Fleet managers know there is only so much time in a workday. They must prioritize their efforts, and often stop everything to put out fires. Automation of fleet processes promises to keep things on track — or in this case moving down the road. But while this idea of automation has been around for a while, how is connected car technology fostering new automation solutions?
Fleet management software can automate emails for upcoming preventive maintenance, generate, and send reports on fleet health, and dispatch other alerts to optimize operations. These tools help fleet managers harness the data vehicles produce and use it to improve services, boost productivity, and reduce downtime.
Though automation promises to lighten their load, the deluge of information vehicles produce can bury fleet managers in data. “The focus over the last decade has centered on fleet management systems’ ability to turn connected data streams into insights. But as you layer on more systems, at some point you hit insight overload,” says Mark Thomas, vice president of marketing and strategic alliances for Ridecell, a firm offering fleet IoT (Internet of Things) automation solutions designed to modernize and monetize fleets.
Thomas cites an example in which a prognostic system alerts that it’s time to change brake discs. Though the heads-up is great, Thomas warns the alert may be the 400th one to hit the fleet manager’s in-box. “There is also a slew of manual labor that’s required to coordinate everything,” he says.
Fleet automation can reduce these headaches. But, according to Thomas, automation faces several key issues:
- There is no single source of truth where fleet managers can review every vehicle insight. Too often fleets rely on separate systems that solve individual problems, he says. Fleets may have a scheduling system managing drivers, a video solution monitoring the cabin, and systems monitoring various vehicle components.
- Insight overload floods fleet managers with a sea of data to act upon. Sifting through the data to take corrective actions adds yet another manual task to a fleet manager’s day.
- Too many sources of data also complicate responses. Telematics software may trigger an alert about a check engine notification, for example. But before scheduling service, a fleet manager must reschedule drivers or move them to different vehicles in the fleet’s scheduling tool, and someone may even need to hand them the keys.
“Automation for fleets hasn’t come into its own yet,” Thomas concludes. “But it has the potential to make fleets more efficient, keep them running safer, and in compliance.”
Automation in Action
Though most fleets are at the beginning of their automation journey, many are already reaping the benefit of established automation tools. Preventive maintenance software helps fleets track vehicle use, maintenance records, and age without maintaining manual computer records or even written records.
Telematics and other third-party systems pull engine diagnostic trouble codes (DTCs) to preempt parts failures before a breakdown. These systems send fleet managers alerts or notifications for various parameter defaults surrounding maintenance, breakdowns, and crashes.
These systems also extend automation beyond maintenance to: vehicle location, identifying unsafe driving behaviors, fuel monitoring, routing, remote emissions testing, and tax, title, and licensing, says Greg Gray, vice president, fleet management at Geotab.
“The day-to-day management of vehicles that move around a lot geographically is always a complicated manual process,” Gray says.
Areas to Automate
According to FleetUp, a supplier of real-time fleet monitoring solutions, fleets can move through four key areas as embark on their automation journey:
- Data Collection: Fleets can use software tools to collect data from every asset and consolidate the data into a single source of truth. Fleets receive data from every sensor on every vehicle within a car. The transmission, the engine, cab systems, and even the tires generate data that fleet managers can use. The problem is the data, while collected, sits in disparate systems making it difficult to analyze and use. When fleets automate data collection, it flows into a single system that fleet managers can access to see a complete picture of their fleet.
- Data Analysis: McKinsey & Company estimates that connected cars create up to 25GB of data per hour. Now multiply that number by the number of vehicles in your fleet. It’s easy to see that mining this data for actionable insights cannot be a manual task. Adding artificial intelligence tools helps fleets sift through piles of data to pinpoint action steps.
- Management Tasks: Fleet managers can set rules in software to automatically perform basic management and administrative tasks. For example, set a rule that when software identifies that a vehicle needs a specific service, it automatically schedules the service, reschedules the driver to a different vehicle, and provides a digital key to operate it.
- Processes: Once efforts to automate preventive and predictive maintenance are humming along, fleet managers can start automating big-picture strategies to further reduce downtime, improve efficiency and maximize revenue. They might automate warranty tracking; emissions, license and registration; driver monitoring programs; and fuel usage patterns, to name a few.
“Focusing on vehicle health and improving uptime is an important part of automation,” says Ben Auslander, head of sales and marketing for PitStop, which helps fleets automate predictive maintenance through software tools.
Fleets’ preventive maintenance cycles can be automated based on metrics from actual vehicle use, not the standard oil change at 3,000 miles or tire change at 10,000 miles. “A vehicle doing a lot of start and stop, for example, will wear out tires and brakes sooner,” Auslander says. “Another fleet may perform operations where the engine constantly runs. Here, the engine will need preventive maintenance more often.”
But automation can expand beyond preventive to predictive maintenance. Aggregated vehicle data run through algorithms can proactively predict parts failures. “A battery or part might show signs it needs replacing four to six weeks out and fleets can schedule repairs before they fail,” Auslander says. “We’re starting to see 95% accuracy in these types of predictions.”
Automation also can allow fleet managers to piggyback work with other repairs. For instance, software that predicts a parts failure at 85,000 miles can also schedule preventive maintenance around that time, and the grouping of services will mitigate downtime.
“The data prepares the service shop for the vehicle’s arrival and reduces the time it needs to be there,” he says. “When they know it’s coming in for a specific trouble code, they also know it needs a new battery, new brake pads and a tire rotation.”
Deciding What to Automate
According to Thomas, the greatest automation efficiencies come when fleets are intentional in their efforts to automate. He adds automation often does not require new hardware; it requires choosing a hardware-agnostic program that lets fleets pick up where their fleet management systems leave off, he says.
In most cases, the insights already exist, fleets just need tools that parse the data for steps. Once their systems identify next steps, fleets can start to automate tasks. “Ask yourself what is the low-hanging fruit? What can I automate now?” Thomas advises. “Identify the problem, then see how you can automate it.”
If a fleet identifies tire repairs as a constant concern, but a fleet manager doesn’t want to stop everything to write up a work order, a rule in the software can schedule the repair and alert the driver about the upcoming service automatically.
“A fleet manager could pick from this list and build a library of automations,” he says. “The easy ones are programmable. You can write one for low tire pressure, saying when this happens, then this happens, before the vehicle goes out.”
These automations could be integrated into driver/vehicle scheduling and daily inspections.
Operations also may want to track vehicle warranties. By doing so, fleet managers can pull up the status of a vehicle’s warranty whenever it needs service. This can save money if the vehicle or part is still under warranty.
Whatever a fleet decides to automate, it’s essential to remember automation is a journey not a destination. Fleets start down the automation road by identifying what makes sense to automate, then make sure to operate off a single source of truth, and phase automation in a logical way.