Telematics systems and in-cab satellite navigation units are really coming of age. They can improve an operator’s productivity and reduce costs, as well as making a driver’s life easier and much more relaxed. Steve Banner takes a look at the latest developments.
Even the most competent and experienced van driver may occasionally drive like a numbskull. Some van drivers alas behave like idiots every time they get behind the wheel, endangering themselves and other road users.
Vipul Palan, commercial director at TMS2, believes that his company has come up with a way of reminding both types of individual not to be foolish. The Driver Feedback module is an in-cab green/amber/red traffic-light-type device that shows a red light when the driver is doing something that’s at best ill-advised and at worst downright dangerous. That could be for example speeding, over-revving or excessively harsh braking. “Driver training is fine, but unfortunately drivers who have been on courses can revert to their previous bad practices over time,” contends Palan. “The in-cab unit reminds them not to.”
The unit can form part of a telematics system that allows managers to see how many times the red light has been illuminated as well as whereabouts the vehicle is. The device’s presence should help ensure that a firm’s employees drive more sensibly, he says, resulting in less accident damage, less wear and tear on components, lower fuel consumption and CO2 emissions, and fewer speeding tickets.
The information produced by the system could be used to create a league table showing the best and worst performers, Palan suggests, with the former receiving an award. That way, poorer performing drivers may be encouraged to raise their game. The package costs £45 per van per month.
Even without an in-cab traffic light, drivers who know that a tracking system has been fitted to their van usually behave more prudently because they’re aware they’re being monitored. That isn’t the only benefit tracking brings, however, says Christian Payne, head of marketing at Minorplanet.
For a kick-off, drivers are more productive. They’re less inclined to start late, finish early and extend their breaks excessively because they know that everything they are doing is being recorded. Because operators can see whereabouts each van is, they can direct the nearest one to a customer who needs an urgent visit. Maybe the driver is also a service and repair engineer, and a piece of vitally important equipment in a factory has suddenly ceased working.
“You have to get your costs under control, now more than ever, so that you don’t end up exceeding your overdraft limit,” says V-SOL managing director, David Isom. “You cannot afford to send somebody 80 miles to do a job when one of your other drivers was just round the corner and you didn’t know.”
If they’re being tracked then drivers are less likely to wander off route, wasting diesel. That’s one reason why Asda has opted to use Isotrak’s Active Transport Management System (ATMS) to control its fleet of 800 home delivery vans. Tighter control means more deliveries per shift and the ability to deliver within more tightly-defined time frames reckons the supermarket giant. That spells better customer service. As indicated earlier, it also means better behaviour at the wheel.
Asda is using ATMS to provide remote monitoring of the chilled and frozen food compartments on its vehicles. This allows managers to anticipate fridge unit failure and take remedial action rather than end up having to dispose of an over-heated load. It also ensures that the doors to temperature controlled areas aren’t left open for too long.
Sensors are fitted to the load area’s doors, and to the cab’s passenger door, to boost security and detect unauthorised access. They’re fitted to the bonnet as well to ensure that drivers open it and conduct all the necessary daily checks prior to departure.
Tracking packages spell improved security in other ways too says Payne. If a van is stolen or hi-jacked, then the owner can see where it’s gone, and notify the police. “Such monitoring helps employers fulfil their duty of care obligations to their employees,” he points out. Lone workers are always at risk of attack.
That’s a point not lost on Masternaut Three X. It’s come up with a wristwatch called LoKate that also works as a miniature mobile phone and GPS receiver with a panic button. If a worker feels threatened, then he can discreetly press the button in order to summon help via a control centre that’s in operation round-the-clock, seven days a week. The caller’s location can be pinpointed on Microsoft’s Virtual Earth map and the centre can then alert the emergency services or one of the threatened worker’s colleagues.
Still with security, geofencing can be used to alert a van’s owner if it is being driven out of a depot at 2.00am when it should be stationary. Odds are that it’s either being used illicitly by the authorised driver, or being pinched.
Other benefits that tracking can bring include the ability to dispute wrongly-issued parking tickets, to prove that vehicles are not being used privately — that should reduce the driver’s income tax liability — and to check on vans going in and out of the London congestion tax zone. If you know which of your mobiles has entered it you can pay the iniquitous tax being levied on you before you get an even more iniquitous fine.
Tracking systems are frequently linked with a messaging service accessed via an in-cab unit that allows drivers and operators to communicate with each other. It may incorporate a selection of standardised messages that the driver can send — ‘customer out’, for instance — plus the ability to add some text giving a fuller explanation of what’s going on.
“Something else you can opt to do as part of our VMIgreenlight package is programme it with five phone numbers linked to buttons one through to five,” says Payne. If the driver hits number one, for instance, then he will always be put through to the office, while if he hits number two he will ring the phone number of his next drop point.
“That number will automatically change as he makes his deliveries during the course of the day and you can have either a soft on-screen dial-up or a hard button dial-up,” he says.
Programmed remotely, the system prevents the driver from calling any number he fancies and restricts incoming calls. Usually only the office will be able to contact him. An emergency button will be fitted that he can hit if he’s under attack.
Among the businesses that have signed up to VMIgreenlight is property maintenance specialist Gentoo Group. The Sunderland-based firm uses it to control all 345 of its vehicles. “By constantly monitoring usage we can instantly move underused vehicles to locations where they can be used more effectively,” says transport manager, Ian Bell. “This brings about a significant reduction in the number we have to purchase or lease and that in turn drives down the cost of fuel, servicing and other transport-related expenses.”
“Looking at utilisation levels is vital in the current financial climate,” agrees John Wisdom, group sales and marketing director at Cybit. Its Fleetstar-Online tracking system is now being used by the power services division of Enterprise to track its entire light commercial fleet. Its engineers maintain overhead power lines and substations nationwide for utilities such as Scottish Power and EDF Energy.
One of the advantages of tracking is that it can be used to prove that a driver was at a particular destination when he said he was. That’s true, says Isom, but only up to a point.
Its dependability falls apart if the van operator has specified a cheap and nasty antenna and if the whole system has been badly installed in his vehicles, he warns. If that’s the case you may not be able to depend on what the system is telling you. “Remember that you’re relying on a satellite signal that’s one-thousandth the strength of a television signal and needs a direct line of sight,” he says. Not only will the system be inaccurate. It may decide not to work at all. “I well remember when we fitted 130 cheap antennae and they all failed,” he says. “It cost me several thousand pounds to replace them all.”
The data that can be gleaned from a tracking system can be used as a planning tool. Careful analysis may indicate that with a bit of reorganisation you can handle the volume of goods you are currently delivering with a dozen 3.5-tonners with ten instead. Do so and you can save the running costs of two vans and the wages of two drivers.
You may be able to save yourself lots of time and cut your fuel bills simply by persuading half-a-dozen big city customers to accept deliveries at 10.00am (when the rush hour has died down) rather than at 8.30am, when it’s in full swing. That way your driver won’t spend so much time stuck in traffic, wasting diesel.
Further analysis might reveal that schedules can be re-jigged to allow drivers to make one or two more calls daily without being obliged to speed and without experiencing undue stress. Over the course of a year that will spell a major increase in productivity.
If you’ve only got a handful of vans then you’ll probably be able to figure out the changes you need to make yourself. A big fleet, however, is likely to need some routing and scheduling software to crunch the numbers. It’s also likely to need somebody who knows the business well enough to spot when the software has come up with a suggestion that is perfectly logical in theory, but completely ridiculous in practice.
Turning to satellite navigation, one useful feature for van operators has been incorporated by Navevo in its ProNav PNN-200 package. It allows the driver to enter the length, width and height of his vehicle along with its weight and details of the cargo he is carrying. Armed with this data, it goes on to calculate a route that should ensure that he is not sent down unsuitable roads — ones with weight limits for instance — or faced with other obstructions, including low bridges. It also warns of hazards such as high crosswinds and will automatically re-route the driver accordingly if needs be.
Such an approach is invaluable to drivers of heavy trucks, but is likely to prove useful to people in charge of Lutons and high roof panel vans as well. They too can be bashed by overhead obstacles and taking an empty Luton across a big bridge in a howling gale is not an experience for the faint-hearted.
Sat nav systems should ideally include clear onscreen mapping as well as verbal turn left/turn right instructions, so we’re pleased to hear that Trafficmaster has launched a colour touchscreen option for its Smartnav package that provides detailed maps.
The new Colour Touchscreen displays the vehicle’s location, direction and speed and gives a continuous updated estimated time of arrival and distance to the destination. The screen also provides visual alerts to the London Congestion Charging zone and to speed camera locations.
As well as sat nav Trafficmaster markets a telematics-based vehicle management system known as Fleet Director. It has recently been enhanced by the availability of an in-cab message display terminal, and one of the latest businesses to opt for Fleet Director is construction industry machinery specialist Liebherr. It’s being used to help manage 90 vehicles employed by the company’s UK service engineers.
In the longer term legislation is likely to require all vehicles to be fitted with tracking devices on the production line so that the authorities can keep tabs on them no matter where they are in Europe. It’s a development viewed with concern by privacy watchdogs and with undisguised horror by, among others, the Association of British Drivers.
It will be interesting to see how far mandatory installation will truly benefit vehicle owners and how far it will represent yet another attempt by government to snoop on the public; for our own good, of course. We know which outcome we’d bet on.
In this day and age of low operating margins some sort of telematics system is almost becoming de rigeur. Combine it with an in-cab sat nav screen and it’s the best of both worlds. And there is no shortage of packages available to suit every fleet size and pocket.