Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

Telematics started small, as dots on a map, telling fleet managers where vehicle assets were located, but not much else.

Time and technology have changed that. Today, telematics is increasingly being used by fleets to manage and measure everything from real-time routing (a natural evolution of the dots-on-a-map technology) to fuel spend to safety.

Beginning as Dots on a Map

In the early 1990s, telematics was simply GPS dots on a map, telling fleet managers when a vehicle was or wasn't in motion and where it was

“As time went on and more and more fleets started to adopt GPS tracking technology, the demand rose for more robust features, more information, and ultimately more actionable data for end users,” said Ryan Driscoll, marketing director for GPS Insight. “

The bulk of the technological changes of GPS tracking have really taken place in the last five to seven years.”

There were a number of economic and practical factors that had to be overcome to allow fleets to do more than track where a vehicle was and whether it was in motion or stationary.

The cost and ease at which data could be accessed were some of the road blocks of doing more.

At a Glance

Over the past decade telematics has evolved from a dots-on-a-map solution to a key tool in many fleet managers’ data-gathering toolbox. Among the ways fleet managers are using these solutions:

• Monitoring vehicle operations.
• Routing
• Observing driver behavior.
• Increasing company revenue and efficiency.

“Just connecting and finding the location of the vehicle 15-20 years ago used to be very expensive due to costly hardware and satellite data fees. Early cellular fees were still pretty cost prohibitive for sending large amounts of telematics data, which provided a big barrier to entry. This has all changed as both hardware and data fees have fallen dramatically, enabling us to do a lot more really great stuff and provide a lot more value for our customers,” said Kelly Frey, VP of product marketing for Telogis.

The practical issues surrounding the transition from dots on a map to the ability to capture and do more with data is illustrated in early attempts to monitor speeding.

“In the early days, we didn’t even have posted speed files to reference,” recalled Todd Ewing, director of product marketing for Fleetmatics. “I remember the first generation of the software I worked on, you’d go into the system and say, ‘tell me any time that the driver goes over 60 mph.’ That was all you could do. You were missing anytime the driver was going 45 in a 35 mph zone; it couldn’t reference the road and the driver’s actual speed. One important milestone for most providers was accessing posted speed information, so we could provide people context on lower speed events.”

One of the big changes for the telematics industry, according to Ewing, was equipping vehicles with accelerometers.

“Everybody supports a basic GPS feed and reporting it to a cloud. The value-add comes from what you do next with that information. The evolutionary path started with a simple observation and follow-on question: here’s a car going down a road with a 55 mph speed limit, and it stopped abruptly. What happened? When you ask an open-ended question like that you fairly quickly realize that, if you had additional data, you could understand a lot more and be much more useful. That scenario led to the adoption of accelerometers and driver scorecards,” said Toby Weir-Jones, product line management director for the Fleet Management Solutions at CalAmp.

The early days were marked by a lot of specific problem solving.

“As demand would rise for a particular metric needing to be measured, GPS tracking providers would have to problem solve a way to extrapolate that information from the location data already being received and translate it into actionable information, or they would have to partner with another company that specialized in that particular area,” said Driscoll. “Some of the early priorities were sensors/PTO monitoring diagnostics and DTCs to maintenance, GIS mapping for vehicle location overlays, fuel cards for fuel usage and fraud, Garmin for dispatch, and now field service/workforce management software to tie in vehicle location data with employee productivity.”

Image courtesy of Telogis

Image courtesy of Telogis

Finding Interesting Uses for Data

The ability to monitor speeding, harsh braking, and other vehicle data gave fleet managers the ability to monitor how much fuel a vehicle was using, and much more.

“You can measure all sorts of such things as headlight usage, if the PTO is engaged, or whether the four-wheel drive is engaged. If you have a common time signal that’s your master key for all of this, you can correlate everything — you can have policy requirements, you can have driver historical records, you can look for trends before they become problems, or if they’re indicative of problems in the future,” said Weir-Jones of CalAmp. “You can do a lot of cool stuff when the data is instrumented correctly.”

This ability to track and measure everything fueled the next telematics evolution.

“You started by tracking the asset and everybody wanted to know where their asset was, utilization of the asset and things of that sort, and it slowly migrated towards the driver being an asset as well, and wanting to understand what is happening with the driver,” said Bernie Kavanagh, VP North American Fleet & Strategic Relationships for WEX.

Frey of Telogis also noted that telematics isn’t just about costs, but can be and is being used to positively impact the bottom line.

“A lot of people think about telematics as only cost-reduction tools, and they certainly are, but just as much they are a revenue generation tool if we focus on productivity — so if I can help a commercial worker do more jobs in a day and can help them to be more efficient and optimize their routes, their work schedule, the work they’re doing, the optimization of things — I can drive more revenue,” he said. “It’s not just the cost savings.”

But, those early telematics solutions were tied directly to an initial drive for fuel savings, which led to its next shift, according to Del Lisk, VP safety services for Lytx.

“Getting drivers to comply with speed rules through the GPS had the opportunity for a nice payback with reduced fuel consumption,” he said. “Going along with that reducing speed would imply some safety benefits. At a minimum it would suggest that if something happened it would be a lower severity than a driver going at a higher speed. That’s sort of how the light bulb went on that there were some safety benefits here as well.”

But, it was tying all the data together in a meaningful way that gave fleet managers the ability to use telematics to measure how safe their companies’ drivers were.

"I think the first part was getting the data together — you had speed, reference speed limits, and harsh driving events. The next evolution was incorporating that data into an algorithm and delivering more of a context and what started to be produced was a safety score,” said Ewing of Fleetmatics.

Moving Safety Front and Center

Safety or reducing risk is among the primary ways fleets are using telematics today.

There were two developments that helped to drive the transformation of telematics into a key safety tool for some fleets.

“The two big things that helped drive the focus on driver risk are real-time traffic information and real-time feedback. We have statistics that show how real-time traffic information can help the driver avoid traffic jams while traveling 16 percent fewer miles and spending 18 percent less time on the road. That in itself is something that reduces that risk, said Joe Castelli, VP commercial equipment and fleet management at LoJack.

There can be little argument that technological advancements have fueled the development of telematics into what is becoming their indispensable role in capturing all types of real-time vehicle and driver data. But, what may be the biggest factor is the role the driver is playing in evolving not the technology per se, but the way it is being used.

“I think drivers are embracing it,” said Kavanagh of WEX. “At the end of the day, they know they are in a company-owned asset, and they have a right and responsibility to be safe and if there are tools that can help them with that and help them to change their behavior then they’re all starting to understand that and embrace that.”

This has led to the development of gamification of the driver scorecards, with companies using the systems to build in some friendly competition and motivate the drivers to be better than their peers.

For LoJack, this has been a development that has been completely customer-driven and not part of its menu of services.

“Nowhere in our owner’s manual do we talk about gamification,” Castelli said. “This is some of the out-of-the-box training we’ve seen. I think a lot of the folks, whether it’s a dispatcher or a purchasing agent or CEO that once they have their fleet managed by a telematics solution, yes, we’re going to get into all of the safe driving and speeding and harsh braking and fuel economy and idling, but, again, I would say that getting driver buy in at the time of the training program, initiating gamification where it creates and fosters teamwork — you work together with colleagues with the greater goals of the company addressing safe driving — that’s where we’ve seen the creativity come about. Where we’ve seen them take our device and enhance the driver experience while reaching company goals.”

WEX’s Kavanagh, too, has seen the benefits of drivers taking an active involvement in telematics.

“We have a customer that is using the carrot vs. the stick and what their drivers do is self-report,” he said. “They run a report at the end of the day and if they have a clean report of no speeding incidents for the day, they hand that report in, and they get a gift card back. The company said that they’re not handing out as many gift cards as they were hoping they would, but they have seen a change in behavior.”

Going hand-in-glove with the gamification is instant feedback with either an audible warning or online coaching.

For Castelli, driver buy in is crucial for making a fleet’s telematics program successful.

“I put driver buy in at the top of the list because if you don’t get driver buy in, it’s not going to happen,” he said.

Optimizing the Future

While telematics has evolved from a relatively simple technology to a complex one extremely quickly, this may only be the start of where the industry is headed.

One glimpse of the future may already be available from Geotab. The hardware manufacturer and telematics provider has an open-source device that allows customers to use Geotab’s software, develop its own using a Geotab-provided software kit, or use another company’s solution.

“It’s really essential that [an open platform] happens for our overall industry,” observed Colin Sutherland, VP of sales and marketing for Geotab. “We have an appetite from customers who are becoming more data centric than software centric. That’s the most important thing we’ve come to learn over the last several years. Customers are becoming savvy in regards to the information they’re collecting and their vehicles and they want to share that data with more than just the telematics user interface — they want to share it with their payroll system, and their fleet management company, and their fuel card provider, and their safety system — so it becomes essential to the business.”

CalAmp’s Weir-Jones, echoing Sutherland, sees more access to data coming from the OEMs fueling change.

“The OEMs themselves are really expanding the vocabulary of what we can pull off the BUS from all of these vehicles, and that’s something CalAmp is really focused on. How can we take all of this information and use it?” he said.

The other technological innovation that will become more solidified over the next several years according to Driscoll of GPS Insight and Lisk of Lytx is the use of video.

“I think telematics solutions can become smarter through what’s learned in the video,” Lisk said. “For example, if someone is drifting out of a lane, in classic telematics, as long as it’s abrupt enough it will simply record that there was a sudden lane shift. The video would help detect that they drifted over the lane, and the inside view would show that the driver was distracted. That video is reviewed, and through that process you begin to learn that there are patterns of behavior that are more symptomatic of being distracted. That’s going to feed back into the vehicle telematics, and eventually vehicles will become smarter. For example, if a driver is drifting that is symptomatic of being distracted; there may be alerts in the vehicle that are more effective in warning them.”

Telogis’ Frey believes telematics’ ability to optimize business processes will be critical for the future.

“Increasingly telematics platforms are focused on optimization of the business plan, be it the work schedule, be it the route, be it the fleet, be it where I should put my facility, so increasingly we want to be out ahead of the plan and say what’s going to happen in the next hour, the next day, the next week,” he said.

This optimization will likely mean a change in the way data is delivered to fleets.

“The future of telematics is adapting data information to a customer need. It’s not software user interface,” Sutherland said. “Anybody who is selling software as a service needs to change their thinking. It’s not software as a service that you’re selling, you’re actually selling specific solutions for customers, and you’ve got to become not a commodity of user interfaces. You better become more solution oriented and address the problem you have as a business and how I can help you to solve them with simple-to-apply tool and that’s where this industry is going to go. It’s all going to be very solution driven to the client, and it’s exciting times.”

Future telematics solutions may see another significant transformation into predictive analytics platforms.

“I think over the years, the telematics companies are going to be asked to develop more complex algorithms about how to tie data all together into something meaningful like a safety score,” Fleetmatics’ Ewing predicted. “I could see trends over time about having to be predictive over being analytical. I think predictive will be a day that we get to at some point."

About the author
Chris Wolski

Chris Wolski

Former Managing Editor

Chris Wolski is the former managing editor of Automotive Fleet, Fleet Financials, and Green Fleet.

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