Time For Telematics

Spec'ing telematics systems is something many fleet professionals are still getting used to, but with fuel prices rising and the cost of systems falling, now is an opportune time to get in the game.

Telematics refers to a variety of ways vehicles can exchange electronic data with maintenance shops and operations centers: Tracking vehicles, monitoring speed and direction, plotting routes or reporting how long a vehicle was idling. Telematics systems can send instant alerts to fleet managers, allowing for rapid communication and if necessary, corrective action.

With so many available choices, getting the options you need (and avoiding ones you don't) will take some forethought: Do you need a quicker way to get your delivery drivers to and from their stops? Are your drivers speeding or taking off-route trips? Are you looking to reduce engine idling time? Today's telematics systems can help with these issues and many more.


Western Distributing Company vice president Dino Guadagni says telematics has become critical to his business' bottom line in recent years.

"We use it daily to monitor our drivers' weekly and monthly MPG progress," he says. "Fuel is a big issue for us and we have to monitor it as closely as possible. For our needs, the tracking is pretty hard to live without, as we have the ability to identify issues with individual trucks and work on the next day's loads."

Guadagni says going to a telematics system is well worth the investment.

"It will change how you do business," he says. "It will really help with working on your daily problems versus spending time trying to find all your trucks."

Ryder officials started looking at telematics systems about three years ago, says Juliet Johansson, vice-president of marketing, Fleet Management Solutions for Ryder, interviewing more than a dozen providers and eventually conducting a 5,000-unit pilot program. The goal was finding a way to improve driver performance and productivity--reducing idle time, increasing miles per gallon and increasing routing efficiency. Ryder recovered the cost of the systems within three to six months, realizing a fuel savings of 10-15 percent

"It's kind of a no-brainer," she says. "We were looking at a low-cost, modular platform--so you're able to add other tools to it--that requires very little driver interaction in order to get the full functionality."


Teletrac CEO Tony Eales says adding a telematics systems can make a difference overnight.

"They can find the nearest guy for a job, tell exactly where somebody is at any time, and you can run your operations as if you were sitting in the cab with every one of your drivers," he says. "We also have a suite of vehicle diagnostic services taking information from the engine management system, so you can focus on how the vehicle is performing--all the fault code information and fuel flow information from the vehicle, and how the vehicle is actually being driven."

These days, having instant information on driver and vehicle behavior is critical to quickly identifying and fixing problems.

"I consider it similar to why you would use a computer rather than a typewriter," he says. "It's a big change to use this technology."


XATA senior vice-president of product management Tom Flies says finding the most cost-effective route from stop to stop is important--particularly for vehicles with stop-and-go duty cycles.

"There are a number of constraints when you look to schedule your vehicle: customer demands, based on their delivery requirements, whether their delivery windows take over your scheduling, or you can also schedule based on lowest cost, which may be fewest miles, or you can take a look at what's the most efficient route from a fuel usage standpoint," he says. "We record the MPG for each leg on a route and for each route, so you can go in and look at the information in the system and see what your miles per gallon or total fuel usage is from your warehouse to your first customer, and the first customer to the second, and so forth."

Telematics also provide an extra set of "eyes," whether it's figuring out the most efficient route between stops, the optimal speed for fuel economy or eliminating paperwork.

"If I had an MPG of 20, I don't know where I got my optimal fuel economy unless I could take a look at, from 55 to 57, I was actually getting 25 miles per gallon; 57 to 60, that's when my miles per gallon dropped," Flies says. "So you can really dial in."


Rob Donahue, manager, business sales channel for TomTom, says he has seen a quantum leap in fleets' knowledge about telematics products in the past few years.

"(Before) the first 20 minutes of the conversation was explaining what the heck GPS is, and nowadays you don't have to do that," he says.

Fleets are asking for telematics for very different reason, but the bottom line is saving money.

"(One) quote was, 'I know my guys are hanging out in establishments they shouldn't be, I just don't know how often and when,'" Donahue chuckled. "An asset monitoring company was really interested because of the unique turn-by-turn navigation we offer; they were looking to increase the number of appraisals that they were able to do, and improve the functionality of their staff by giving them the capability to not get lost. At the same time, they were able to see where the closest or most appropriate vehicle is if they were going to dispatch someone."


It is all about matching your needs with the right system, says Networkcar vice-president of marketing Craig Whitney. One selling point is the ability to get real-time odometer readings--particularly for fleet professionals who run large operations.

"One of the biggest pains in the neck is just keeping track of the odometers so they know when to schedule maintenance and how to balance out the usage across vehicles--you're running around with a clipboard," he says. "We've got that data transmitted automatically, and we plug into Maximus, so that they just plug the odometer readings into that back-end system. We've got fleet managers whose number one reason for using the system is the automated odometer readings."


Earthwave president/CEO Larry Baker says one of the most popular features of their system is called 'Idle Alert;" where the customer can find out how long vehicles are idling. He says one customer with 153 pieces of equipment had more than 200 alerts that they were idling for more than a half-hour at a time. But not for long.

"Two weeks later, they had less than 10," Baker says. "And now it's rare when they get one. If you can measure it, you can improve it. By tracking productive time down to the minute... it's enabled our customers to radically increase productivity."


While not every fleet has the time or resources to conduct the extensive testing Ryder did, Johansson says the only way to realize the benefits are to roll up your sleeves and do some work.

"There's a lot of good data coming around: fault codes, idle time, driver performance, hard braking and hard stopping," she says. "The reasons why you might look at a device like this to manage your trucks--whether you have two or 200--probably are much greater than they have been in the past."

And when it is time to make a decision, Johansson says there are several factors to keep in mind.

"Truly understand the functionality and the differences being offered across all the different products, as well as the pricing, and make sure you're doing an apples-to-apples comparison," she says. "Also look at the cost, because we've seen some piecemeal plans--hardware, installation, service fees. Make sure you know what you're looking for and make sure you understand what the devices you're testing can do, because there's a lot out there and the marketing pitches are often different than what those devices can actually deliver."