Information = Power

Charles Arsenault knows a thing or two about vehicle service information. After all, his company, Arsenault Associates, has been selling its Dossier Fleet Maintenance Management Software to fleets of all sizes and shapes for 30 years now. So, when Arsenault addressed his Dossier Users' Group meeting recently to talk about his predictions of how vehicle service information will be used in the future, we at Fleet Maintenance magazine took notice, and asked him to elaborate on his predictions for our readers.

"We were fleet people who got into the software business, as compared to software people who got into the fleet business," Arsenault explains of his start in the software business back in 1979. "Thirty years later, we've served over 4,000 fleets, with literally tens of thousands of users."

Back in the day, when Arsenault worked for Hertz Heavy-Duty Truck Rental and Leasing, he kept dealing with customers whose fleet efficiency was hampered by what he describes as "Ignorance and lack of organization." Many had no idea what their cost-per-mile was; some didn't even know how many trucks they owned.

"My expertise was in the organization of information and data," Arsenault explains. "If a fleet has enough information, they can compare, they can test, they can capture warranties, they can schedule PM services when they need them, etc. But you can't measure what you can't count."

And so Arsenault went into the counting business, and today, 30 years later, with the amount of vehicle information that is available to fleet maintenance managers exploding exponentially, counting and measuring is more important than ever.

"In order to manage your assets, it takes so many details that it's very difficult to do manually," Arsenault says. "Automating the process of collecting data is what we're all about. The more we can automate this, and do away with human intervention, the better the quality of maintenance being performed, because the manager can then focus on hands-on issues. It will show you trending, and things of that nature, so you can see what's going on very quickly, without needing to get knee-deep in trying to write down and capture every detail; it comes directly from the vehicles themselves, so the vehicles report their own issues.

Using Information

According to Arsenault, vehicle information is being used in a very rudimentary way at present. DOT vehicle inspectors require a PM service schedule, and proof, in the form of repair orders, that the PM was performed on time. "You also have to have your vehicles numbered, for identification purposes; in other words, to identify your assets," he says. "And you must have repair orders that show that driver complaints have been addressed. These are the kinds of things that auditors go in and look for."

"Now, we have to fill out repair orders, but the government now allows electronic repair orders. And they're accepting electronic processes of scheduling preventive maintenance and the like. So, electronic forms of documentation are being accepted more and more by the states and by the Feds.

"That's the beginning stage, where we are today," Arsenault says.

"We'll be seeing more and more roadside inspections where the onboard computers, and the data that's able to be brought back out from them, will be more and more accepted, over the driver's log.

"The same with equipment faults. When a vehicle now has a full-unit bus, where they can completely sense just about anything on the vehicle, with those DOT inspections, some things will be electronically reviewed, rather than manually, so that they can get more vehicles through that inspection station. The same thing will apply with road-side inspections.

"Of course, some things will still need to be manually calibrated--brake pads, tread depth, those sorts of things--however, we can see certain other technologies coming forward, such as on-board tire pressure monitoring systems. These will be mandatory very soon, just as they are in automobiles. Tires are such a high-cost item and directly relate to fuel economy; hence, the government will be using more and more of that in the process of ‘greening' America.

Looking Ahead

"Let's look out a little bit further," Arsenault says. "As computer software like mine, and others, come forward--and we estimate that of the ‘sold market,' we represent about 10 to 12 percent of the marketplace--we can see the day when government will be requiring cumulative data to be presented to them in audits in other areas, such as fuel consumption rates, both on a category basis and on a fleet-wide basis. The purpose of this is that we're trying to reduce our fuel consumption, and if the government is going to set mandatory miles-per-gallon values on automobiles, you know that behind that it's going to be coming for commercial vehicles, and you're going to have to document that.

"Increased vehicle information will allow you to gather the documentation and information that is needed without additional work on your part. We work with telematics systems and on-board computers, starting with Delphi's Mobile Aria back in 1999. We had an interface with an on-board computer; the on-board computer sensed issues such as engine overheating, low oil pressure, transmission heat, high RPMs, axle issues, brake pressure issues, things of that nature. It then, via satellite phone or wi-fi, when it drove through the gate, pushed that information down automatically to our program, basing it on VMRS codes. Of course, VMRS is the world standard for identifying componentry, and with that, with one click of the button, we can convert it to a repair order. So that when the vehicle hits the door, we're ready, including knowing whether we have the parts on hand or not. So I'm ahead of the game, not behind it.

"Then, in terms of the vehicles out on the road, we internally can send a message back through our system to the driver's on-board computer. In those days we could turn his radio down and say, ‘John, you have a message from the shop. Please stand by: ABC tire company will be out to fix your flat in 30 minutes.' And, by the way, the head office is going to pay ABC Tire Company with a Comdata card, or an on-road Dossier fuel card. So, the vendor's paid, the driver's back out on the road, and the issue, that came in as an automated complaint, has been dealt with. And now we've added a repair order, the repair order has been closed the issue, and has closed the loop on this process electronically. So when the DOT auditor comes in, he'll see the complaint, he'll see the repair order that handled it, and they're all linked together.

"So, we've done several things: we've shortened the downtime significantly, because we can look up and find the closest vendor, because we knew by way of the on-board computer and GPS where he was, our computer looked up the closest vendor that could handle that issue, based on VMRS code and relevant zip code, and we've tracked the entire process with limited human intervention."

Beating Your Best Score

"Now if we move that out a little further, one of the hardest things to do is to gauge yourself," Arsenault says. "We hear this question all the time: ‘How do I know if I'm doing well?'

"I like to use the analogy that maintenance is like golf. Golfers don't play against an opponent. They play against their last best score. The problem with that is, you have to know what your last best score is! In our software, it automatically benchmarks every repair for every vehicle, every combination of vehicles or groups of vehicles, giving you total number of parts used, total hours of downtime, total repair orders, total costs of parts and labor, and/or taxation, total number of times the vehicle has been down, the number of mechanics involved, the number of mechanics' hours, the number of outside vendors involved, cost per average repair for inside repair versus that same repair being done by an outside vendor. This shows you, by exception, which vehicles are outside of the average parameters, the highest and the lowest.

Looking into the Crystal Ball
Here are some more of Charles Arsenault’s predictions for the future of fleet service information technology:

  • Most fleet maintenance software will continue to be deployed on the fleet’s own system for the near term
  • ASP/Web-based software applications will continue to grow in acceptance as IT staffs remain overloaded
  • Mergers of fleet technology companies will intensify
  • More fleet OEMs and vendors will seek tech partners to differentiate their product/service offerings
  • The next generation of fleet managers will expect technology tools
  • The fleet maintenance software industry is fragmented, and no absolute leader dominates the industry
  • OEMs and parts manufacturers will deliver more technology that integreates with specialty applications like fleet maintenance software
  • OEMs will introduce more “tech-based” value-added services that automate labor- and paper-intensive processes
  • Technology integreation will remain the greatest challenge but it will also pay the greatest dividends
  • Until VMRS coding is used universally, the lack of standard terms and coding will remain a major obstacle to technological integration
  • Technology hardware costs will continue to decline
  • Outsourcing of fleet technology will become more popular
  • More technology service providers will emerge
  • The need for better/faster access to data will drive more collaboration between multiple tech firms, OEMs, and local vendors for end-to-end data flow without human intervention
  • Fleets and fleet managers who are not using technology will find it harder to compete, and will be left behind

"With every single repair entry, or issue, or item that comes due or past due, it automatically benchmarks it for you, so you can deal only with exceptions, rather than having to deal with every vehicle in your fleet.

"There's a rule that we've found that over the years has worked really well: we call it the Ten Percent Rule. For like equipment, if you take your ten percent highest-cost units, or the ten percent highest-downtime units, and deal only with those, you can reduce your overall operating costs significantly--perhaps as much as 20 percent--and do away with 75 percent of your aggravation. So again, a fleet manager who has access to this information can consistently outperform those who cannot do those types of easy comparisons.

"The majority of fleet managers are embracing this, because their companies have finally recognized that maintenance is one of the last bastions where they can still squeeze the onion and get significantly higher productivity and reduced expense. Because fleet maintenance is a pure expense item, it's not a revenue producer, so the CFOs and controllers and corporate presidents have been more and more identifying that the maintenance department must reduce costs but not give up the quality of work performed, or productivity, because they have to maximize utilization of their equipment.

"So fleet managers are being forced to take control of this information, to reduce expenses, reduce downtime, and provide greater availability of equipment."