Telematics and the future of fleet management

Multiple new forms of technology are starting to coalesce under the same platfroms. Smartphones, GPS and more can make fleets more efficient. With so much data, companies will need to figure out which information is most important to them.

CHICAGO — Telematics is the integrated use of telecommunications and informatics as it applies to vehicles on the move. Most fleet management systems fall under the telematics umbrella, but so do mobile data systems, wireless safety and communication systems, intelligent vehicle control systems and much more.

And all these technologies are beginning to converge. According to Chris Colonna, an electrical engineer with 23 years experience at companies like Motorola and NavTeq (and, full disclosure, a Director of Business Development at Penton Media, CONTRACTOR’s parent company), “Telematics has become this whole industry based around automobiles and trucks... There’s a locator element to it, but it’s about tracking everything that’s going on in and around the vehicle.”

To take just one example, maps used to be about finding your way around. Then came turn-by-turn directions to a destination. But in the near future vehicles will be using maps to optimize engine performance. “The map has so many layers of information to it,” Colonna explained, “You can go deep… there’s the steepness, the elevation… and now they use all that information to help the vehicle in different ways,” such as fine level adjustments to the transmission.”

The flip side of this interconnectivity will be a wealth of data for fleet managers to analyze and utilize. Not just a vehicle’s engine hours, but how those hours accelerate a maintenance cycle. Not just which drivers are speeding, but which drivers are taking turns too hard. Not just the nearest service vehicle to a job, but which vehicle has the parts on board that job requires.

But no matter how sophisticated the system, the goal remains the same: satisfying the customer while saving time and money by effectively managing a mobile workforce.

Smartphones, work trucks

The smartphones of today with their built-in GPS are able to do many of the tasks that used to require an installed GPS system. And many smaller businesses are making do with smartphones and specialty apps for their fleet management needs.

But Mike Karlskind, a vice president with ClickSoftware, a company that delivers software solutions to the service and fleet sector, sees vehicle-based hardware and smartphones moving in parallel.

“People are used to smartphones,” Karlskind said, “There’s a built-in connection there. But I don’t want to lose track of the actual vehicle itself… We see a simultaneous desire to have both, so I can monitor both, and actually be able to tell when the [driver and the vehicle] are together and when they are apart.”

NexTraq is a fleet management services company that’s won awards for its mobile apps (both for drivers and fleet managers), but they also don’t see the app pushing out the vehicle-installed hardware.

“We offer two telematic solutions, so we do install hardware,” explained Steven Payne, director of business development for NexTraq. “Whether it’s a device that goes through the OBD port or is hardwired to the vehicle or connects via J-bus [a specialized internal communications network – ed.].”

For all a smartphone can do, the phone goes with the owner, not the vehicle, and the vehicle is the expensive, mission-critical tool that sometimes gets misused. For example, the NexTraq system offers a fuel audit that will match the location of a vehicle against the purchase point of a fuel card. “So if someone is buying fuel with a card,” Payne explained, “but the vehicle isn’t there, something funny is going on.”

Or take the case of Mr. Rooter of Amarillo, who purchased a NexTraq system mostly for its scheduling and dispatch capabilities. “We were surprised to discover we did in fact have after hours and unauthorized usage going on,” said Brandy Waugh, office manager. “We were able to put a stop to such activities immediately as well as have documentation to support our discoveries.”

Integrated workforce

When affordable GPS-based tracking was first introduced it created some friction with drivers. Fleet managers were “Big Brother” trying to micromanage via wireless. Much of that resistance has vanished as more drivers have come to realize a) just because you’re mobile doesn’t mean you’re not on the company clock, and b) fleet management, done right, can save them hassles and make them money.

“I think there’s more of a trend of drivers appreciating the aid of this technology,” said Payne. “They’re being efficiently routed to all these jobs the quickest way, saving them time in traffic. It’s allowing them to get to more jobs and, at some companies, if you’ve finished your jobs for the day you’re done. If you’re more efficient, you get more free time.”

And another thing that can improve a service tech’s workday: happy customers. “The whole customer experience is one of the biggest benefit points,” Rob Skinner said. Something as simple as an accurate ETA can make all the difference between a happy customer and an irritable one.

More than that, “When you get on your smartphone you know exactly what you’re there to do,” Skinner said, “what your history with the customer has been, if there are any issues from the last visit… if you can demonstrate the company is on top of things, it really plays into the customer experience.”

So if the vehicle-based telematic device isn’t going away, neither is the smartphone. Service techs are clocking in on their smartphones, doing safety checklists on their smartphones, accessing tool, equipment and part inventories, accessing customer histories on their smartphones. The smartphone has started to function like a manager in the field — and that’s actually a good thing.

Information overload

Position, speed, engine hours, inventory, time on-site, engine idle time… there is so much, so many different types of data available to fleet managers that making sense of it can be a full-time job.

“We keep all of the data inside our application forever for our customers,” said Payne, “and they’re able to access it at any time. We have a lot of easily customizable export options, so they can export to CSV or Excel or to pdf, and we do offer web service integration to our platform, so a lot of our customers are using their-party software vendors inside their business that they are able to integrate.”

Other systems try to break down the data into more easily-digestible chunks. “Rather than collecting everything,” Karlskind said, “we try to collect what’s appropriate to the audience. So for smaller users it’s basically tracking, breadcrumb-type capability… mileage, idle periods, the basics.”

For end users, ClickSoftware has developed intelligent modeling systems designed to see patterns in the data and make recommendations to the user. For example, if a service tech has clocked in it will automatically show him a list of jobs in his area. If he chooses a job it will automatically show him a route. Near the end of the rout it will automatically bring up contact numbers, and so on throughout the workday.

Fleet of the future

So now that telematics is bringing together information from the driver, the vehicle and the office, what new capabilities is it offering? What new services are fleet managers demanding?

“What I’ve seen is a much larger focus on safety,” said Payne. “Each of these company vehicles is a moving billboard. You’re paying for advertising on the side of your trucks to gain business. But that can be a very negative piece of marketing if your employees are driving your vehicles erratically or unsafely.”

Even putting brand image aside, there are insurance and liability issues in bad driver behavior that can break a smaller company. But telematics can spot the problem before the accident happens. “Rapid acceleration, hard cornering, hard breaking, posted speed limit events, excessive speed limit events — taking all of that back and putting it into something clients can use as a coaching model has really been effective for our customers,” Payne said.

While safety management is filtering down to mid- and small-sized fleets, very large-scale operations have their own issues that are being addressed through telematics. ClickSoftware has started what they call Service Marketplace for their larger clients.

“What it does is streamline and make electronic the communication of work between the enterprises and their service or delivery partners that are made up of small and medium sized businesses,” Karlskind said. “It allows us to connect and optimize between companies, instead of having them work in silos.” Larger companies will be able to gauge the inventories and availability of their partners in real time, and use them as an extension of their workforce.

Here then is the future of fleet management in a nutshell: every part of your business talking to every other part; your scheduling to your inventory, your maintenance records to your customer service records, your route mapping to your insurance liability. And some of these conversations may happen without you ever knowing. But all of them add up to a more efficient, profitable business.

TAGS: Technology
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