Telematics are here to stay

As telematics evolve, new and improved features give companies access to timely, relevant data that can help them better manage and control costs, while ensuring driver safety as well as customer satisfaction.

May 8, 2011
by Kara Kuryllowicz


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As telematics evolve, new and improved features give companies access to timely, relevant data that can help them better manage and control costs, while ensuring driver safety as well as customer satisfaction.

Private and public firms, as well as various governments, are using telematics, even when running just a handful of mobile assets with engines—whether it’s automobiles, vans and tractor-trailers or plows, sanders, dump trucks and backhoes—because it makes good business sense.

“Telematics are a key part of our success and integral to our flow of information,” says Dan Einwechter, CEO of Challenger Motor Freight in Cambridge, Ontario, which installed its first telematics system back in 1989. “In the information age, data is power that can be turned into money. Use the telematics data effectively and the system will more than pay for itself.”

Firms like Challenger rely on telematics to do everything from apprising customers of expected delivery times to monitoring driver behavior, maintenance and fuel costs.

“If you’re not looking at how you can use telematics to manage your operating costs, including fuel, you’re wasting money,” says Mike Ham, vice-president at Mississauga, Ontario-based Shaw Tracking. “In a low-margin business, even the smallest cost saving can have a cumulative effect.”

Many of the new and improved features, which track, monitor and manage vehicle location, engine performance, driver behavior, logbook reporting, maintenance requirements, dispatch and routing in real-time, are becoming standard. That standardization has come about due to heightened customer demand, based on an understanding of the potential for cost savings and improved customer satisfaction as well as the ensuing economies of scale.

“Fleets consider these features worthwhile because they help control costs and increase the life of the vehicles through reduced wear and tear and improved maintenance,” says Doug Elphick, president of ELM Technologies in Mississauga, the primary Canadian distributor of Trimble Mobile Resource Management, SkyBitz and Teletrac mobile asset management solutions.

Focus on fuel

Fuel consumption is a major focus right now. It is affected by impossible-to-control factors such as weather, aerodynamics and vehicle type. However, fleet managers know that driver behavior, which can be managed, affects fuel efficiency as well as driver safety and vehicle longevity. Excessive speed, acceleration, deceleration, revving and, of course, idling, all boost fuel consumption.

Shaw Tracking notes that efficient drivers’ distance per litre can be up to 30 percent better than their least efficient colleagues. Meanwhile, original equipment manufacturers state that fuel economy drops by half a mile per gallon for every five miles per hour in excess of 55 MPH.

“Drivers who ignore fuel-savings measures cost their companies an enormous amount of money in an already low-margin business,” says Shaun Frankson, director of marketing, Nero Global Tracking, Port Moody, BC.

Fortunately, savvy fleet managers can use telematics to monitor behavior, then warn, correct and train drivers. For example, Trimble GeoManager DriverSafety, which launched last December, identifies excessive acceleration, deceleration, turns and speeding to cut operating costs related to accidents, driver downtime, fuel consumption and vehicle repair and wear (tires, brakes, transmissions). It gives drivers real-time audio and visual feedback to improve their own behavior and provides managers with actionable data by creating a safety score based on the driver’s actions. As the driver’s behavior changes, the visual alert will show an improvement in the driver’s safety score.

When Trimble equipped about 100 vehicles with DriverSafety, the 50 percent of the drivers who knew about the system and received alerts reduced their harsh maneuvers by 30 percent, speeding by 20 to 30 percent and improved their fuel economy by 10 to 15 percent. Most important, in the first quarter, they had 22 accidents and in the third quarter, there were just two accidents.

In spite of such persuasive numbers, insurance companies in Canada don’t offer reduced rates to fleets with telematics systems, although such discounts are common in the US and elsewhere.

Idling, which is avoidable and preventable, is yet another driver behavior that’s attracting a lot of attention due to rising fuel prices, wear and tear and carbon footprints. Major firms are implementing idling prevention policies, since as Shaw Tracking notes, the average long-haul truck uses more than US$3,700 of fuel annually just at idle.

Most telematics systems can differentiate between necessary and useless idling. Idling features send real-time idle alerts to drivers and the fleet managers and produce daily and weekly historical reports on individual drivers.

However, it’s taking management time to retrain drivers and break deeply entrenched habits. These include taking breaks in the cab rather than in an already heated or air-conditioned restaurant and idling versus plugging into a block heater.

“As a general rule of thumb, turning the engine off and restarting it uses less fuel than idling for 10 seconds or more,” says Frankson.

In the past year or two, navigational tools have improved significantly, which is a benefit when drivers don’t have the time, knowledge or interest required to preplan routes around company policies rather than their personal preferences. Today’s tools pinpoint vehicle location and availability (e.g. loaded/unloaded) and supply drivers with the most efficient route. The system can also be programmed to avoid low bridges, construction zones, traffic jams/accidents, toll routes and rough roads that could damage delicate products. It can even select the paths that offer the most cost-effective fueling stations or preferred fuel suppliers.

Logbooks made easy

To meet ever-changing compliance requirements and ensure drivers get the mandated breaks and rest, firms such as Shaw are automating daily logs with electronic onboard recorders. The driver hits the status button upon entering the vehicle and time and mileage are recorded once the vehicle has travelled more than 7/10 of a mile to account for yard travel.

Electronic onboard logs, which put the onus on the machinery not the driver, cost $5 to $10 per month and increase drive time compared to traditional paper logs at $20 to $30 per month due to the increased administrative requirements. Drivers no longer need to find pen and paper or remember to record the required information.

“The electronic logs are an easy add-on, immediately accessible, readily visible, always accurate, impossible to falsify, and reduce the likelihood of compliance hassles when inspectors and others request those logs,” says Ham.

To further expedite paperwork and maximize convenience, Shaw is offering onboard scanning so that the necessary documentation can be immediately scanned and sent, speeding up everything from border crossings to billing.

Today, telematics are the norm and fleet managers can boost acceptance by educating drivers about what the systems do to improve operating efficiencies and contain costs.

“A company without telematics sticks out like a sore thumb,” says Einwechter. Rather than see telematics as an invasion of privacy, employees need to recognize that it can make drivers a more affordable and valuable asset and even protect them from wrongful accusations, adds Frankson.

Another source also pointed out that drivers who are doing their jobs properly typically don’t care whether or not Big Brother is watching.

Challenger, which has 1,800 drivers to operate about 1,500 vehicles, uses telematics to help recruit drivers who appreciate the fact that the systems make their jobs easier and, more important, safer. “We can direct them around traffic jams, call in an accident and have even dispatched an ambulance to a driver who was having an appendicitis attack on the road,” says Einwechter.

Telematics are here to stay in the transportation industry. With an ever-widening array of standard features to increase efficiencies and reduce operating costs, they are helping to keep drivers safer and are improving customer satisfaction.