Smartphones may not hold all the cards for connected fleets

Perhaps in a perfect world, drivers would connect themselves with the onboard telematics rigs the carmakers created and installed for them and never want to mess with any interfering outside systems. It really should have worked out that way, except that, of course, smartphones got into everyone's hands first.

Once they did, they embedded themselves straight into their owners' psyches like some sort of multi-functional, electronic security blanket. In a perfect world, drivers would turn off their smartphones whenever they climbed into their vehicles. But instead, they keep them on and more often than not, they prefer using the GPS and navigation apps on their phones over the ones installed in their vehicle's head units. But even when they do use the onboard systems, they'll have their smartphones on and working in conjunction with it. Like it or not, the connected car space became a “bring-your-own-device proposition and there isn't much to suggest this might change anytime soon.

Even though the demands of connected fleet-management are far more rigorous than with connected cars, the same bring-your-own-device sensibility has spilled over into that space and by all indications, it isn't going away either. “Our research shows us that 73% of the US commercial fleet drivers carry smartphones with them on the job,” says Deke Phillips, director, commercial insurance data Solutions at LexisNexis. “Of course these numbers are going to continue to rise as the benefits to having smartphone-equipped fleets far outweigh the costs to fleet managers and business owners.” Phillips says that today's smartphones, whose advanced technology includes accelerometers, GPS chipsets, and digital compasses, is good enough to capture and process driving behaviour data for driver risk scoring which will enable fleet managers to provide driver coaching and feedback, which will ultimately lower accident rates and improve overall fleet efficiency.

But while the future of connected fleet management may clearly be a hybrid one, there is some disagreement whether it actually belongs to smartphones and not with something more robust. Smartphones may work fine for ordinary drivers but according to Chad Sallman, senior business development manager for Fleet Telematics and Commercial Fleet Solutions at Garmin, a leading hardware manufacturer, they will ultimately prove unequal to the challenge. There's no commercial truck navigation you can put on a smartphone and expect it to work well,” he says, giving a for-instance. “It's very difficult to run a mobile data terminal functionality from a smart phone, even though, technically, yes, you can send messages and complete orders on a smartphone but it's not ideal or practical.”

“In theory, smartphones should work fine,” he says. “If a customer says 'I've got my own device, can I just load your apps onto it, of course the partner will say yes, In theory, it should work.” But the reality is that the requirements of connected fleets are much heavier than most smartphones are built to deliver. “Those devices are not purpose-built to be used in vehicles where there's dust, shock, vibration, extreme temperatures, where the device is being constantly moved in and out of the vehicle, not to mention the struggle of all the different devices the customer wants to bring to the table, because what they want to install is usually not a 'one size fits all' app. You have to tweak your app for different screen sizes, different resolutions, different functionalities and so on,” says Sallman. “All it takes is for them to manage a Samsung Galaxy tablet in a fleet management space and they'll find out pretty quickly it doesn't work very well.”

Instead, Sallman believes purpose-built tables will likely end up ruling the future connected fleet space. They will be built to meet the requirements for connected trucking, allowing the driver to interface with the vehicle as well as with the back office. What is key, is that regardless of whether the device ends up being a smartphone or a tablet, it needs to integrate with the systems that the OEM has already installed. Deke Phillips agrees. “I'm convinced that integration with OEM systems is the way forward, made possible via standardised platforms such as Apple CarPlay and Google Android Auto,” he says. “Drivers don't want to have to deal with a separate set of apps and controls in a proprietary platform when they get their vehicle. Auto-syncing with whatever smartphone you happen to have is much more efficient, and for fleets, this means specialized apps designed for these in-car platforms, which will enable everything from route optimisation to usage-based insurance and beyond.”

Another 'bring-your-own-device' that is likely to play heavily in the connected managed fleet of the near future is the wearable. Wearables, of course, come in many forms, and even though the wearable that has completely grabbed the public's attention is Google Glass, this technology, at least in its present form, is unlikely to play any real role in either regular driving or in connected fleet operations. It is simply too unintuitive and flat-out dangerous to use. What will very neatly fit itself into the connected, managed fleet space are things like fitness tracker and the reason for this is fairly obvious.

“The long-haul truck driver is probably the most unfit person in America,” says Sallman. They spend long hours sitting and not moving. They don't get exercise and often, when they drive too long, they might start losing alertness. “Having a wellness program in place for the drivers might involve telling them, while on a break, that they need to walk, such and such a distance, in order to burn off a certain number of calories,” says Sallman. He adds that if a driver is about to nod off, the monitoring wearable will alert the manager. The same thing if he is about to have a heart attack. This could not just save a rig and a load of cargo but also the driver's life. Sallman also points out that biometric monitoring will also let fleet managers know when the truck has been hijacked, because somebody else will be driving it. Deke Phillips agrees that wearables could provide a lot of benefit but doubts that they will have much impact on the fleet technology ecosystem in the short or mid-term. “I don't see this technology becoming widespread or having any material impact on accident reduction or driver safety on a wide scale in the next three-to-five years,” he says. “Further out, however, biometrics will play a much larger role, but serious privacy issues will have to be addressed.”

Another way the 'bring-your-own-device' strategy will likely change the face of connected fleet management is the increased use of gamification to improve driver behaviour, safety and overall operational efficiency, There is a saying that humans didn't invent horse racing; horses did. They are naturally competitive animals. So, of course, are humans. “We all know that positive reinforcement works, so rewarding drivers with meaningful recognition or prizes for good driving only makes sense,” says Phillips. He points out that another benefit to gamification is that is reduces privacy concerns among drivers by introducing more transparency among co-workers and managers.

“I believe the industry is still in the early phases of adoption and more piloting and testing is needed among larger data-sets to nail down best practices,” says Phillips.

Catch up will all the latest at Connected Fleets USA 2015 this November 16-17.

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