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.


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 was another early pioneer that started the shift to Web-enabled fleet management. Ultimately, every service offered by fleet management companies was converted to Web-enabled programs. In addition, Web-enabled programs allowed greater interaction between drivers and fleet management companies in terms of 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. One Internet tool introduced by LeasePlan USA was Images on the Web, which allowed 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. In that same year, ARI introduced its Web-based systems Inside ARI and ACCESS.

In the early 1990s, GE launched a desktop fleet management software called FleetTools that connected remotely to GE making it possible for 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, which was 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 their 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. Its Fleet 360 mobile app, which is dedicated to the fleet manager, followed 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 signficantly reducing the cycle time and helping fleet managers make better informed decisions on maintenance spend.

Ultimately, technology will allow drivers to play an even greater role in fleet management.

“For years, I have aspired to find ways to include the driver as part of the solution. The driver holds the keys to improved fuel economy, safety, and managing maintenance costs. We see dramatic difference in all of these categories from one driver to the next and from one branch of service fleets to the next,” said Jim Frank, CEO of Wheels Inc. “With new technology tools, such as ‘ChangeDriver,’ we are able to give immediate and positive feedback to those drivers who are embracing the appropriate behavior and we see significant improvements as a result. It is only with new tools and capabilities recently developed that we have been able to dvelop this new approach to influencing driver behavior in a positive way.”

Other 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 are reporting, online analytical processing, data mining, process mining, business performance management, benchmarking, and predictive analytics.

“Technology now allows us to take a holistic look at all of the data a fleet generates and provide more insightful, intuitive recommendations faster than ever before,” said Steve Haindl, CIO and senior vice president at ARI. “Tools like in-memory technology allow us to dive deeper into the data and make correlations that we simply couldn’t before. This allows us to have a better grasp of each of our clients’ operations – from maintenance, to fuel spend, to vehicle replacement and more – and develop solutions in real-time for the multitude of challenges they may face.”

Another emerging fleet-related software tool is business analytics, which refers to the skills, technologies, applications, and practices to investigate past business performance to gain insight and to drive future 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.

One developing trend is “granularity” in policy and decision making.

“Fleets used to operate under broad policy rules (e.g., replace all vehicles in spring or fall) not because the rules were ‘right’, but because they were reasonable approximations to being correct and because it was not possible with large fleets to decide in a more granular way,” said Frank of Wheels. “Today, we have the computing power and expertise to make much more granular decisions with regard to replacement cycling, repairs, vehicle selection, and the payback can be substantial.”

About the author
Mike Antich

Mike Antich

Former Editor and Associate Publisher

Mike Antich covered fleet management and remarketing for more than 20 years and was inducted into the Fleet Hall of Fame in 2010 and the Global Fleet of Hal in 2022. He also won the Industry Icon Award, presented jointly by the IARA and NAAA industry associations.

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