The Car and Truck Fleet and Leasing Management Magazine

The History of Computers in Fleet Management

Fleet has been an early adopter of new technology, starting with card reader equipment in the 1950s, use of mainframes in the 1960s, “dumb” terminals of the 1970s, PCs in the 1980s, and now a multitude of Web-enabled services.

January 2013, by Mike Antich - Also by this author

This photo, circa 1992, is of a lessor’s mainframe-based fleet management system that provided access, either online or offline, to a fleet client’s vehicle data. 
This photo, circa 1992, is of a lessor’s mainframe-based fleet management system that provided access, either online or offline, to a fleet client’s vehicle data.

The fleet industry, as we know it, could not provide its breadth of services currently available without computers. Today, it is difficult to comprehend that, in the not-too-distant past, all fleet management functions were paper-based. In the intervening years, there have been many pioneering fleets and fleet management companies that have contributed to the advancement of fleet-related computer technology.

Here’s a decade-by-decade summary of how computer technology evolved to change the fleet management profession.

1950s: Unit Record Equipment

Before the advent of computers, data processing was performed by electromechanical devices called unit record equipment, which typically used punch-card-based equipment.

Although somewhat forgotten, unit record machines were as ubiquitous in corporate America in the 1950s as computers are today. Unit record equipment allowed large volume data-processing using decks of punched cards that were “read” in a specific progression. The machines had high-speed mechanical feeders to process from 100 to 2,000 cards per minute, using either electrical or optical sensors to identify punched holes, which translated into specific data. Based on the norms of the era, these machines were so efficient that some companies initially questioned whether they needed to acquire newly introduced mainframe computers, which were very expensive. However, it quickly became apparent that the computing power of mainframes eclipsed what was possible using punch cards.

1960s: The Power of Mainframes

The industry converted to mainframe computers from unit record equipment beginning in the late 1950s through the 1960s. Wheels and PHH installed their first IBM mainframe computers in 1959.

Mainframe computers were used primarily by corporate and governmental organizations for bulk data processing and transaction processing.

Another innovative piece of computing equipment of the era was the “dumb” terminal, which was a CRT with a keyboard that had no processing power of its own. The dumb terminal was simply an input and output device wired into another computer. It was common in the mainframe era to use dumb terminals to allow multiple users to interface with a single computer. When using a dumb terminal, all of the computing functions were done on the mainframe computer.

A teleprinter (or Teletype) was another popular fleet tool of the 1960s. It was an electromechanical typewriter used to send and receive typed messages. It provided a text-based user interface to early mainframe computers and minicomputers.

1970s: Electronic Vehicle Ordering

One of the important technological advancements of the 1970s was electronic vehicle ordering. In 1974, Wheels began electronic transmission of vehicle orders to manufacturers. Fleet leasing companies were now able to electronically place new-vehicle orders with General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler. Fleet leasing companies uploaded vehicle orders directly to a manufacturer using mainframe-to-mainframe communication. These factory ordering systems evolved from the new-vehicle ordering systems used by franchised dealers.

During this era, there were also significant advancements by the manufacturers in terms of auditing their order process. Upon receipt of the lessor’s order, a factory would electronically process the order using online edits to verify accuracy and transmit either an acknowledgement or rejection of the order. It was only after the factory completed all of its internal edits that a vehicle was assigned to be built at an assembly plant.

In this era, fleet management suppliers provided voluminous computer reports and monthly invoices that were sometimes difficult to reconcile. Computers were also used to provide rebate reports to fleet managers, payments of credit memos, and other price-related information. In addition, computers were used to generate certificates of origin and other documents needed by fleet managers.

Vehicle status reporting was another innovation made available to fleet managers. Computer-generated weekly status reports were mailed by dealers and fleet leasing companies to their fleet manager clients. Previously, information supplied to the fleets was in the form of paper reports sent in the mail, with much of the information, such as new-vehicle order status data, already outdated when received. As the manufacturers’ mainframe systems improved their ability to communicate updated information online to the fleet management companies, fleets became the recipients of more timely information that reflected current status data.

One problem at this time, though, was terminal equipment incompatibility, requiring programmers to “emulate” equipment to allow incompatible devices to communicate with one another.

1980s: Dawn of Personal Computers

The 1980s ushered in the era of desktop microcomputers, which revolutionized computer capabilities in the fleet industry by making their use more broad-based to more employees. The use of personal computers rapidly proliferated, from Fortune 100 companies down to the smallest businesses. (We tend to forget how revolutionary it was to have a computer that could actually fit on a desktop.) Relatively quickly, non-technical employees reached a comfort level that gradually overcame their initial fear about using computers.

In the 1980s, information was available to fleet managers by direct access to the fleet management company’s mainframe computer (online) or by direct transfer of data to a personal computer in the fleet manager’s office (off-line).

Online access occurred when a fleet manager, using a departmental personal computer, interfaced with a fleet management company’s mainframe computer via a modem. ARI introduced its online maintenance management control system in 1982, and its online ACCESS system in 1983.

When using an off-line system, the fleet management company sent a direct transmission of a file containing fleet data to a fleet manager, which then could be accessed by the fleet manager using a personal computer.

Fleet management companies began to offer clients access to vehicle availability for out-of-stock purchases at local dealerships and provide information on the availability of vehicles held in a pool inventory in select geographic locations. Later, detailed specifications and pricing information was also made available on pool vehicles.

In the 1980s, personal computers facilitated significant changes in new-vehicle ordering, allowing fleet managers the capability to place orders electronically with leasing companies or, in the case of certain large company-owned fleets, direct to the factory. Using electronic ordering, fleet managers were able to order vehicles from their location by uploading data from their personal computers to the lessor’s mainframe. By eliminating the need to mail paper back and forth, electronic ordering sped up the order process and reduced vehicle delivery cycle time.

In addition, electronic ordering tremendously increased order accuracy by allowing electronic verification of ordering instructions for each new-vehicle order. When an order was received from the fleet customer, the leasing company’s in-house computer was programmed to review the order’s accuracy through online edits. By preempting ordering problems before they occurred, online edits minimized the number of rejected orders, which delayed vehicle build dates and delivery times.

Computers of the 1980s helped revolutionize and further refine the tracking of new-vehicle order status. The systems of that era tracked a vehicle order from the day each order was received up through vehicle delivery to the driver. Vehicle status data was displayed directly on the fleet manager’s PC, either online or off-line.

Another advancement of the 1980s was the creation of automated vehicle registration renewal systems. Previously, fleet management companies simply sent notifications reminding a fleet manager a vehicle’s registration and licensing was coming up for renewal.

In this era, fleet management companies provided monthly billing and statistical information to fleet manager clients through various types of media, including direct computer-to-computer transmissions, tape and cartridge technologies, and PC diskettes.

The other significant event of the 1980s was allowing fleet clients to do “real-time” updates to their data. ARI was at the forefront of allowing online customers not only see and report on their fleets, but make updates to driver and fleet data.

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Jerome "Jerry" Geckle was a former president of PHH Arval (then Peterson, Howell & Heather, Inc.) and chairman of the board of PHH Corporation from 1980-1989.

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