Many pioneering fleets and fleet management companies 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 “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 some companies initially questioned whether they needed to acquire newly introduced mainframe computers, which were very expensive. However, it quickly became apparent the computing power of mainframes eclipsed punch card capabilities.
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 (now Element Fleet Management) 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 — a CRT with a keyboard with no processing power of its own. The dumb terminal was simply an input-output device wired to another computer. Using dumb terminals to allow multiple users to interface with a single computer was common in the mainframe era. With a dumb terminal, all computing functions were done on the mainframe computer.
A teleprinter (or teletype) was another popular fleet tool of the 1960s. This electromechanical typewriter sent and received typed messages, and provided a text-based user interface to early mainframe computers and minicomputers.
1970s: Electronic Vehicle Ordering
An important technological advancements of the 1970s was electronic vehicle ordering. In 1974, Wheels began electronic transmission of vehicle orders to manufacturers. Fleet leasing companies now could electronically place new-vehicle orders with General Motors, Ford and Chrysler (now Stellantis). 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, manufacturers also made significant advancements in auditing their order processes. Upon receipt of the lessor’s order, a factory electronically processed the order using online edits to verify accuracy and transmit either acknowledgement or rejection of the order. Only after the factory completed all its internal edits was a vehicle assigned to be built at an assembly plant.
In this era, fleet management suppliers provided voluminous computer reports and monthly invoices sometimes difficult to reconcile.
Computers provided fleet managers rebate reports, payments of credit memos and other price-related information. In addition, computers generated certificates of origin and other documents needed by fleets.
Vehicle status reporting was another innovation made available to fleet managers. Dealers and fleet leasing companies mailed computer-generated weekly status reports to their fleet manager clients. Previously, information supplied to fleets was in the form of paper reports sent in the mail, with much information, such as new-vehicle order status data, already outdated when received.
As manufacturers’ mainframe systems improved their ability to communicate updated information online to the fleet management companies, fleets received more timely information reflecting current status data. One problem 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, revolutionizing computer capabilities in the fleet industry by making their use more broad-based to 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 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, fleet managers could directly access information from the fleet management company’s mainframe computer (online) or by direct transfer of data to a personal computer in the fleet manager’s office (offline).
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 (now Holman) introduced its online maintenance management control system in 1982 and its online ACCESS system in 1983.
Using an offline system, a fleet management company sent a direct transmission of a fleet data file to a fleet manager, accessible to 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 providing 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 to place orders electronically with leasing companies or, for certain large company-owned fleets, directly with the factory.
Using electronic ordering, fleet managers could order vehicles from their location by uploading data from their personal computers to the lessor’s mainframe. 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. Upon receiving a fleet customer order, the leasing company’s in-house computer was programmed to review the order’s accuracy through online edits. 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 tracking new-vehicle order status. The systems of that era tracked a vehicle order from the day each order was received through vehicle delivery to the driver. Vehicle status data was displayed directly on the fleet manager’s PC, either online or offline.
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 that 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.
In another significant event of the 1980s, fleet clients could perform “real-time” data updates. Holman (then-ARI) was at the forefront of allowing online customers not only to see and report on their fleets, but also make updates to driver and fleet data.
1990s: The Internet Revolution
Computers gave lessors the capability to evolve into full-service fleet management companies.
Servers became common in the early 1990s as businesses increasingly began using personal computers to provide services formerly hosted on larger mainframes or minicomputers.
In the mid- to late-1990s, fleet management companies dramatically and quickly shifted to Web-enabled services. In 1997, PHH was the first fleet management company to introduce an Internet-based system (PHH InterActive).
Donlen, another early pioneer, started the shift to Web-enabled fleet management. Ultimately, all services offered by fleet management companies were converted to Web-enabled programs. In addition, Web-enabled programs allowed greater interaction between drivers and fleet management companies for new-vehicle ordering, preventive maintenance, used-vehicle employee sales, etc. By migrating to a Web-based system, equipment compatibility issues were dramatically minimized.
In 1994, LeasePlan USA installed its first document imaging system, beginning its transition to a paperless office environment. LeasePlan USA introduced an Internet tool —Images on the Web—allowing fleet managers to view their digitized documents, such as vehicle titles, registrations, all the way to FedEx tickets. In 1999, LeasePlan launched ePlan, its online fleet management tool. That year, ARI introduced its Web-based systems Inside ARI and ACCESS.
In the early 1990s, GE Capital Fleet Services (now Element) launched a desktop fleet management software called FleetTools, connected remotely to GE, allowing customers to order and manage vehicles as well as run basic reports.
In the mid-1990s, another major technological innovation enhancing fleet management capabilities occurred — the creation of data warehouses. PHH introduced the fleet industry’s first data warehouse. Other companies, such as ARI, GE and Emkay, were also in the forefront of this movement.
In computing, a data warehouse is a database used for reporting and data analysis. It is a central repository of data created by integrating data from multiple sources, which, in the past, were stored in separate databases. In the 1990s, GE also launched its first version of Web Ordering and Web Reporting to support rich analytics through its data warehouse.
Data warehouses store current, as well as historical, data and are used to analyze resale value trends, vehicle maintenance histories by model segments, and a variety of other user-defined ad hoc data combinations.
Another innovation of the late 1990s was the development of driver-ordering technology, allowing drivers to order new fleet vehicles directly online and to purchase online company-approved driver-paid options using a credit card.
2000s: Emergence of Mobile Devices
As phones became smarter and more ubiquitous in the work environment, a trend emerged to develop fleet applications for mobile communication devices. Fleet management companies began to introduce driver support and productivity applications for mobile devices. These included personal-use reporting, maintenance reminder/scheduling tools, vehicle diagnostic apps, maintenance supplier locator, and one-click speed dial to phone support solutions. For example, in 2010, Emkay released its Driver 360 app for mobile users, with its Fleet 360 mobile app, dedicated to the fleet manager, following soon after.
In early/mid-2000s, GE developed a driver communications platform to enable push notification updates, such as vehicle delivery timeline, vehicle registration requirements, and outstanding maintenance requirements. In the 2010s, GE introduced maintenance alerts, automated notification of larger, pending maintenance repairs, significantly reducing the cycle time and helping fleet managers make better informed decisions on maintenance spend.
Emerging technological trends that promise to have a significant future impact on fleet, especially as the technology matures, are business intelligence and business analytics.
Business intelligence is the ability of a fleet organization to collect, maintain and organize knowledge to optimize fleet efficiency. Business intelligence technologies provide historical, current and predictive views of business operations. Fleet-related applications of business intelligence technologies include reporting, online analytical processing, data mining, process mining, business performance management, benchmarking and predictive analytics.
Another developing fleet-related software tool of that era was business analytics, which refers to the skills, technologies, applications and practices to investigate past business performance to gain insight and drive fleet-related planning. Leveraging data warehouses and business intelligence technology, Emkay released its Fleet Dashboard in 2008 to provide customers with analytical and benchmarking tools.
2010 to Present: Cloud-Based Fleet Management
As we ended the first decade of the 21st century, cloud-based fleet management software began to emerge, which did not require hardware and other associated overheads.
Cloud computing is on-demand access to computing resources (such as apps, networking capabilities and data storage) provided via the Internet through a remote data center managed by a cloud services provider (CSP). Many companies began to use CSPs for storing and/or sharing administrative and financial documents.
Cloud computing enables companies to build expansive software products and services hosted on off-site servers, meaning there is no hardware to take up space or maintain.
Companies specializing in cloud-based software, also called software as a service (SaaS) essentially “rent space” from CSPs to host product software applications. They manage the software’s security, data and all other aspects of the product in the cloud while the CSP manages the actual servers. Cloud-based software can be accessed by multiple users on multiple devices as needed through a web browser or mobile app.