Since the dawn of the Telematics Age, fleet managers have relied on their systems to locate and track vehicles. But telematics is a competitive segment, and technology providers have been adding features at a breakneck pace.
Advanced capabilities are available to companies and fleets of any size, and utilizing them can make a big difference. Just ask Tara Cavanaugh, co-owner (with her husband, Dan Cavanaugh) of Dan’s Door Repair in Glendale, Ariz.
They do close to $1 million in annual sales on the axles of three vans — a 2015 Ford Transit, a 2013 E-250, and a 2014 E-250 — and three service techs, including Dan, who handle security installations, such as door repairs, touchpads and locksmithing, for clients that range from local strip malls to the Department of Justice.
From the time the company operated a one-van fleet, Tara and Dan argued endlessly about billing. Dan would attempt to recall times and places and Tara would correct him based on what little information she had. The argument ended shortly after Dan repaired the front door at the headquarters of GPS Insight and learned about the telematics services they provide.
Based on the type of work that Dan’s Door Repair fleet performs, which includes four regular customers and a daily list of one-offs, GPS Insight’s experts recommended the couple set up “landmarks” for each location, allowing each visit to trigger entries on a report that Tara pulls each morning. She can match the entries to repair orders and determine precisely how long each tech visited each customer. It’s a level of accuracy she knows they never could have achieved with paper logs.
The Cavanaughs’ story is hardly unique. Across the country, fleet managers and providers are finding new ways to use the tools already built into telematics systems to serve a wide range of needs that are as varied as the companies that use them.
The ability to optimize routes is a key benefit of telematics systems, but as the Cavanaughs learned, simply planning the day’s — or month’s — routes is just scratching the surface of what the technology can do.
Alan Falik, president of Poolsure, manages a fleet of 60 delivery trucks and two 18-wheelers. His company services commercial swimming pools, wastewater plants, and water treatment plants, so it is hauling a lot of treatment chemicals around the Houston area — up to 3,500 gallons per trip.
Poolsure is growing, and Falik says he relies on a telematics system provided by Telogis to keep up with new customers and constantly fluctuating demand. “In our industry, we don’t have set weekly routes. It all depends on weather and usage. One year, you might not use any chemicals in May. The next May, you might use a ton.”
Falik isn’t just planning short-term routes based on the current workload. He is using the data the system collects to better estimate demand over the long term, allowing the company to go after new projects without fear of overbooking. Recently, Falik has been looking at what routes have seen the most activity in a given time frame. “We have 20 pools in the 77057 ZIP code, for example, and we can tie that into the government weather center, add pool size, and push that into Telogis.”
Falik points out that big data wasn’t the original reason the company decided to install the system. The company only realized the power of that type of data merging and the planning it could offer after it had started using the system fleetwide.
Using Outside Data
The technology in telematics systems extends beyond just route optimization, too. Justin Gillette, director of risk management for Vertical Limit Construction in Wanamingo, Minn., has the ability to program his Geotab telematics system, offered by WEX Telematics, to pull temperature data right from the vehicles themselves.
Vertical Limit specializes in the wireless telecommunications business; specifically, the construction and maintenance of cellphone towers and related infrastructure. Gillette oversees the safety of a fleet of 150 vehicles, which is comprised mostly of pickup trucks but also includes 25 specialty trucks, including bucket trucks and cranes. Vertical Limit is equipped to service customers in all 48 contiguous states.
Why is the ability to pull weather from the trucks important? Because, Gillette says, company policy states that technicians must limit or reschedule their work hours if the wind chill dips below a certain point or the heat index climbs above a set number.
Gillette programmed his WEX telematics system to read the trucks’ temperature gauge. If an extreme high- or low-temperature threshold is met, the system would then alert home base. Implementing this function would enable a Vertical Limit safety manager to contact field team leadership to ensure everything possible is being done to protect technicians from the elements, including rescheduling and rerouting as needed.
“We hire very driven, focused people,” Gillette says. “We want to make sure their desire to work through a tough situation doesn’t subject themselves to undue risk.”
Verifying He Said, She Said
As Vertical Limit’s case revealed, driver welfare is another big reason that many fleets invest in telematics systems. Fleet managers want to know when drivers are speeding (and by how much) and whether they are demonstrating unsafe or fuel-burning habits such as jackrabbit starts, harsh braking, and idling.
Joanne Stahlman, Stahlman-England’s director of corporate operations, notes that there are a lot of scammers on the road in Florida, all targeting commercial vehicles for bogus insurance claims. They would get calls from people claiming that “Something flew off your truck and hit me,” which is a real concern, she says, because their business requires them to haul equipment and parts.
Stahlman-England does irrigation, lighting, drainage, and water audits for the state of Florida, as well as golf course renovations. The company has 22 trucks in its fleet today, running everything from routine maintenance to emergency calls.
Stahlman reports that using her system she was able to thwart the scammers completely. She is able to immediately access detailed logs that can tell whether she had a truck in the area at the time and, in one case, whether it was driving erratically and caused an accident.
In one instance, Stahlman’s driver said the other party swerved into his lane; the other party said the opposite was true. “I was able to replay his driving for those 10 minutes. He was going the speed limit and stayed in his lane. She did swerve into his lane, and we didn’t have to wait two days [for a police report] to find out.”
On a day-to-day basis, Stahlman adds, the Fleetmatics system has improved the company’s safety score exponentially. She has found that a combination of summary reports and “frequent, gentle reminders” for repair and install crews have made a positive impact on drivers. For installations, she notes, there is no need to speed, and thanks to the system, drivers have taken notice.
“They are hauling trailers and machinery. They have to drive five miles under the limit,” Stahlman says. “If we get an alert, we’re on the phone. But over the last eight to 10 months, we have hardly had any alerts.”
While the main benefit of fuel cards is to reign in fuel expense, they don’t automatically connect the location of the vehicle with the fuel pump.
Every company would like to believe all their drivers are honest, but that isn’t always the case, says Bernie Kavanagh, vice president of North American fleet for WEX. He says that one of the more underutilized features of his company’s telematics offering is “Fuel Guard,” a handy feature that automatically cross-references usage with the location of the vehicle each card is assigned to.
If a card was used at 10:00 a.m., but that truck or driver was on the job in another part of the city, then there’s a problem, he notes. Either someone has stolen that card, or the driver has given his or her card to a friend or family member to use.
“I think that’s something our customers who use Fuel Guard will tell you is a phenomenal report,” Kavanagh says. “They have found a lot of misuse.”
Big Data Benchmarks
Telematics can also be used to track trends over time. Todd Ewing, Fleetmatics’ director of product marketing, says this feature is getting more attention from larger fleets. He also notes that the ability to compile big data is among the list of features many fleet managers have requested but didn’t know the capability was already in place.
By highlighting that feature and training fleet managers to use it effectively, Ewing says, more companies could establish benchmarks and identify the best- and worst-performing drivers.
“We have dashboard capabilities that allow fleet managers to rank drivers on safe driving, fuel use, pay. I wish they all looked at that more than they do,” he says, adding that, large or small, most customers tend to focus on daily or weekly reports. He wants more fleet managers to apply cost models to bigger data sets. “What’s the cost of 40 miles and two hours?” he asks.
Kelly Frey, vice president of product marketing at Telogis, agrees, noting that many fleets install telematics systems with the belief that the value comes from simply connecting the vehicles so the operator can monitor them at any given time.
“Although this ‘connection’ is important to get data flowing and drive awareness of potential issues, it is really only the first step,” he says.
Frey points out that the true value comes when a fleet connects everything from the vehicles to the equipment to the drivers and then optimizes and automates processes and cash flows. “Organizations that embrace mobile enterprise management holistically — and treat it as strategic to the organization — drive a lot more value across their entire enterprise, providing benefit to not only reduce operational costs, but also drive customer satisfaction and revenue.”