Telematics is a mature industry in the UK. Commonplace among van fleets, its ability to monitor and record vehicle location, condition, speed and fuel economy, plus driving style, attention or inattention, has made it a recognised – and largely accepted – tool of the trade. However, that same ability to create mountains of data has historically caused some downsides too, as easy ways to sift, interpret, or highlight the context behind those millions of miles driven, can prove elusive. 

Newer telematics systems with video and artificial intelligence embedded – monitoring the road ahead and the driver too – have the ability to record that ‘context’ and although in ways that might initially seem to invade drivers’ privacy, can end up being their saviour. Richard Lane, commercial director of VisionTrack telematics business, which counts supermarket giant Tesco as a client, tells a chilling but ultimately reassuring tale of just such a case from a transport business MD who had recently installed a video-enabled system but then reported one of his drivers had knocked down a jogger. The driver said the jogger was wearing headphones and had ran out into the road without looking but, “as there were no witnesses to the accident, the driver was arrested on the grounds of death by dangerous driving,” Lane recalls. Luckily VisionTrack’s video footage was able to corroborate the driver’s story, “and it went from the police treating the driver with the utmost suspicion to the utmost compassion,” Lane continues. 

The insurance company was thus able to come to a quick ‘no-fault’ decision and even the bereaved family could gain some closure from knowing that it was a tragic accident resulting from a momentary lapse of attention, rather than something more sinister, which might have otherwise have had to go through the courts for months or years, and at great emotional and financial expense for all involved.

Away from such sad and extreme examples, new telematics tech can fundamentally help in much more everyday scenarios too. “It’s inevitable that big fleets will still have accidents,” says Lane, “but video footage allows greater control of the incidents. We’ve seen a 40% reduction in accidents and accident costs year-on-year with this technology. Accidents are less frequent and less expensive when they do occur as they tend to be less severe, and third party costs are easier to control.” 

Of course this is partly because drivers know they are being monitored, but also because fleet managers can leave some of the mountains of analytical legwork of potentially dangerous driving incidents to the system’s computing power to review, like harsh braking and acceleration. “The data used to be only recorded on an SD card that fleet managers would only look at when it was too late, after a serious accident,” says Lane. “It wouldn’t catch all the near misses that might have led to that event.”

This preventative capability within new telematics systems, is something Steve Thomas, MD of Ctrack also advocates, with a particular emphasis on ease of use. “We work hard with customers to find out what they need from what can sometimes be a data overload,” he tells What Van? 

“With our system it’s a piece of cake for fleet managers to set up their own thresholds.” 

That might mean setting alerts only if a driver exceeds a speed limit by 15mph in a 20-30mph zone or being able to tell if mobile engineers started late or finished early. Or setting alert levels for harsh acceleration and braking according to the weight of their vehicles and their usual loads (and fragility). As Thomas continues: “Operators delivering fine-bone china or wine bottles will probably want to fine-tune their alert levels more than those shifting aggregate or sand.” 

Drivers using Ctrack can gain real-time feedback via LED light warnings that flash when thresholds are passed and new artificial intelligence (AI) via driver-facing cameras can detect distracting driving too. 

“This technology picks up the things regular telematics can’t, like whether
the driver is fiddling with their phone,” adds Thomas. 

“But the settings are very configurable, so for instance the system might only bleep and flash at the driver at first and if he puts the phone down the footage won’t get sent to the fleet manager. Only if the driver continues to use the phone will the footage get sent.” 

If this all feels a bit ‘Big Brother’ Ctrack’s Thomas is quick to say that he’s as much a fan of the ‘carrot’ and reward approach to driver safety compared to merely the ‘stick’ of punishment. Indeed, he cites some customers who use their telematics data to analyse overall fuel savings and then share some of the money saved with their most fuel-efficient drivers. Thomas also recognises that one of the biggest issues in the industry today is finding good drivers at all, which is another reason to make them feel part of the programme, rather than merely monitored along the way. 

“I don’t envy delivery drivers in big cities,” he says, “but there is no excuse for not being safe and customers that have adopted a ‘safety first culture’ often benefit from lower insurance and less vehicle wear and tear too.” Steven Lewis, UK and Ireland corporate sales manager for Webfleet (formally TomTom Telematics) also sees van driver shortages as a reason to develop telematics in a more driver-friendly way. “Five years ago it was all about the big stick and what you could do with it,” he says honestly. 

“Now we need to give drivers the tools and insights into their own driving to help them be better. The driver is the key.” 

Lewis says Webfleet doesn’t favour light bar alerts by themselves because “they don’t necessarily give an insight into what the driver was doing wrong”. By comparison Lewis says when Webfleet’s system detects a problem it starts beeping and shows a picture of the problem – like for instance a phone – if the driver was grappling with their mobile while behind the wheel and on the move. 

Webfleet is also working hard on making its telematics offering up to date for the increasing number of van operators looking at EVs and has conducted a trial with Oxford City Council – which has pledged to become 100% electric by 2025. 

“We’ve done a lot of work in the past 24 months on EVs to show how drivers need to drive them differently. Most within the industry know that speed and load can make a big difference to an EV’s range and we’ll get a lot of data from this winter about how temperature affects things too. Electricity consumption with EVs is much lower in inner cities than on motorways and even where to charge is important. Sometimes – at certain motorway service stations – EVs can be more expensive than diesel to fill. Through our telematics we can set up protocols for our customers to avoid these issues.”      

Such an approach might all be well and good for big van fleets with chapters in their glossy company annual reports dedicated to safety and corporate social responsibility, but what of the smaller businesses, especially since the challenges posed to business viability with the Covid-19 pandemic? Fearghal MacGowan, EMEA MD of global video telematics business SmartWitness, sympathises, and believes his firm has an answer. 

“Cost and downtime are massive barriers to implementation of telematics for LCV fleets,” he says. “It’s not just the price of the camera, it’s the cost of the install and the vehicle downtime. It has prevented many small- and medium-sized operators from benefiting from the improvements telematics brings to safety, insurance and driver morale. 

“We launched the SmartWitness AP1 at the end of last year precisely to solve these issues. It’s a self-install camera that can be up and running in about 15 minutes, it’s relatively cheap compared with most professional connected cameras, and it provides ADAS support and video telematics data in a single unit.” Within that statement he also mentions ‘driver morale’, but how is that affected by ever-more scrutiny of their working lives? “All our ADAS analysis is done in real time on the camera, but the big data AI analysis is done in the cloud,” he explains. 

“The camera links to our new AI software AIDE (Artificial Intelligence Driving Events), which filters out ‘false positives’ and gives the most accurate driver league table scores, thus making sure good drivers get incentives and morale remains high. Keeping the big data processing on our cloud server means the camera is much cheaper, and fleets don’t have to keep updating hardware in the future.” 

Joe Heidari, corporate sales director at Trakm8 points out another kind of positive telematics monitoring – in this case with the focus on the vehicle – as a key way to reduce costs. This situation is especially relevant at a time when new van orders are taking longer to arrive, partly due to the global shortage of semiconductors crucial to all modern vehicles. 

“Trakm8’s ConnectedCare package provides advanced vehicle status and health data, ensuring fleets are better maintained,” he says. 

“Capturing this data enables trend analysis, allowing for the identification of common faults within vehicles before they become critical, and helping businesses to take a more proactive, preventative approach to vehicle maintenance, ensuring key assets run for longer. With unplanned downtime of LCVs costing businesses an average of £800 per day, investing in technology that gives fleet managers total insight into vehicular health makes sound commercial sense.” 

So there you have it, the telematics industry appears to be having a moment, by getting much smarter for the tangible benefit to your vehicles, drivers, insurance and bottom line. Maybe 2022 is the time to review what system you have and how it could be upgraded?