Connected-vehicle technology touches nearly aspect of fleet-based businesses.

Connected-vehicle technology touches nearly aspect of fleet-based businesses.

Photo by Suriyapong Thongsawang via Getty Images.

The "Connected Fleet Guide" is an annual journey into the rapidly expanding world of possibilities afforded by connected-vehicle technology to forward-thinking fleets. At the heart of the conversation is the "rEvolutionary" shift from, basic, serviceable, dots-on-a-map vehicle-tracking systems to full suites of services and solutions that take business owners and fleet managers beyond the vehicle and into new zones of operational efficiency, data-enhanced safety and compliance campaigns, and highly informed decision-making.

What can telematics do for your fleet? In a connected and highly mobile world, even more than you might think.

Improved Vehicle Utilization

The sheer volume of data generated by connected-vehicle technology is changing the way fleet managers think about utilization, a legendarily critical concern for any fleet-based business, no matter its size. Traditional utilization analyses revolved around two key datasets: vehicle location and engine runtime. Those metrics are no less important now. But "big data" can offer so much more.

The ultimate utilization analysis should answer every question you have about how, when, and why your vehicles are being used. Seasonal work is a factor. Highly specialized vehicles and upfits are another, not to mention the costs of fuel, maintenance, and repairs.

A high-caliber analysis can get pretty detailed pretty quickly. But many current telematics systems are up to the task, and adoption could result in anything from a series of slight adjustments to a completely new operational model, up to and including the deletion of low-demand vehicles or the sharing of some vehicles with other divisions or fleets.

Insight into Rightsizing

No one wants to be downsized, but every fleet wants to be rightsized — whatever that may entail. Data produced by connected-vehicle technology can be leveraged to make better decisions about vehicle type, size, and capacity. One example is the trend toward replacing light-duty pickup trucks with compact vans, many of which offer similar capacity for a lower acquisition cost with the added benefits of a reduced upfit cycle and enhanced fuel economy, security, and ease of operation.

Of course, the rightsizing sword cuts both ways. If a van fleet is precluded from toting outsize loads or accessing remote worksites, a light- or medium-duty truck might be the only way to maximize business opportunities and get some jobs done.

Whether the goal is capacity optimization, efficiency and productivity improvement, or good, old-fashioned cost reduction, data can help drive the analysis and make good decisions easier and faster.

Skills, Equipment, and Materials

Telematics is not just for vehicles anymore. Many systems now allow fleets to "tag" towables and...

Telematics is not just for vehicles anymore. Many systems now allow fleets to "tag" towables and other equipment.

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The conversation that begins with utilization and rightsizing can continue with a short but powerful list of beyond-the-vehicle metrics. By "tagging" the professional skills of driver-employees and the equipment and materials their vehicles carry, fleets are working with providers to get rich insights into route optimization and the way urgent-response calls are handled. Sending the right vehicle to the right job might not be enough. Sending the right person with the right gear can be just as critical to an efficient fleet operation.

Focusing on skills, equipment, and materials can lead to increased revenue as well. Drivers can be empowered to identify needed services before a client or customer is even aware of them, request approval, and call in whatever is needed to the do the job — be it specialized or towable equipment, tools, or parts — or load them on their next run.

Much like a utilization analysis, the tagging process can get very granular very quickly, but it can pay off with more work, greater job satisfaction, and highly impressed customers.

Geofencing Capabilities 

Geofencing is of late considered a "Level One" functionality of even the most basic telematics systems, and it remains a particularly useful feature for fleets concerned about vehicle theft or employee misuse. Drivers and supervisors can be alerted when their vehicle crosses a predetermined line or boundary or leaves the lot without authorization. Geofences also can help avoid citations for commercial vehicles that don't belong in restricted zones.

Geofences also produce a somewhat undervalued dataset that more fleets have begun to dig into. Historical patterning can demonstrate overlaps and overloads in some regions or neighborhoods, lending new insights to your next utilization analysis or rightsizing campaign. More advanced analyses could include traffic patterns, school zones, speed traps, and difficult-to-navigate roadways.

Insightful Safety Training

Employees bring a lifetime of driving experience to each new job, including such bad habits as jackrabbit starts, harsh braking, and hard cornering. These behaviors may seem innocuous to the driver who arrives home safe every night and may have never been involved in a collision or even received a speeding ticket. But their odds are greatly increased, and the proverbial clock is ticking for the least cautious drivers on your payroll.

The most severe incidents can result in injuries to or the death of your employee, another motorist, or a pedestrian or cyclist. Any collision can lead to a costly insurance claim or lawsuit. Moving violations represent an unexpected cost for the driver, and a bad record could take them off the road, possibly for a prolonged period.

Telematics can help. The best coaching is highly individualized. Lecturing a roomful of drivers — some safe, some not — on the evils of speeding is far less effective than a face-to-face review of a detailed report. Speeders can be redressed while still in transit. Rapid accelerators and harsh brakers can be road-trained. For a creative supervisor, the possibilities are endless.

Incidentally, coaching isn't just for your least cautious drivers. Fleets can recognize and reward their best drivers for keeping themselves, their fellow citizens, and their companies safe. Telematics data can be used to "gamify" the pursuit of safety, ranking drivers to recognize the safest among them and stir the competitive spirit that lies within us all.

Onboard Video Capabilities 

In the fleet world, particularly the heavy-duty segment, Big Brother really is watching. In-cab and external cameras are rapidly proliferating in commercial vehicles. The industry has come a long way from the VHS-based onboard video systems of the past. Fleet owners are creating permanent, objective records of each driver's and vehicle's time on the road, collected by cameras and archived in cloud servers.

The objective is not to monitor driver-employees but to capably and intelligently respond when a collision occurs or an unsafe-driving complaint is filed. The video becomes an eyewitness that can accurately reconstruct the driver's behaviors and reactions and, depending on the extent of the camera coverage, the position of the involved vehicles.

Over-the-road fleets have also begun to invest more heavily in "smart" cameras that can tell when a driver is distracted or drowsy and signal the system to alert them and their supervisor before they drive off the road or into another vehicle or obstacle.

Systems Integrations

Some connected-vehicle interfaces empower employees to identify needed services, obtain...

Some connected-vehicle interfaces empower employees to identify needed services, obtain authorization, and requisition materials.

Photo by Martin Prescott via Getty Images.

Fleet management information systems (FMIS) rely on cloud technology and open or closed platforms to connect disparate data feeds, often on a single fleet-facing dashboard. Whether built upon an open architecture, an application programming interface, or a series of custom integrations, these systems are designed to offer new, high-level insights to the fleets that demand them.

Vehicle-tracking and safety systems are obvious candidates, but the list doesn't end there. Fuel cards, fleet maintenance solutions, toll-management systems, and fleet leasing applications all are in play, as are HR, accounting, and insurance software.

The goal? Make all data retrieval easier and less time-consuming, and make critical data available whenever the fleet manager needs it.

ELD Compliance

The federal Electronic Logging Device mandate entered Phase Two on Dec. 18, 2017. The "Phase-In Compliance Phase" requires mandatory ELD usage for every driver among affected fleets; automatic onboard recording devices are grandfathered until Dec. 16, 2019. At that point, the "Full Compliance Phase" will begin, and ELDs will be mandatory.

Early returns are promising. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has reported significant drops in hours of service violations among fleets using the devices. Other potential benefits include reduced administrative work hours, automatically generated reports, and a more streamlined inspection process.

Telematics providers are doing their part by offering or connecting with ELD solutions to foster a comprehensive approach to this critical compliance concern.

Customer Service

Connected fleets improve customer service by offering greater transparency and accountability, typically with little human effort required. Clients want and deserve to know when their service provider will arrive, how long a visit is likely to take, and how long they were there in the customer's absence. When and if a complaint is filed, fleet managers want an electronic record that can prove or disprove the claim.

Next-level service could include an automated call-in number or customer-facing mobile app they can use to keep tabs on location and estimated time of arrival. And much like safety training, customer service training need not be limited to punishing those who fail to arrive or leave on time. Driver-employees who hit their marks will just as surely be recognized by the electronic record.

Corporate Citizenry

Good customer service extends to the community at large, whether drivers or fleet managers are aware of it or not. When the name of the company is emblazoned on the sides of a truck or van, the vehicle becomes a corporate ambassador. Unsafe driving behaviors are ascribed to the vehicle's owner, and rightly so. Vehicles that suffer undue wear-and-tear or become dilapidated due to overuse or shoddy maintenance project a negative image that could deter current or potential customers or clients.

Connected-vehicle technology addresses each of these concerns. By keeping drivers on their best behavior and ensuring every vehicle is operated safely, securely, and in a manner that promotes long-term viability, fleet managers and business owners take long strides toward improving operations while maintaining a positive corporate identity.