When Ronny New installed the first telematics device in his fleet, he thought it was broken. The general manager for Austin, TX-based Southside Towing was interested in using telematics devices from Networkcar to help locate and dispatch his wreckers when the City of Austin needed a vehicle towed away. To find out how well it worked, he had one unit installed in the oldest truck in the fleet. The GPS-based location function worked like a dream, but New kept getting e-mail after e-mail informing him that the truck was throwing fault codes.
IT MUST BE BROKEN... RIGHT?
What did New do with all those e-mails? Well, he didn't install the unit to get maintenance alerts, so he ignored them.
"We run our old trucks 24 hours a day, because we try to use them up, and I had put the unit in our oldest truck," New explains. "So I'm receiving all these e-mails every day, and I'm wondering, 'What is going on?' I thought it was broken, because I was receiving too many e-mails! I just ignored it, thinking the system wasn't working, that it had a short in it and it kept sending me stuff."
But at the end of the month, New decided to bring the truck in for an inspection, and he was surprised by what he found. Every maintenance alert that Networkcar had sent to his e-mail in box was legit.
"Sure enough," he says, "it had all these things that were coming up, ABS sensors, everything.
"We'd never had a truck that could talk to us," he says. "We just thought, 'It can't be,' because if there was something wrong, if all these codes were true, the truck would be sitting on the side of the road. From that point on, we started bringing it in, and sure enough, all these little things started adding up."
Even after that stellar performance, New had trouble convincing the owner of the company to equip the entire fleet with Networkcar units, but in the end he prevailed. Today, two years after that trial run, all 21 wreckers in the Southside fleet keep in touch with the home base with a telematics unit that is transparent to the driver.
Because New needed the Networkcar system to aid in vehicle location, that modality has always seen heavy use. Southside Towing has an exclusive contract with the City of Austin for auto hauling and impound work involving arrests, and stolen and abandoned vehicles, and the company is in rotation with other companies to recover wrecked vehicles from accident sites.
The fleet's light-duty trucks work around the clock on those contracts. The heavy-duty wreckers handle heavy truck towing and everything else that comes up: "You name it," New says, "and we do it."
Telematics has made the dispatch operations much more efficient than ever before, New says.
"We operate differently than other tow companies," he explains. "Other companies, if there's a vehicle to be towed in North Austin, and they've got a truck in South Austin and one in North Austin, well, they're going to send the one in North Austin. The way we operate is, no matter where that vehicle is, we have to send the truck that can get there the fastest, because of the city contract."
In other words, a tow truck that's closer to the vehicle may be in the middle of a job, while a truck that's farther away may be free and able to respond in half the time.
"It's all about response time," New says, and Networkcar has helped to cut that time. "If you're in the dispatch screen, there's actually an icon you can click on next to the location of the vehicle we need to tow; you can click on that icon, and it'll bring Networkcar's map up and show you your closest vehicle to that location. That's one way it helps with dispatching."
"The Networkcar people told me that they built the system on the diagnostics end of things, and it's kind of hard to sell that," New says. "People just think, 'Well, when the truck breaks down I'll figure out what's wrong with it.'
"I was the same way: when the truck breaks down, the driver will tell me something's wrong," he goes on. "Now that I have it and I'm using it, yeah, I would have bought it for the diagnostics alone."
Now, New says, he tells the driver when something's wrong, and that switch has changed his entire maintenance operation.
"It's making my maintenance even better than it was," New says. "Before we were relying on the driver to bring the truck in and say, 'Hey, it's doing this...' Then the mechanic has to listen to what the driver is saying, then go back and figure out what the truck is really doing and how we need to fix it.
"With this system, I know there's something wrong with the truck before the driver does," he says. "It's telling me, 'This has happened,' and it's giving me the codes and everything. Then I'm calling the driver up and saying, 'Hey, are you by the truck? It's overheating!' And they go run outside and shut the truck down!"
YOU HAVE MAIL
For such a high-tech system, the interface is quite simple, almost quaint. New gets an e-mail in his inbox every time a truck throws a fault code, then he prints up the message and gives it to one of his two technicians. The technician then calls the driver, and, if the problem is serious, calls in the truck.
"The e-mail gives me a big, long number the manufacturer puts on all the codes in the system, and then a brief description: coolant level above normal," says New. If he wants more information, he can go into Networkcar from the administrative side and drill down for more details, such as the exact coolant temperature of the truck in question.
It's an option that gives New some added peace of mind. "Periodically I go in and look over the trucks, just to make sure I don't have a truck that's doing anything abnormal that the driver hasn't caught," he explains.
At the time of this writing, New was receiving all the Networkcar e-mails from all 21 trucks in his fleet, but by the time you read this that will have changed.
New has recently moved the maintenance facility into its current quarters, and the new shop is going high-tech.
"At our other location we didn't have computers or internet hookup, so we didn't use Networkcar for the maintenance side of it," he explains. "Now that we're here, we're getting a computer system set up in the shop, and we'll be transferring the e-mails from me. Right now, I get the e-mails, I print them out, I give them to the technicians and they take it from there. By the end of this week, they'll be receiving the e-mails."
New envisions a shop where there will always be a computer running, with an e-mail account tied in exclusively to Networkcar. Whenever a maintenance alert arrives in the inbox, a speaker in the shop will announce the arrival of the new e-mail with a loud "ding," and the maintenance process will begin.
Not only will the paperwork that now passes between New and his technicians be eliminated, but the technicians will be able to record the entire service history of all 21 trucks on the Networkcar system.
It will truly be a paperless shop.
DEALING WITH DEALERS
Telematics has also streamlined Southside Towing's interactions with their dealers' service departments. When the people on both ends of the phone call are referring to the same part number, things tend to go more smoothly.
"The way Networkcar works, it's no different than you taking it to the dealer so they can plug their computer into it," New says. "All of our heavy-duty trucks are either Internationals, Kenworths or Peterbilts. We do the towing for all the dealers here in town, so we're on first-name basis with all of them. We can walk in and say, 'Hey our truck is doing this,' and they don't even second-guess it. They just go in, fix that and send it out.
"They know we're on this type of system," he explains, "so we can call them up and say, 'This is the number I'm getting, and I don't know what it is. Can you tell me?' And they'll tell us, 'Yea, that's the O2 sensor,' or whatever it is."
Communications between the drivers and the maintenance shop has improved as well. New recalls how a communications gap between he and one of his drivers almost sidelined one of his heavy-duty wreckers, before Networkcar came to the rescue.
New received an e-mail notifying him that the truck was overheating, but the driver reported that the truck appeared to be running cool. The truck ran fine all day, and the e-mail was forgotten.
Two days later, New received the same overheating alert for the same truck. "I called the driver to ask if it was running hot, and he said the truck was actually idling while he did some paperwork," New recalls. "I told him to go check it out, and it was running hot! He shuts it down, lets it cool off, then he drives it over here and it doesn't get hot!
"Once he drove it back here and got it into the shop, he was talking to the mechanics," he says. "Well, the whole time they're standing there talking, the truck's idling. I actually received another e-mail alerting me again. As they sat there talking, they noticed that the temperature began to climb and the fan wasn't cycling."
It turned out that the fan clutch had gone out. When the truck was idling it would run hot. When it was going down the highway it would run cool. "So he wasn't seeing it run hot, but I was," New says.
The more New uses Networkcar, the more uses he finds for the technology.
"One of the things it does is, you can do an idle time report," he says. "I actually just started that a month ago. I check that report with my little trucks, but it's my big trucks I really watch. I just did a report on my six big heavies, and had four of them that were about 50 percent idle time, which is about normal for a tow truck. Then with the other two, they were at 75, 80 percent idle time.
"So I'm calling these two drivers in and asking them why their idle times are so high," he continues. "Well, they said, 'It's hot out.' They were just leaving it run so their seat would stay cool.
"They're not doing that anymore," New says.
A few moments later, the fleet safety director approaches New with a stack of Networkcar reports and asks, "Can this truck do that?" It seems Networkcar has caught the driver of the fleet's oldest truck going over 80 miles per hour, and the safety director can't believe the truck can even go that fast. New acknowledges that it can, and they decide to call the driver in immediately and "have a talk with him."
LIFE IS GOOD
Despite these changes, New reports that the drivers have never complained about the telematics system.
"I was up front with them when we installed these," he says. "I told them we were putting this GPS locating system in. It's going to know where y'all are and how fast y'all are going—it's going to know everything about you.
"When I first put the system in, I started running reports like the speed violations," New recalls. "I had 400-some reports in one week of trucks going over 70 miles an hour. I had a safety meeting and explained the situation, and the next week I had 22 reports."
Not surprisingly, the fleet now gets a ten percent discount on its insurance. Between that, the idle reduction, better vehicle location and the overall maintenance savings, New guesses that he got his return on this investment within nine months, and he couldn't be happier.
"Life is so much easier with computers," he says with a smile.