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Decisions – Track and trace

Vehicle tracking may seem like just another addition to life with Big Brother. But by installing tracking systems in fleet cars, companies are able to manage their vehicles and drivers more effectively – if they can handle the data.

Imagine your company could track every vehicle in its fleet, be it an executive car or an engineer’s van, at very little cost, wherever it is located in the country. Add to this the ability to grab every conceivable type of telemetry data from every car on the road, right down to every gear change, and one has to wonder why anyone would want, or need, all this information.

Well, today’s technology can give fleet managers the ability to collect an impressive volume of statistics in real time. Vehicle position and performance data will come pouring in to their company’s server, and hidden in all that data will be some fairly important facts about the driving characteristics of all the company’s drivers. And for any company involved in routing and scheduling, there will also be some priceless logistical information. All it takes is a little analysis and the ability to ask the right questions of the data.

Tom O’Connor, chief executive of vehicle tracking specialist Digicore UK, points out that companies deploying a vehicle tracking system need to be clear, from the outset, what they would like the system to do. “Companies differ hugely in what they want from this kind of system,” he says. Some just want basic vehicle tracking. If all they want is real-time positional information on every vehicle, it will cost them somewhere in the region of a pound a day. However, the systems can do a whole lot more than this, so contracts for vehicle tracking systems tend to be crafted to fit each company’s specific requirements.

“The first question we put to any company that comes to us for a tracking solution, whether it is for vans or for company cars, is why? What do you want this solution for? What’s the business case?” explains O’Connor.

Some issues are more immediate for the client company than others. For vans and trucks, fuel efficiency and routing efficiency tend to be major concerns. For company cars, deeper compliance with health and safety is a more pressing matter.

“What we try to tell companies is that it can fundamentally change the way they do business. They can work smarter by using the knowledge that vehicle tracking and the associated telemetry can offer,” O’Connor says.

He points out that companies are under a lot of pressure in today’s economic climate to extract the maximum value from their assets, regardless whether they are vans or salespeople on the road. “One of the first things that tracking and telemetry in combination can reveal is whether you have too many, or too few, assets deployed,” he says.

The system will track the amount of time a van or a car remains immobile in the car park, so underutilised assets can be seen at a glance at the monthly report. “We have customers who, after they deployed the system, subsequently found they had a significant number of fleet vehicles standing idle for much of the time,” he notes.

While companies will argue that they will need extra resources to cope with periods of peak demand, often there are more cost-effective ways of dealing with peaks. The company can put contracts in place to hire more vehicles on a temporary basis, for example. This could well work out cheaper than leasing all the vehicles that the company could possibly require at its busiest period, and then watching them sit idle at the depot.

As far as company fleet drivers are concerned, the telemetry that comes with the vehicle tracking will reveal which drivers are driving more aggressively than others. Brake wear, tyre wear and rapid acceleration away from lights and stop streets are a dead giveaway, and these trends can all be flagged up by exception reporting, without having to read through mountains of figures in order to obtain the information.

“The point is not to play Big Brother. The system should not be used to entrap or punish people,” O’Connor argues. Rather, the point of using the telemetry to identify rogue driving trends is to help the company to identify drivers who might benefit from either a quiet word or from a course of advanced driver training.

At the same time, the company is putting itself in a much better position to defend its record. If its executives ever find themselves in court charged with corporate manslaughter as a result of one of their drivers being involved in a fatal accident, company officers will have a defence. They will be able to show that the company was diligent in taking all possible steps to monitor and improve driving skills in its population of drivers.

“What we have found is that once the technology’s little black box is installed in cars, driver habits tend to improve dramatically,” says O’Connor. Of course, this can also have a negative effect. No one likes to feel they are perpetually under the eye of Big Brother and, if tracking is mishandled, companies could experience a backlash from disgruntled employees. They could even find staff voting with their feet and heading for the opposition.

However, O’Connor argues that this can be overcome if the company communicates its intentions properly with its driver population. “You have to communicate at length with all your stakeholders about the reasons for installing the boxes in the cars. You have to show them that this is not about Big Brother; that it is about the company exercising a proper duty of care towards its staff and providing a better service for customers,” he says.

One of the great advantages of vehicle tracking for a sales team, for example, is that because the position of the vehicle can be seen in real time, the company can be proactive about any potential delay or hold-up. Staff can ring the customer and tell them they are on the way, but currently trapped in a jam on the M25 Eastbound, five miles from their office, and will be with them as soon as it clears.

Another great benefit is the ability to trigger alerts based on the information provided by the telemetry. So, if a salesperson has six visits scheduled for the day, the system can send an alert as soon as the car starts to move again after each visit. It also means that a salesperson who decides to take the afternoon off playing golf instead of doing client rounds will have to explain why their car was parked at Happy Valley Golf Club for four hours that afternoon.

No matter how well vehicle tracking is communicated to staff, there will be occasions where staff will resent having their whereabouts tracked by the company. O’Connor says this can be addressed by using a “business usage/private usage” switch in the car that stops transmitting or recording as soon as the privacy mode is activated.

“Drivers can hit the switch when they need to be in private mode, and can switch it on again when they are back in public mode. Provided they don’t use the privacy switch during business hours, the system gives control back to the driver and doesn’t cause the company any real difficulties,” he says.

O’Connor also argues that just as people have come to accept the presence of cameras on the high street as being for their protection, so staff are now more inclined to accept vehicle tracking as generally a good thing. “If you are open with your communication with staff and deploy a user-friendly telematics option, with a versatile, flexible system, the company won’t likely find much resistance,” he says.

One further thing that companies need to be concerned about, he says, is the financial stability and expertise of their solution provider in this field. “Not many companies in the telematics field are making money today. The field is overdue a shakeout and we will definitely see some consolidation in this sector. Make sure your supplier has a good track record, an excellent reputation and, not least, a sound balance sheet,” he advises. Data is sent from the vehicle on the road using the so-called ‘two-and-a-half G’ GPRS wireless mobile networks provided by mobile operators such as Vodafone and O2. The central server that receives the information can be a simple PC at the client’s site, or the client can just as easily outsource the running of the system to Digicore.

Stuart Gall, a director of vehicle tracking specialists Toad Group, explains that, outside logistics, one of the most popular uses of vehicle tracking devices in cars is for what is euphemistically known as vehicle recovery, where the device is able to signal the whereabouts of a stolen vehicle.

The recovery company can locate and secure the vehicle before the thief locates the tracking device. “Often, what companies do is put two devices in the vehicle; one that is hidden and hard to find and one that is obvious,” Gall says. This is great for the company selling the device, of course, because it gets to sell two for each car instead of one.

However, while the opportunist and thus unsuspecting car thief might fall for this, professional car thieves who target high-value vehicles may not. “It is actually rather difficult to deter the professional car thief. They will often steal a vehicle and park it somewhere where they can watch it for 24 hours. If someone turns up to repossess the vehicle, then they’ll know it has a tracker hidden within it. However, if no one turns up, they’ll assume it’s probably safe to move the car on to a buyer,” he says.

Toad Group markets a system called Actra, which is a GPS-based fleet management system. “These types of system all tend to have much in common. There is always a black box consisting of a GPS location system, a modest amount of microprocessing capability to extract vehicle telemetry, and a method of getting the information from the box to the client company, or whoever is managing the system,” explains Gall. And, as with Digicore, the client can have the system configured to deliver whatever information is relevant to its business.

The benefits of using a vehicle tracking system are many and – as long as the client company keeps its staff informed of its motives and intentions – should prove effective.

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