Developing stripped-down telematics for SME fleets

For small fleet telematics, it’s too early to tell if companies are shaping new uses and challenges, or simply speeding up processes and reinforcing relationships that are already in place.

There is some indication that new functions will emerge out of the analysis of data produced by telematics but, as in other domains, there is a need for creativity in exploring how a variety of data sources can be linked together, rather than rationalising existing processes.

Telematics for fleets with between two to 50 vehicles has primarily been used for tracking the location of drivers in order to ensure that vehicles and drivers are where they’re supposed to be. Some applications encourage good driver performance and lower liability by collecting data about breaking and acceleration and providing instant feedback to drivers through beeps and buzzes. Telematics is also used for preventive maintenance by collecting information about the condition of vehicles, thus pre-empting expensive repairs. The vehicles generate tens of thousands of data points that could become useful by-products but the general focus is on safety as a conduit for increased efficiency and savings.

Roni Taylor, vice-president for industry relations at Spireon, explains that, in the smallest fleets, often the owner of the company doubles as fleet manager and is also an electrician, or a heating and ventilation technician. It’s crucial for these business people to have fleet management functions automated and simplified. The owner can be on the road, answering calls from customers while keeping track of where employees are. Doubling as a dispatcher, he or she can send technicians to job sites more quickly, according to which technician is the closest or best qualified. Systems of payment for refuelling using fuel cards are also integrated into the small-fleet management system, tracking expenses, fuel consumption and, for cities, emissions. For operators of very small, low-margin businesses, easy to use tools for streamlining processes can make a big difference.

Taylor said: “Products for small fleets have to be simple, user-friendly, and add value straight off the shelf. Often the tools are geared to improvements in safety and efficiency, helping the owner, the driver and the public.”

Telematics is a powerful tool for small fleet owners for managing liability and reputationby reducing and avoiding accidents. Many of Spireon’s GPS tracking products include driver behaviour alerts such as speed, hard braking, rapid acceleration and hard cornering. Spireon also has a patent-pending driver performance program that gamifies the teaming and scoring of drivers and features constructive coaching feedback.

Taylor added: “Telematics data continues to increase the number of sources of “breadcrumb” information that can be pieced together in understanding sequences of events. Yes, everything we envisioned about Big Brother is happening but there is a high level of acceptance because of a number of benefits, including increased security for the drivers. Experience shows that having more information is actually in their favour.

Small businesses could benefit from the expanded use of technology that is open source and compatible across platforms, and across industries, allowing for the design of systems that incorporate sources beyond the fleet vehicles themselves. One such small company employs a cross-platform application for bins used in manufacturing. The containers are equipped with tags that signal when the bins are full and ready for pickup. Combined with fleet-management telematics, this leads to savings through on-the-fly routing and dispatch. The data from these types of transactions is fed back into predictive analytics, further improving efficiency.

In another example, the unusual business of shopping cart retrieval makes use of cross-platform telematics. Matthew Dodson, vice-president of CART California Shopping Cart Retrieval Corporation, based in Burbank, discussed how CART does not have its own fleet but taps into the services of three contractors.

They manage forty subcontractor drivers who each retrieve shopping carts from public spaces in California and northern Nevada and return them to the stores from which they were taken. CART’s clients are 6,000 grocery and other types of retail stores and municipalities. The freelance drivers have local knowledge of specific neighbourhoods and streets and know where the shopping carts are frequently dumped.

The CartSnap Proof of Delivery System (PODS) is a Smartphone application for which the driver photographs the shopping cart where it is found and the app tags it with a date and location. The driver chooses from a list the number of carts found at the location then chooses from a list the store from where it was taken, photographs the cart on the truck and, finally, sends a photo and electronic signature of the manager who accepts receipt of the cart to the CartSnap servers.

The company maps where the shopping carts are found and provide evidence of the items handed off to the store, closing the loop on the cart retrieval process. The software does not require any specialised knowledge or training to use.

Ron Jimenez and his partner Che-Chuen Ho, through their venture, CartSnap Enterprises, created the custom-designed application. The partners are actually experts in electronic medical records technology. Ron is a part-time paediatrician who has a special interest in food retail, environmental and food justice issues and is devoted to helping communities. For that reason, the partners also have a publicly available free CartSnap iPhone app that citizens can use for alerting municipal governments and CART about the location of abandoned shopping carts in public places.

Again, the product is based on photos of shopping carts tagged with time and location. The broader benefits are that, over time, the data from the mapping of abandoned carts will help build a case for cities about where they need to focus resources and, for stores, fewer carts need to be replaced. To date this app has saved an estimated 1.2 tons of carbon.

Matthew Dodson of CART explained that, based on their successful collaboration, they were again working with CartSnap in order to expand into coupon processing. Because CART does not have its own fleet, the toughest challenge they faced in adopting telematics was the fact that their app had to work flawlessly on each contractor’s device, on iOS and Android, and across different versions of the platforms. Cross-platform functionality allows CART to make the most of a network of dispersed, locally based drivers, which could point the way to mixing and matching of new products and services to solve other challenges.

For a fleet industry overview see The Connected Fleet & Data Services Report 2015-16

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