, managing battery and range is even more important than in the world of combustion engines. The real-time IoT connection with a vehicle allows constant data comparison on the vehicle's current position and status of its components, including the battery with the desired route, duration of travel and its purpose. "This knowledge enables more precise forecasting, planning and proactive maintenance for the use of individual vehicles and the entire fleet," states Aaron. For operators, this knowledge means hard cash.

TRAILAR won't run out of ideas and challenges anytime soon. The company isn't anywhere near the comfort zone—and Aaron Thomas will be glad to hear it.

Aaron Thomas, Co-founder of Trailar

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