You’ve seen “before and after” testimonials. The skinny guy becomes a muscle man. The acne face turns into a clear complexion. This Old House becomes a candidate for Architectural Digest. A GPS system comes with a similar set of expectations. We’ll assume you’ve heard of telematics and global positioning satellite technology, and some of the benefits vehicle tracking systems offer: ambiguous phrases such as “optimized scheduling,” “maximized time management,” “increased productivity” and “improved customer service response time.”
You also know that installation of a system is no small investment. And because every business is different, you can’t be sure exactly how the system will benefit your company specifically until you spend the money and install it.
Here’s how seven companies, all with fleets between 10 to 70 vehicles, went through the process of researching, implementing and operating a GPS system. This is their GPS “before and after” testimonial.
Needs for Greater Control, Accountability and Efficiency
“Typically we routed technicians as efficiently as they could be,” says Michael Hornung, president of Valley Green Companies, a Minnesota-based lawn maintenance and landscape lighting company with a 10-vehicle fleet. “But the way they got from the shop to their stops, we never knew. I wanted to make sure our technicians were following our suggested route.”
Sandwich Isle Termite and Pest Control Inc. in Oahu, Hawaii, recently started doing business on the outer islands, where daily physical contact with technicians is impossible. President Michael Botha needed to ensure that the work they completed matched their timesheets and client billing. He also needed a protection against “hanging tickets.” In pest-control parlance, hanging a ticket means invoicing a customer without ever doing the job. “There’s very little you can do in your defense, especially if no one witnessed the technician,” says Botha. “It’s your word against the customer. Even though we knew we’d done the service, we’d have to go back and do it again.”
Steve Phair, general manager of SKS Oil in Southern California, says his initial inquiry into GPS involved security issues. As a bulk oil and fuel distributor, Phair needed to know exactly were his oil trucks where at any given time, especially after feeling pressure from the Department of Homeland Security to keep tighter reigns on volatile cargo. Phair also wanted to dispatch and reroute oil delivery vehicles more efficiently.
John Wakefield, a business and information systems analyst with Arizona Department of Transportation, wanted a GPS system to more accurately bill clients for miles driven. His department operates like a car rental agency within the state DOT. The department generates its own revenue by buying vehicles and leasing them to internal departments. Traditionally, lessees turn in handwritten logs of odometer readings, or usage tickets, each pay period and are billed accordingly. Wakefield’s department had to deal with lost tickets, late tickets and gaps in odometer readings.
O.C. Communications, a cable television subcontractor in the West, has been growing rapidly. Two years ago the company moved its technicians out of personal vehicles into company trucks. Chief Operations Officer Michael S. Harding looked into a GPS system for vehicle diagnostics and odometer-reading capabilities to keep the company’s new fleet of 70 Ford Rangers properly maintained.
Swish Maintenance, a supplier of cleaning products based in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada, had measurement systems for every other process—back orders, inventory, dead stock, fill rates and credits—yet no system in place to measure fleet productivity. “We loaded up the trucks and said, have a good day guys,” says Mark Wilson, purchasing manager. Wilson had an idea that the fleet was not running at top efficiency but needed to definitively measure performance before making any changes. “We wanted to measure what our service vans were doing and match the activity to the billing,” Wilson says.
Liability resulting from vehicle crashes was a concern for some companies. Botha says his highest worker’s comp claims have come from auto. His last claim cost over $80,000. That increased his premiums substantially for three years, even though his driver was not at fault. “We wanted to be able to trace back the steps before an accident to identify fault,” Botha says. He also saw GPS as a preventive measure. “We thought that if the drivers were aware of a system that would record all of their moves in the truck, they’d be more conscious of speeding and dangerous driving.”
Wakefield needed similar evidence in case of an accident. His department, like most government agencies, is self-insured. The department pays about $700,000 a year to the risk management department, about $200 per vehicle. Every accident goes to an accident review board to determine fault.
Wakefield says there have been incidences in which citizens would report damage from a DOT vehicle: say, a paint striper sprays a passing car. With no definitive way to determine fault, the risk management department usually pays the repair bill to keep the taxpayer happy, Wakefield says.
Graham MacLeod, president and general manager of Skyrider Equipment, didn’t want a GPS system at all. “We were dragged into this kicking and screaming by our insurer,” he says. Skyrider rents aerial equipment to construction and industry in the Toronto area.
The company is insured by the Rental Association of Canada, which recently switched carriers. The new insurance carrier insisted that equipment worth over $60,000 be equipped with a GPS unit for theft protection. MacLeod was faced with outfitting about 23 machines with the systems. He hadn’t had that type of equipment stolen in 30 years. “We were not very happy about that,” MacLeod says.
Are You Passive or Real Time?
The next task for these companies was to choose a type of system and a manufacturer. One of their first decisions was to choose between an active (real-time) or passive system. (See Business Fleet July/Aug 04 “Choosing a GPS System: Passive or Real Time?”) Active systems allow for instantaneous tracking of vehicles. Users of a passive system retrieve trip data downloaded from a key fob or through a 900 MHZ wireless transfer when a vehicle returns to home base. Both systems incur hardware and installation charges. Active systems also incur a monthly fee for the real-time tracking capability; passive systems do not.
Botha determined that a passive system fit his needs, though that meant his pest-control managers on the outer islands needed to retrieve key fobs from the technicians and overnight them to the home office along with other paperwork. Botha had to make sure managers had another set of fobs to hand off to the drivers. He chose a passive system from Geotab.
Wilson says he chose a passive system because he didn’t want to have to continually provide justification to upper management for the added monthly cost.
Hornung chose the passive system from Geotab as well, because his lawn maintenance jobs are pre-booked and routing rarely changes. Plus, “I don’t have time to sit in front of the computer and watch what they’re doing every day,” he says. “If there are any questions, the end of the day is soon enough to deal with it.”
Phair says oil delivery, on the other hand, has more flexible scheduling. He chose an active system (from WebTech Wireless) to be able to reroute his oil trucks immediately. Dispatchers can tell a driver to save a certain amount of fuel and reroute to a customer who needs it urgently. When rerouting is necessary, the system identifies the closest driver without the dispatcher having to radio all drivers in the vicinity. Drivers are no longer distracted unnecessarily with a phone call while they’re driving—a big safety improvement, Phair says.
Wakefield needed a system that interfaced with the department’s current fleet management system. He wasn’t about to scrap the system already in place. “We don’t want to have to reinvent the wheel to install GPS,” he says. Wakefield chose Networkcar, an active system provider.
MacLeod’s choice of a system was dictated by the insurance company. The equipment needed an active device for theft tracing purposes, though he had no idea how many times he would need to track the machines. He chose an active system from Longview Advantage. Instead of a package with continuous real-time capabilities, MacLeod chose one in which he could “ping” (locate) each vehicle five times a month for a $5 monthly fee per device. “We installed one of these things and just left it alone,” he says.
Welcome to GPS
Introducing new technology to your employees can be tricky. Science-fiction movie technology, from face recognition devices and micro-cameras patrolling street corners to radio frequency tags that know your shopping habits, is already a reality. The media trumpets the dark side of GPS technology, such as stalking cases and government tracking of citizens. It’s not then surprising that some equate GPS systems with Big Brother. Breaking the news to drivers—no matter how well you think they’ll take it—is part of the process of implementing a system, and it should not be taken lightly.
“We tried to be real upfront about installing the system. We didn’t want to be sneaky,” Hornung says. “We said it’s to improve the overall operation in our company. I looked at it more for helping our new technicians, not so much about keeping our old technicians in line.”
Wakefield made sure everyone was involved in the decision-making process, down to his fleet customers, so all would know the impact ahead of time. Wakefield wasn’t necessarily worried about drivers misbehaving. (The big ‘State of Arizona—Official Use Only’ sticker on the vehicles takes care of that, he says.) But there were some trust issues with people loyal to turning in a usage ticket manually. “You’ll bill me what I say you’ll bill me,” said some who were loyal to the old system.
Botha and his employees were all too familiar with the hanging ticket accusations. If that could be eliminated, technicians wouldn’t have to worry about losing a production bonus for a job they know they did. “We knew we were being abused, so we sold the idea of GPS to the drivers by telling them it would help in their defense,” Botha says. The company is considering an extra incentive for those who show a clean driving record, evidenced by the system. (Hornung, on the other hand, told his employees the system would be used to enforce an internal speeding policy. Speeders will be docked part of their bonus incentive. That money will help pay for the Christmas party.)
Harding says he had no negative feedback from his drivers. The tighter control offered by a GPS system was one of the major reasons the company switched from personal vehicles to a company-owned fleet. In turn, the switch has allowed the company to widen its hiring pool to those who wouldn’t have driven their own vehicles for work. The O.C. fleet also wears “How’s my driving?” stickers. As other managers noted, Harding said the system could defend employees against a mistaken bad-driving complaint.
Wilson notes that GPS is no longer unique to the marketplace. “It’s not totally out of the blue to them,” he says. “We had some flak from our drivers, but as a whole it wasn’t much of an event. After the test, and when we started rolling it out in other locations, the other drivers heard about it through the grapevine and already had their concerns addressed.”
These companies spent the time to educate themselves and their employees. Did results meet expectations? What happened to their best-laid plans?
Managers say the installations of their systems were generally pain-free, though some complained of having to replace malfunctioning units. One mentioned getting false vehicle on/off readings because the systems had been connected to the wrong place in the fuse box. The service providers corrected these problems.
Learning the systems took more time for some. “There are a lot of ways to look at the information,” Wilson cautions. “I’m still trying to understand what the most relevant information is and in what format we want to see it.”
Phair says SKS dispatchers had to catch on to how the program landmarked destinations. Drivers sometimes access a designated stop from a street that does not match the official business address inputted into the program. In that case the program does not recognize the location. Phair learned to expand the location area to include any other entrances.
What Were You Doing In My Truck?
The driver backlash, some managers found, came not during the initial announcement but after the systems were in place and route deviations were discovered.
Hornung says he wasn’t quite prepared for the hostile response from employees who didn’t like the system. “It put me on the spot,” Hornung says. “Now that I know what they’re doing, I have to deal with it. And if you don’t deal with it when you know it’s going on, they’re going to keep doing it.” The worst offenders made their displeasure known around the office, Hornung says. At the end of the first two weeks after installation the company had individual meetings with technicians to discuss driving habits. “When we laid the paperwork out in front of them with the breadcrumb trail some looked at us like ‘Oh my gosh, I’m caught.’”
One worker was fired for impropriety. Two workers quit on the principal that they didn’t want to be scrutinized in that way, yet there was no evidence they had abused the system. “I just kind of wonder,” says Hornung, “what were they up to when we weren’t watching them?”
“We found out that some drivers were driving off their route, even when they knew GPS was installed,” Phair says. “Some drivers had no business being in areas outside of the route they were given.” Phair says SKS handled the problem systematically. Deviations from the dispatch route were brought to the driver’s attention, and they were given the chance to fly straight. For the most part, that corrected the behavior, Phair says. Phair’s suspicions as to who may not have been giving a day’s work for a day’s pay were confirmed. “We had some ‘self-termination,’” he says.
Harding recounts an instance in which a dispatcher saw on the digital map two company vehicles neck and neck and going very fast. “They were racing,” he says. “If we didn’t have (GPS) I think there’d be a whole lot more abuse of the vehicles.”
“Excuses are minimized,” Botha says. “Bad traffic turns into ‘I got up late.’ You can see their start times. They can’t lie.”
Early on, Botha got suspicious of a technician—one entrusted with a brand new 2005 Ford F150 pickup truck—when he claimed to have lost a key fob. It turns out his real intention was to make the information on the fob disappear. A week after “losing” the fob the employee suddenly quit and left the truck on the side of the road, with the missing fob inside. The information on the fob showed evidence of some very erratic, alarming behavior, including a lot of odd-hours driving and doing 95 miles per hour in a 35 mph zone at 5 am.
“There were no other indications he was a bad employee—the clients liked him, and no one ever saw him speed,” Botha says. “The first indication there was anything wrong with this guy was from the system report. And it was the last indication.” The information was retrieved from the fob a little too late to save the truck from cracked gears and a seriously screwed up transmission. And yet, had the system not been installed, that employee may have gotten himself in deeper trouble in a company vehicle.
After the Fallout
Most drivers were not engaging in misconduct, according to these managers. But they found that some drivers, sometimes through no fault of their own, were not operating as efficiently as possible.
“Sometimes you assume the driver knows the quickest route from point A to point B, and then you find out he really doesn’t,” Phair says. SKS uses the system’s reports to analyze drivers’ routing. The reports particularly help the new drivers pick the shortest routes based on distance and time, Phair says. Hornung also uses the reports to see how well actual routing matched intended routing.
Wakefield says the GPS system is replacing the old “best guess” method of rerouting drivers via radio. Not only does the Networkcar system highlight the closest truck to a given landmark automatically, the system now has a feature in which vehicles can be grouped by job purpose. On a computer screen crowded with different types of vehicles, this function helps ensure a street sweeper is not dispatched to repair a broken water main.
Those handwritten usage tickets are becoming a thing of the past, Wakefield says. Previously, the tickets needed to be entered into a computer and then analyzed by the accounting department for accuracy. The analyst could only compare the data entered from the tickets—there was no way to account for unreported usage. Now every mile driven is accounted for, which generates added revenue for the department.
The reports generated at Swish Maintenance showed that some deliveries took much longer than others. It forced the company to analyze that customer’s business volume to see if the longer delivery time is justified. Wilson says these issues may have been reported in the past but got lost in the shuffle. “Now it’s in black and white,” he says, prompting a quicker decision on how to handle that business.
Those reports also showed delays in an unexpected area, tractor-trailers pickups from manufacturers. Wilson found some trucks had been sitting in the yard of a manufacturer for a half hour. The reasons for the delay may have been innocent, such as incomplete paperwork, a blocked loading dock or a load that wasn’t prepped. The fix was easy, Wilson says. The drivers are now instructed to call ahead to ensure the load is ready.
SKS discovered similar delays to certain customers. “We knew we couldn’t cut the 45 minute wait time, so we decided to increase the size of their fuel tank,” Phair says of one particular customer. “Now our truck only goes there once a month instead of twice, reducing 12 trips a year.”
Better Routing Reduces Overtime
The tangible benefit of more efficient routing and a reduced opportunity for excuses is the reduction or elimination of overtime. SKS Oil, Swish Maintenance, and Valley Green Companies report that overtime “virtually disappeared.”
“When we started flagging stop times over thirty minutes our drivers knew they needed an explanation for that,” Phair says. Valley Green, the company that was looking for ways to measure its fleet’s performance, came up with some hard numbers. “We started doing 30 percent more business overall from May on, with the same number of technicians and trucks,” Hornung says. “They were able to get done in 40 hours what they were doing in 42 to 45 hours.”
At Swish Maintenance, employees accepted the need to be more productive in less time. “It’s all about setting new standards,” Wilson says. “If you have standards in which they do 10 deliveries in eight hours and everyone’s happy, then that’s the standard. If the standard is fifteen deliveries, and that’s not unreasonable, it changes. I think most people want to do a good job and do it right.”
Expected and Unexpected Results
Managers were surprised about the amount of time fleet vehicles spend idling with the engine on. “People leave their cars idling out of habit,” Wilson says. “They start up the truck, do a circle check, come in and get a coffee and pick up their paperwork. It may begin as a need when it’s very hot or cold, but it just develops into a routine.”
“Our idle times were just enormous,” Hornung says. “We had two trucks that had a combined 38 hours of idle time in a two-week period.” One driver told him he needed to keep the battery charged to be able to reel up a maintenance hose. Hornung and the driver knew it had to be an engine malfunction. He had the truck serviced immediately and replaced the alternator.
“We figured out the amount of idling in that two-week period wasted $250 to $275 worth of gas,” Hornung says. The company created a weekly report for each driver so they could see their idle times. After that, idle times dramatically improved. “In idle-time savings alone I believe we paid for the units totally in a one season,” he says.
These managers have not yet reported saving a vehicle from eminent breakdown. Nor have any of the companies used a system’s diagnostic information for crash reconstruction or to substantiate or disprove a charge against a driver. And Botha hasn’t yet had a “gotcha” confrontation with a client accusing him of hanging a ticket.
Wakefield has, however, found that the same OBD II port diagnostic data read by the Networkcar system is the same information analyzed for the Arizona state emissions test. Those vehicles now do not need to be brought in for testing—saving a good chunk of time and money. Wakefield says his department is involved in a bit of a political battle with another department that conducts the emissions testing and makes money off it. He anticipates a resolution for the good of the taxpayer.
Harding achieved his maintenance expectations. He gets an email at his desk when one of his Ford Rangers passes a certain mileage threshold. He radios his dispatcher to take the truck in for preventive maintenance. “It’s just easy,” he says.
Botha now makes sure all drivers sign a form stating that if they lose a fob $150 will be automatically deducted from their paycheck.
Wilson found that after an initial intensity supervisors weren’t as attentive to the reports. “You have to keep on top of things, if you don’t it falls all apart,” he says. He’s back to monitoring the reports more closely and is developing a system to ensure the information is evaluated consistently.
Hornung has had his system in place for a year now, and talks about the piece of mind of knowing where his employees are and how they’re driving. “If you have trucks out on the road and in the public eye, you’re not doing your company justice if you don’t put these into operation,” he says.
Kicking and Screaming
And what became of MacLeod, who was dragged “kicking and screaming” into installing a system he didn’t want? Skyrider needs to service its aerial equipment with preventive maintenance such as an oil change or a filter. Previously, the company’s monthly billing system initiated a work order to have a service technician visit the machines on site, though no one knew exactly how much the machines were being used. A technician might drive three hours to a job only to find the machine was barely used that month.
A sales person for Longview Advantage, the company’s GPS provider, told MacLeod about a feature called ‘time tracker.’ Now the GPS system notifies MacLeod automatically, via email, when a machine has reached a preprogrammed service interval—eliminating the possibility of a wasted service call.
“We’re putting the system in the larger equipment now,” says MacLeod. “We found some benefits that more than outweighed the cost of the system and now we live happily forever after.”