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Market Trends

Fleet Applications Emerge for Mobile Communication Devices

January 24, 2011, by Mike Antich - Also by this author

A growing number of fleets view mobile applications as a way to help lower fleet costs, increase driver efficiency, and improve fleet management control.

By Mike Antich

As phones become smarter and more ubiquitous in the work environment, there is an emerging trend to develop fleet applications for these mobile communication devices.

“The key advantages to going mobile are convenience and timeliness,” said Paul Millington, technical sales leader for GE Capital Fleet Services. “A field user now has the ability to use a mobile device for activities that once required a laptop or desktop,” said Millington. “GE’s expectation is that demand and usage of fleet mobile applications will continue to grow. Greater speed and more sophisticated devices will expand the breadth of available functionality, leading to some convergence of mobile and traditional Web platforms.”

Other fleet management companies are likewise looking to develop driver support and productivity applications for mobile communication devices.

“Personal use mileage reporting, maintenance scheduling tools, vehicle diagnostic apps, and one-click speed-dial to phone support solutions are all things drivers can use on a regular basis to make vehicle management more efficient,” said Cheryl Middleton, director, product management for PHH Arval. “Anything that requires immediate response, such as a request/authorization for service, locating a service provider, resetting a service/fuel card PIN, finding the nearest fuel location, vehicle accident support, and other such activities work well on a mobile device.”

A growing number of fleets view mobile applications as a way to help lower fleet costs, increase driver efficiency, and improve fleet management control.

“The key to these new mobile apps is the real-time exchange of pertinent data tied to technology that gives both the driver and fleet manager the ability to immediately act, or react, to serve the best interests of the company,” said Keith Steidle, new product development manager for ARI.

“Mobile applications bolster the driver’s ability to support the management of the vehicle with apps tied to maintenance, accidents, fuel, licensing, and so on.” 

Initially, fleet applications will provide only basic data and information due to limitations in the technology’s current state of the art.

“The best content for mobile applications is still basic, non-complex data or graphic-heavy reporting. However, this will be a short-lived trend as mobile networks are in high gear to get lightning-fast connections with larger high-resolution screens for much easier content viewing,” said Chris Tepas, executive vice president, marketing for Emkay Inc.

As mobile fleet applications proliferate, they can be segregated into distinct application categories.

“Mobile technology within the fleet space may be grouped into three broad functional categories,” said Millington of GE Capital Fleet Services. These include:

  • Notification – Alerts via SMS/text to instruct end users of action required or non-compliance. (SMS stands for short message service that lets users communicate with others using text messages.)
  • Location – Mobile access to locate a service, address, or geography, which may also include mapping and directions.
  • Task – Completion of more complex fleet activities through use of a mobile device, such as driver updates.

An early application for mobile communication devices is personal use mileage reporting by drivers.

“We found drivers really like the convenience of reporting their mileage on the mobile device because they can do it right in front of their odometers, so they don’t have to write down the information and then log onto their PC to report mileage. The response to this application has been very enthusiastic,” said Middleton of PHH Arval.

However, a multitude of other fleet applications also lend themselves to use on mobile devices.

“Other applications could allow drivers to order their vehicles, direct them to the nearest fueling station or repair facility, send preventive maintenance and oil change reminders, and even fill out an accident report,” said James Semsey, vice president, information technology for LeasePlan USA. “Because drivers are, for the most part, on the road and not sitting at a computer during work hours, fleet applications can save time and provide the convenience needed for many drivers.”
Companies implement mobile fleet applications as one way to maximize fleet savings and control.

"Mobile application technology opens up a whole new world of opportunity to maximize fleet savings and control, including the possibility of contributing to a company's workflow efficiency," said Bill Kwelty, senior vice president and chief information officer for ARI. "Through real-time data exchange, drivers finally have the information they need to continuously conform to driver policy standards. They can improve productivity through process automation, such as vehicle inspections or maintenance alerts. They can head off serious vehicle maintenance issues through proactive notification."   

In the near-term, the penetration of fleet applications in the driver population will be limited since there is no standardization among mobile communication devices and products have varying degrees of technological capabilities.

"However, the new mobile application technology, including the sophistication of the devices themselves, is in its infancy, limiting the development of every application. Like all other technology, new applications will be introduced regularly in the coming months and years," said Kwelty.

However, as smartphones become more sophisticated, users will come to rely on the devices for a greater range of day-to-day work functions.
"With the revolutionary introduction of the iPhone, it is no longer acceptable for consumers to simply receive e-mail and make phone calls. More and more users are demanding the same functionality on their mobile devices as they have on their desktop," said Barry Steel, senior VP of sales development and strategy for Donlen Corp. "We can make virtually all of the functionality available in FleetWeb and DonlenDriver in our mobile versions of both applications. The more advanced the device being used, the better the experience will be for the user."

Applications Enhance Fleet Manager Productivity

Fleet applications for mobile devices will not only increase driver productivity, but also the productivity of fleet managers.

"For the fleet manager, mobile applications can maximize time and efficiency by allowing them not to be tied to a desk all day. The applications give them the ability to authorize service repairs, approve orders, receive exceptions and alerts, etc., even during times they are away from their computer," said Semsey of LeasePlan USA.

However, fleet applications will not correspond to a "one size fits all" environment. Applications will need to be customized to fleet type and desired functionality.

"Based on our experience, ARI sees a trend toward customization of mobile fleet applications to achieve the best results for a client.  No single mobile app will deliver the same level of savings or control to every company," said Kwelty.  "Likewise, no fleet-specific mobile app strategy will work for every company.  Where driver productivity is the priority, one set of applications will make sense.  Where operational productivity is critical, another set of applications will be necessary. In work truck environments, handheld and in-cab devices will be necessary."

Functionality is at the core of all mobile fleet applications and will vary by fleet mission.  

"Fleet customers need to consider what types of mobile functionality will drive the most productivity improvement and/or operating cost savings for their business," said Millington of GE Capital Fleet Services. "This analysis will vary by the type of fleet (i.e., sales, delivery, or service), fleet size, and other fleet operating parameters. In addition, fleet customers should consider expected adoption rates of mobile functionality in their specific fleet, such as driver demographics and ease of use."

Another benefit for fleet managers using mobile fleet applications is the ability to send and receive real-time notification and updates.

"For fleet managers, the ability to receive notifications as events happen is important. No longer will they be limited to receiving notifications on their PCs. If a driver has an accident or needs something resolved right away, the fleet manager will be aware and can take whatever steps they deem necessary," said Middleton of PHH Arval. "The beauty of mobile apps for managers is how easily they can get real-time information."

Mobile applications would also allow fleet managers access to fleet management company databases while out of the office or traveling.

"Fleet managers need a mobile platform to keep in touch with their fleet management company, have the ability to access and approve open maintenance purchase orders, look up driver information, and look up fair market values, to name only few of the routine tasks to be performed," said Steel of Donlen Corp.

What are the Pros and Cons?

There are a number of advantages to using mobile fleet applications, with convenience and real-time communication the primary benefits.

"Mobile devices are exponentially more prevalent in all aspects of business, and they give the user the choice of when and where they want to view information and receive updates. Mobile devices allow tasks to be done whenever and wherever it is convenient for the driver or fleet manager," said Middleton of PHH Arval. "Tasks that are fully automated can be completed any time of day or night, because they no longer depend on talking to a person to get that task done. For example, if a driver wants to buy fuel at 10 p.m., but lost the PIN for his fuel card, he can't use that card to buy fuel if the provider's call center is closed. That is no longer the case when the function can be accomplished through a mobile device using an automated system."

In addition, the ability to customize data on mobile communication devices will be another important factor in future fleet applications.
"Each user should have the ability to customize what they see on their device, just like they can on their desktop," said Steel of Donlen Corp. "Drivers need information to be compliant with their company's fleet policies and procedures. This includes items such as entering business and personal use mileage while mobile, locators for lowest priced fuel, approved service/repair locations, corporate policy information, and emergency contact information."

However, there are limitations to the use of fleet applications on mobile devices, which some say will never surpass the convenience of a desktop computer.

"Now that mobile apps exist, we believe reliance on a mobile device for fleet applications will increase, but the PC may still be the preferred tool to use," said Andrew Griffith, vice president, IT for Emkay Inc. "Mobile apps certainly are an easier platform to not just access information, but perform certain tasks that are more visual or data heavy, as fleet industry Web sites are geared around providing information for analysis. There is a need to see more on a screen and have the ability to use an Excel spreadsheet, print reports, etc."

Another challenge to developing mobile fleet applications is the multiplicity of data plans.

"Almost all mobile apps require data plans to work properly and be useful. This has a cost associated with it, and some companies have not embraced the usefulness of mobile applications for fleet yet," said Middleton of PHH Arval.

There is also the issue as to which device or devices to support with a fleet application.

"The clear leader in terms of market penetration among business users (as opposed to consumer users) is the BlackBerry. That's why PHH decided to develop apps for this mobile device," said Middleton. "However, we'll support more devices in the near future. Mobile devices are still evolving, so it's entirely possible the clear leader in devices could change; think VHS versus BetaMax for video. We need to constantly monitor the market and anticipate any changes in preferences for devices."  

Another mobile device limitation is screen size, which precludes the display of large forms or complex graphics.

"Screen size and tactile inputs may not be adequate to complete some of the more complex tasks found within online fleet management tools," said Millington of GE Capital Fleet Services. "Other challenges arise from the multiplicity of operating systems for mobile devices. In fact, there are over eight different operating systems, including Windows Mobile, Symbian, Android, iPhone OS, RIM OS for BlackBerry, and others. Therefore, fleet customers should consider the specific mobile devices (i.e., iPhone, BlackBerry, Nexus One) fleet drivers use when evaluating effectiveness of any mobile functionality."

Screen size is a key limiting factor to the development of mobile fleet applications.

"The amount of information that can be seen on a mobile device is limited since it has to be adjusted for the size of the screen. And cell phone service can be spotty, so the user may not always be able to access the information needed," said Semsey of LeasePlan USA.

Concerns about Contributing to Driver Distraction

The 800-lb. gorilla, so to speak, is the issue of distracted driving. The use of mobile applications poses a real concern that they may be used while driving.

"Mobile communication devices allow us to be connected 24/7; they're convenient and allow us more mobility. However, promoting the use of these devices also can lead to distracted driving issues," said Semsey of LeasePlan USA.

This safety concern was echoed by Tepas of Emkay. "Safety still remains in the top three future initiatives for our fleet managers, and using devices while driving is a concern. We do believe, however, that state governments and the federal government will eliminate this fear as we see laws against text/mobile use while driving be in full effect nationwide within the next 2-3 years."

Similarly, corporate liability exposure from the use of these devices is a corollary concern, especially if a preventable accident is attributable to its use while driving.

"In order to minimize exposure to litigation, their use must be covered in the company's fleet policy and read and accepted by all drivers. With applications on mobile devices becoming more common, this issue has the potential to get worse. Companies need to safeguard themselves as much as possible with solid policies and procedures," said Semsey of LeasePlan USA.

Also, fleet managers should not inadvertently contribute to driver distraction by creating situations in which drivers need to immediately respond to fleet communications.

"Don't send your drivers requests that need to be answered right away. You don't want to become too dependent on mobile devices for your fleet management operations either. It should be viewed as a supplementary piece to your overall fleet management strategy," said Semsey.

Although the key concern continues to be distracted driving, if use while driving is prohibited by company fleet policy, this concern is somewhat mitigated. Another mitigating factor is the increased number of state and political subdivisions outlawing the use of hand-held mobile devices while driving.

"Mobile fleet application developers must take into account driver distraction that can create safety issues.  However, we are confident the technology can be employed to increase safety overall as applications are introduced that encourage safe driving techniques and proper vehicle maintenance," said Kwelty. "Finally, ARI will continue to introduce other technologies that are safer. For example, an IVR (interactive voice response) solution may address operator safety while providing a solution for drivers without mobile smartphones."  

The best safeguard is ensuring that prohibition of use while driving is codified in fleet policy.

"All companies need to have a company policy that mandates safe operation of company vehicles. In addition, many states have passed laws prohibiting the use of mobile devices while operating a vehicle. Also, by design, these applications need to have the ability to provide information with limited user interaction. These 'mini-apps' need to have additional intelligence built into them so the user has a minimal need to input information on the device," said Steel of Donlen Corp.

There may be a technological solution that inhibits the use of mobile devices while driving.

"We are currently investigating ways we can help companies enforce policies around mobile usage while driving," said Middleton of PHH Arval. "There is software that can be built in to utilize the vehicle's GPS to know when the vehicle is in motion and prompt the driver not to use the device unless it is an emergency or if they are a passenger."

Pilot Programs Test Mobile Fleet Applications

Since 2009, fleet management companies have been deploying new products to support mobile fleet applications. One example is PHH Connect, a mobile fleet application launched August 2009, which gives drivers immediate access to various PHH services, such as call centers, help with accidents and maintenance, and mileage reporting.
“After deployment of PHH Connect, the interest has been very high. It’s early yet, and we’ll be collecting usage data going forward. But we’re getting great feedback, and drivers really love the ability to enter mileage from their BlackBerrys,” said Middleton of PHH Arval.

Another fleet management company offering mobile fleet applications is Donlen Corp. “Our mobile applications were designed for, and with the input of, our customers. Prior to launch, the iPhone beta app was tested extensively in the field with drivers and fleet managers who overwhelmingly endorsed the app,” said Steel of Donlen Corp.
Similarly, GE Capital Fleet Services has been piloting mobile fleet applications with some of its client fleets.

“Our clients have begun experimenting with mobile applications on a pilot basis. To deliver the best possible experience to our customers, GE’s Mobile Technology Center of Excellence is providing expertise on the best approach to mobile technology development and deployment, based on the latest market research and technology,” said Millington of GE Capital Fleet Services. “Founded on this body of knowledge, GE Capital Fleet Services’ mobile strategy is to develop and release functionality that can help drivers/mobile workers improve productivity and reduce operating costs.”

Although the number of actual mobile fleet users remains relatively small, surveys indicate high user acceptance and a willingness to incorporate these applications in day-to-day fleet management.

“We have a small percentage of clients already using mobile fleet applications. However, our just-completed client survey indicates 35 percent are considering investing in, or already have, related technologies,” said Steidle of ARI.

However, fleet management companies continue to be cautious about products that may be perceived as contributing to driver distraction. One example is LeasePlan USA.

“LeasePlan has taken a very conscientious and controlled approach to rolling out any mobile applications that might encourage or promote driver distractions.  We are currently testing the applications internally while working with clients on the process of introducing these new technologies. This includes crafting appropriate verbiage to enhance fleet/driver policies that will help mitigate company exposure and appropriately informing drivers of their safety responsibilities for not checking fleet applications, etc., while driving,” said Semsey of LeasePlan USA. “While the use of mobile devices and fleet applications could make fleet operations more efficient and convenient, it also poses risks when it comes to distracted driving. You don’t want to encourage this behavior. So, as a fleet management company, we would need to limit what we send out. For example, we wouldn’t want to create a sense of urgency where the user feels like they must respond immediately to one of our requests. We are taking a very conscientious look at distracted driving, and we certainly don’t advocate it,” added Semsey.

Other fleet management companies cite low interest among fleet managers in using these types of products.

“Emkay clients have had the ability to access and its reporting applications from a mobile device for years; however, very few have utilized these capabilities. Those that have still gravitate toward a PC, but we don’t see that being the way of the future as some will certainly give up some quality items in trade for speed or remote access to data,” said Griffith of Emkay Inc.

Future Fleet Applications

The use of mobile communication devices promises to become an integral factor in managing fleets of the future.

"The future of fleet applications on mobile communication devices is almost limitless. I do see RSS feeds eventually being used for things like exception notifications, service bulletins, recalls, etc.," said Semsey of LeasePlan USA. "Because technology is rapidly evolving and getting more sophisticated, the applications used in mobile devices will certainly follow suit. This could also lead to fleet managers being able to receive instantaneous notifications of driver activities, such as when a driver fills up with premium fuel, toll violations, etc. Further in the future, I see fleet managers being able to monitor things like driver ordering through mini-dashboard reports."

Others envision mobile devices becoming extensions of today's desktop fleet management systems.

"I think all of the applications we use today on a desktop will have a mobile device version available. At Donlen, our database and data structure will allow us to roll out these new mini-apps as the demand from our customers continues to grow," said Steel of Donlen Corp.

The growth projections about the business use of mobile devices are validated by independent studies done by third-party research organizations.

"We believe fleet applications will become increasingly prevalent in the near future. Based on our research and that of companies like Gartner (a leading information technology research company), we expect more and more of our clients' drivers will be using mobile devices and will welcome the ability to perform fleet-related tasks on them," said Middleton of PHH Arval. "Connectivity through Bluetooth, WiFi, and cellular makes the tools capable of interfacing with a plethora of different data-providing sources. PHH is already working on additional fleet applications designed to help fleet managers be more efficient and enhance fleet drivers' productivity."

A similar outlook is shared by Griffith of Emkay Inc. "Since content is really endless, capabilities are greater, network speed has increased, and mobile apps are easier to use, mobility solutions are a great tool to increase productivity and take advantage of real-time data for easier decision making."

In addition, OEMs will enable future vehicles to interact with these devices.

"We also see the cars of the future having the same capabilities as cell phones, such as e-mail. This will further enhance the applications on mobile devices and will probably get to the point where the vehicles can offer the same features," said Semsey of LeasePlan USA.

Kwelty of ARI also foresees the continued expansion of driver-based applications. "We believe that more and more companies will expect mobile fleet apps to contribute to their operational efficiency. That requires a more integrated approach to app development tied to a company's specific strategic goals rather than just fleet goals. We will then develop customized mobile fleet applications that are holistic," he said.  "For example, we are combining handheld and in-cab technology to support DOT requirements for vehicle inspections and driver logs as well as other productivity and accountability-related activities."

However, mobile fleet applications are not a panacea. They will become one of many tools in fleet managers' arsenals to manage their fleets. In many cases, the old, tried-and-true methods will continue to be the choice of preference.

"There will still be times where the best way to get something done will not be by using a mobile device. But having said that, we've just begun to tap the ways this technology can help solve business issues and improve driver productivity," said Middleton of PHH Arval.  

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