The Car and Truck Fleet and Leasing Management Magazine

Keeping in Touch with Drivers on the Road

June 2015, by Mike Scott - Also by this author

Photo courtesy of iStockPhoto.com.
Photo courtesy of iStockPhoto.com.

There are times when fleet managers or other personnel need to contact drivers immediately.

But, many fleet departments struggle with this simple question: what is the best strategy to contact drivers safely and efficiently?

The question is a harder one to answer than it sounds. There is a full range of communications solutions that fleet departments use to access all types of information. In addition, there are informal methods of communication that may be more immediate, but come with safety risks if the driver is behind a wheel.

Two-way communication between drivers and fleet managers isn’t a new phenomenon, but, as Mark Wallin, vice president of product management for Telogis, noted, “the challenge is always to utilize technology to make that messaging more meaningful, efficient, and intelligent, and less about messaging for the sake of messaging.”

Just 20 years ago, all communications a fleet needed would be contained in a key that was inserted into the truck's dashboard, said Ryan Barnett, market development for XRS, a provider of trucking intelligence solutions. When the key became outdated, modems and hardware communications became the high-tech solutions most readily available in the early 2000s.

A way to communicate the appropriate driver’s workflow is critical because it allows the drivers to concentrate on what matters to them, Barnett said. That workflow or checklist should make directions verifiable for the driver. For the fleet manager, it includes the ability to time-stamp duties and geolocate drivers.

Keeping in Touch

A common theme in improving communications internally with fleet drivers is the use of handheld devices, said Don Woods, department head of client information systems for ARI. There are few locations in the United States or Canada with poor Wi-Fi or mobile phone coverage. Outside of some remote oil and gas locations, accessibility is not an issue, Woods said.

The key for fleet departments is to create two-way communications with clients and drivers that is convenient and, when possible, immediate.

“There are multiple solutions that we discuss with our clients for real-time communications,” Woods said. “It really depends on the client’s needs. Many clients use texting, but in that case we strongly emphasize the need to text safely and not ever while driving, and I think that message has gotten through.”

The safety issue doesn’t prevent fleet managers from having a specific need to get in touch immediately with drivers at various times, Woods said. Telematics components within many of today’s vehicles, including hands-free audio connected via Bluetooth to a mobile phone, are extremely beneficial, Woods said. ARI has also worked with clients to implement a “live chat” function that is connected through mobile device apps to allow drivers to connect with ARI personnel for questions while on the road.

“In the last year, the number of conversations ongoing through our chat has roughly equated to the number of calls we get, so chat functions, which can utilize hands-free audio, are being widely used,” Woods said.

Two-way and real-time communications is particularly important when dealing with such issues as weather and traffic, said Bill Cooper, vice president of customer acquisition for WEX Inc. Issues with either of those variables can hinder a delivery schedule, and that can mean a loss of revenue for the company.

“On the road you have to expect the unexpected,” Cooper said. “You can optimize routes and stops, and determine where diesel fuel is the cheapest in advance, but you need to be flexible.”

Real-time communication, in general, can help in such areas as maintenance and fuel, Cooper said. This data can be put to practical use. Fleet managers, for instance, can use it to help spec the fleet’s next vehicles, determining engine size and other equipment that can directly impact maintenance costs.

“We’re creating business intelligence for these fleets,” Cooper said.

The challenge for fleets with real-time communications is the perception of the “Big Brother” effect. Cooper said many of WEX’s clients have resorted to profit-sharing plans with drivers to encourage them to take advantage of the full benefits of real-time communications.

“If you get them to make an extra call or two a day, that could mean $1,000 or more extra revenue per week and several hundreds of dollars of pay to the driver,” Cooper said. “They will use whatever system you put in front of them if that happens.”

Geotab offers fleet managers a number of ways to stay in touch with fleet drivers. These include in-vehicle audible alerts, through buzzers or spoken-word notifications, in addition to leveraging Garmin and Android devices that allow for a message to be sent and the driver to respond.

“The message may come in while the driver is driving, but he can’t interact with or read it until the vehicle is stopped,” explained Maria Sotra, marketing manager for Geotab. “This allows for safe and secure communication between the fleet and the drivers.”

Fleet managers using Geotab’s technology can help better manage fleet vehicles and driver behavior in near-real-time, according to Sotra.

Communications applications must be able to run on multiple devices, from smart phones to tablets and other tools that can get in the hands of drivers, said Barnett of XRS. However, only the most “critical” items should be highlighted for drivers. And, of course, safety remains a prominent consideration. Some solutions XRS offers won’t function while a vehicle is in motion, Barnett said.

“Drivers want to get notified when there is a high importance message or need,” Barnett said. “But, they will get a notification so they can pull off the road and check what that message is. It may be a route change, a weather alert, or something else that needs to be addressed. It’s about safety and finding ways to get home.”

Remaining Efficient and Safe

The advances in telematics technology has helped to make communication not only more meaningful, but safer. This is due to integrated platforms that give the status of the vehicle — stopped or in motion — and status of jobs.

“There is no longer speculation about what jobs have been completed, what the ETAs are for the next location, whether or not a customer had been serviced, what driver with what skill set is closest to what emergency job — all of that is automated and communicated now in real-time between the back-office team and the driver or technician,” noted Wallin of Telogis. “All of it takes place in a safe, efficient way, maximizing the time and attention of the driver on what’s important. It’s about providing the tools to the driver that help them do their jobs more efficiently and more safely, and ultimately driving up the satisfaction of the end customer.”

An integrated system, such as the one Telogis offers, has direct benefits for the drivers in the field as well.

“What makes it so much more advanced than simple two-way messaging is that it’s inherently integrated with the work orders, driver behavior apps, and forms to allow the fastest, easiest access to relevant data, providing the driver with contextually relevant messages and not ‘noise’ that’s being broadcast out to all drivers, although, if that’s necessary, team-wide communications can also be sent,” Wallin said.

The goal of such communications tools is to provide optimal operational efficiency and productivity. They can help make improvements to routing, scheduling, resource allocation, and worker and asset tracking. Mobile apps can empower field technicians to work more effectively. Such apps put them in touch real-time with managers, dispatchers, and colleagues while performing their tasks, said John Cameron, general manager of Trimble Field Service Management in Milpitas, Calif., which offers such a solution.

“Information accessible through our apps includes scheduling, billing, and customer and equipment repair histories. When technicians arrive at a customer site, they have all the information they need to complete the job — and do it right the first time,” Cameron said.

There is also a safety component to such apps, Cameron said. Drivers can use the mobile app to request assistance if their vehicle breaks down. An add-on fleet management tool links to in-cabin devices to monitor and record driver behaviors such as pulling away from the curb too fast, taking sharp turns, or harsh braking. Managers can review the information and work with drivers to improve their driving habits.

Another need for drivers is to integrate data and communications across multiple platforms, as a way to increase efficiencies and convenience for drivers, said Barnett of XRS. Systems can also be combined to assure a more seamless process.

“Everything is pushing toward convenience, faster and safer,” Barnett said. “With many current solutions you may only see exactly where trucks are at five-minute intervals, but now the demand is there to see exact locations in real-time.”

Having spent time managing a fleet, Bannu Hurtig, senior consultant for Mercury Associates, Inc., an independent fleet management consulting firm, said that the communications options available to fleet managers, dispatchers, and drivers often rely on connections to in-vehicle telematics systems. But, the type of communications tool used will vary depending on the need.

For example, “emergency” communications would require a more detailed tool, and drivers can have options loaded onto their personal laptops that provide details about an order or route change. So, before a driver leaves for the next stop on his or her route, he or she can quickly connect to the laptop, which can be mounted in the vehicle while parked and not moving. This option would require some type of wireless coverage.

“You can connect your laptop or tablet to a wireless telematics device, but the connection may be slower than what you are used to,” Hurtig said. “It works for small files as long as there is connectivity between the telematics device and the laptop.”

These days, commercially available navigation devices offer custom apps that allow a dispatcher to communicate the next job and the related route information directly to drivers. These communications can be integrated into the in-vehicle navigation device so that verbal communications are unnecessary, Hurtig said. The navigation device acts as a display terminal for preprogrammed short messages from the dispatcher, and the driver can reply with simple push buttons (i.e., “Yes” or “No”), she added.

CalAmp uses real-time alerts and coaching to help drivers stay safe on the road. The key to implementing these alerts successfully is to streamline the communications process so the person operating the vehicle feels no burden while on the road.

“We use audible alerts and coaching mechanisms,” said Mike Jakab, vice president of sales for CalAmp. “These are subtle but clear means of coaching the driver on a variety of best practices. Such best practices can include reduced instances of speeding and accidents, eliminating unnecessary cases of acceleration or deceleration.”

According to Jakab, the three goals that fleet managers should have in mind when using communications systems are improving safety, better utilizing assets, and increasing productivity. These can be accomplished through automation.

“There are benefits to each of these three goals,” Jakab said. “Safety impacts your costs directly. Utilization of assets can be easily measured. Productivity can be complicated, but it can lead directly to a positive bottom-line impact.”

Likewise, Geotab provides fleet managers the ability to interact directly with drivers when an event happens, either using an auditory signal or spoken word to the driver.

“This helps coach and train drivers to adopt safer and more fuel-efficient driving practices,” said Sotra of Geotab. “The types of rules that managers can set are limitless based on their fleet management requirements. They range from idling to speeding to harsh braking to sharp turning and more.”

After-the-fact communication can be just as crucial as what happens behind the wheel. Lytx offers fleet managers the ability to provide coaching to drivers remotely as soon as they are aware of an event.

“Our clients do take advantage of our online features to coach their drivers even when they are away from a terminal through our remote coaching feature,” explained Greg Lund, director corporate communications for Lytx. “More and more of our clients are taking advantage of this feature to make sure the safety and coaching aspects of fleet-driver relationship continue even though the drivers are away from the terminals.”

Real-time communication streamlines operations off the road as well. GPS Insight developed custom forms that can be filled out at the point of service on a smart device and electronically sent back to headquarters, said GPS Insight Marketing Director Ryan Driscoll. Customers expedite billing, identify crew members for payroll, track inventory, and log pre- and post-trip inspections more efficiently when done in real-time.

“This gets the data entered quicker than the traditional paper-based method and ensures that it is entered accurately,” Driscoll said. “Our customers can use the custom forms to identify crew members for payroll. This data can be sent to accounting in the same manner to ensure that everyone is paid accurately and eliminate paperwork. Inventory can be tracked in real-time when it is sent back to headquarters electronically. This makes customers more efficient because they will always know when new orders need to be placed.”

Charting Future Trends

Another trend that fleet managers will be addressing more in the coming years is the ability of “Big Data” to provide so much information about what a driver is doing back to his or her managers, said Woods of ARI. So, if a driver is not following established processes, such as using premium fuels at the pumps or harsh braking, speeding, or unnecessary acceleration on the road, that information can be made available virtually in real-time.

“All this knowledge can impact driver safety and costs, so fleet managers will have more decisions to make because of the availability of all this information,” Woods said. “We will see more direct communications around maintenance, safety, and repair.”

For example, a driver will receive communications directly from the vehicle about the need for a repair or maintenance job that will be set up by the department’s processes.

“There will be opportunities for drivers to take corrective actions to positively impact their behavior in real-time,” Woods added. “That is part of the communications challenges that we will also be facing as well.”

Five years from now, there is bound to be an entire new group of solutions that will reduce time spent, increase efficiencies, and further emphasize safety. For fleet managers, the biggest challenge may be figuring out the best option while remaining educated about those trends that have the greatest impact on their fleet departments.

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