Citroën's decision to equip its new Berlingo, as well as Dispatch and Relay, with Trafficmaster Smartnav satellite navigation and stolen vehicle tracking as standard isn't the only initiative it's taken in the telematics market. It's additionally offering operators who acquire these vehicles access to a Trafficmaster package called Fleet Director for around £25 plus VAT per van per month.
It allows firms to see exactly where their vehicles are when they're out on the road, tell customers how long it will be before their deliveries arrive and redirect drivers as and when necessary.
If Fleet Director has to select the next available vehicle for a job it will find the one that can get to the location concerned the fastest given available live traffic data. That may not be the one that's physically closest.
Managers are warned about unscheduled halts and deviations from a van's usual route, and alerted if it is being moved when it shouldn't be; at the weekend or late in the evening, for instance.
That can work in the driver's favour because it gives him a defence against any claim by the authorities that he gets private use of his vehicle; a taxable benefit. If its wheels weren't turning, then it wasn't being used.
Firms can be warned if one of their vans is about to enter the London congestion tax zone and ensure that the levy is paid. If they're hit by an unjustified penalty charge then they can use the data to prove that their vehicle wasn't in the zone at the time.
A close eye can be kept on speeding and action taken against the worst offenders. It needn't necessarily be punitive; they may simply need to be sent on a driver training course.
All the information collected by telematics helps operators work out just how efficient the delivery routes they have chosen actually are, and if there are ways in which they can be improved. A few changes could mean that more deliveries can be made using fewer vehicles and less fuel.
According to Traffcmaster, analysis of the experience of some 4,500 users of Teletrac — the name used for Fleet Director in the USA — shows that users can expect to benefit from productivity gains of 12 per cent. Fuel bills typically fall by 13 per cent, overtime by 15 per cent and unauthorised use of vehicles by 12 per cent.
“Operators sometimes need to show that a driver arrived at a particular location on time because they've got service levels to maintain,” says Cybit's group sales and marketing director, John Wisdom. Information recorded by a tracking system allows them to do so.
If you really want to be sophisticated then you can allow customers password-protected access to your web site so that they can view the delivery data they need without having to get in touch by phone.
Minorplanet points out that its Vehicle Management Information telematics technology can be linked automatically to a firm's back office functions. This means that driver working hours can be inputted into a payroll package without any manual intervention.
There's another sound reason why van operators should think about investing in a tracking package and that's the duty of care towards mobile workers imposed on businesses by the new Corporate Manslaughter Act. “Saying that it's up to the driver what he does and how he behaves once he's out on the road is no longer an excuse,” says Quartix sales and marketing director, Andy Kirk.
His firm offers a telematics package for around 66p per van per day, including airtime and the necessary onboard hardware.
“The onboard tracking unit is about the size of a matchbox, including the antenna,” he says. “It can be fitted in no more than 30 to 45 minutes and we've got 32 installation engineers who go out to operators to do the work providing countrywide coverage.
“What's more, in our system's case communications are not disrupted if the vehicle has an athermic windscreen designed to reflect heat.” Such screens can sometimes cause problems.
A telematics system allows you to prove that you haven't been forcing an individual to make too many deliveries during the course of the working day and that you haven't failed to ensure that he takes regular breaks. Tired drivers have accidents.
It also means you can spot when a van driver is in difficulties — a sudden deviation off-route could be because the vehicle has been hijacked — and raise the alarm.
The package chosen can usually incorporate a panic button that a driver can hit if he feels threatened. It automatically alerts the depot that danger is afoot.
Depending on what's been selected it may also let whoever is behind the wheel send and receive short messages and maybe e-mails, and access the internet courtesy of a PC and display screen. That's just so long as the vehicle is stationery given ever-stricter legislation governing the use of communications equipment in cabs.
“So far as Duty of Care is concerned we've developed a little programme that asks a driver to confirm that he's carried out a daily check on the condition of his van; tyres, lights, fluid levels and so on,” says Blackburn. “It also gives him the opportunity to report any defects he finds.”
If they're sufficiently serious then appropriate action will have to be taken before he ventures out on the road.
Increasingly the individual concerned may be equipped with a PDA or smartphone that he can take with him to whatever task he's tackling and that allows him to send and receive texts and e-mails. Sat Nav devices are equally portable; TomTom is a prime example.
TomTom Work, TomTom's business-to-business division, can offer its device with Webfleet, a web-based tool that allows operators to see where their vans are and stay in touch with them. One of the big advantages of a portable, rather than a built-in unit, is that it can be switched easily from vehicle to vehicle, although it is more likely to be lost, damaged or stolen.
One TomTom Work customer is South East England-based tile supplier The Tile Source. With 15 vehicles operating from five locations it makes 1,100 deliveries weekly.
“TomTom Work's Connected Navigation technology helps our drivers get through traffic quickly and easily and enables them to find delivery points, which can often be unsigned building sites, without difficulty,” says systems administrator, Simon Bond.
“The map feature means that our customer co-ordinators know exactly where vehicles are and this allows them to give precise and reliable delivery times, with consistent on-time delivery prompting repeat business,” he continues. “We can also deal more quickly with vehicle breakdowns, resulting in less disruption to our customers.
“Because the navigation feature automatically selects the optimum route we are seeing a reduction in the mileages our vehicles cover, which means a significant saving on our fuel bills. Better navigation also leaves drivers to focus on safer driving leading to fewer accidents which, together with our ability to track our vehicles, has resulted in a reduction in our insurance premiums.
“Delivery runs are being completed sooner, reducing overtime and cutting the number of missed deliveries,” Bond says. “What's more, we can use TomTom Webfleet reports to validate time sheets.
“All of these features result in savings that go straight to the bottom line, improving the company's profitability.”
MiX Telematics is offering a Fleet Manager onboard computer combined with a Garmin portable navigation device that allows messages to be sent and received and will guide the user to his destination once a job has been accepted. The van is tracked at the same time. The package is marketed under the FM Navigator banner.
MiX has also come up with technology that permits information on up to 20 vehicle functions to be drawn from the onboard CAN-bus of a suitably equipped vehicle. They include coolant temperature, oil pressure, if the brakes are being applied, if the clutch is engaged and the position of the accelerator pedal as well as other factors such as fuel consumption and speed.
It's not just vehicles and their drivers that need monitoring. The loads they're carrying need a close eye kept on them as well, especially if they're refrigerated.
That's why Masternaut Three X has just launched something called MasterCold. It gives firms the ability to monitor the temperature of up to four fridge compartments on a vehicle over the web. An alert linked to live tracking is triggered if the temperature moves outside the permitted range.
Virtually all tracking systems are web-based these days. As a consequence you can access data from anywhere that has an internet link.
“It also means that you don't have to load software on to your PC that may interfere with what's already on there and will have to be licensed,” points out Kirk. “You don't have to worry about backing up data either.
The sophistication of current sat nav and tracking software was unthinkable five years ago and we are sure we will be saying the same in another five years time. This is not just another incarnation of Big Brother, it's a sensible use of technology to increase efficiency and reduce costs.