Magazine Article | October 23, 2008

Increase Fleet Efficiency With GPS

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

Industry experts explain today’s GPS technology and how to use it most effectively as a fleet tracking and fleet management tool.

Integrated Solutions, November 2008

A recent Motorola study revealed that enterprises deploying GPS solutions recoup an average annual labor savings of $5,484 per employee. Saving money is enticing to any company, but I'm sure this holds even more appeal for those of you with sizeable field service operations. Would you smaller companies like some good news? GPS solutions have become an affordable option for any size company, whether you have 10 trucks in your fleet or 1,000. "With hardware costs and carrier costs lowering, GPS solutions have become more attainable," says Wayne Johnson, VP of sales and marketing at Discrete Wireless. "Simple deployment and fast payback make today's GPS technology hard to pass up." Recently, I spoke with industry experts to uncover what companies of all sizes need to know about GPS.

GPS: What Are Your Options?
There are multiple types of GPS hardware, including a black box unit, a mobile phone, a handheld computer, and a truck-mounted computer. Each uses latitude and longitude to communicate location information via a cellular or satellite network. A GPS tracking application relays this information, often shown as 'dots on a map.'

A black box unit doesn't enable driver interaction and is often installed under the dashboard to protect it from damage and tampering. Black box units can either communicate in real time or transfer GPS data in a batch once per day. A GPS-embedded mobile phone will allow similar tracking without interaction, but can be turned off. A handheld computer offers the ability to transfer data and be carried on-site. A truck-mounted computer provides the driver with the ability to input and obtain data.

When choosing a GPS unit for your company, Steve Brown, president of Intergis, offers some good advice. "Consider what is the best fit for your needs. A field service company would benefit from the portability of a handheld device. A distributor, however, may prefer a truck-mounted computer system," he says. Brown also points out the distinction between what a small company and an enterprise will need. "Basic black box and mobile phone solutions are often a great fit for the SMB market because of their lower cost and ease of deployment," says Brown. "However, the enterprise can gain more efficiency by implementing a handheld computer or truck-mounted unit. Even though the cost is greater, it will see an ROI."

When it comes to your GPS tracking application, you should consider whether a hosted or premise-based application is a better fit for your company. "Hosted [or Web-based] applications in which the user accesses the application via the Internet have the advantage of being faster and easier to deploy. However, the uptime and speed of the application are in the hands of your Internet connection," says David Levy, fleet marketing manager at Tele Atlas. "Premise-based [or server] applications do not depend on the Internet and have greater customization capabilities, but require more of an investment in company IT resources, as well as computer processing and storage hardware." Oftentimes, SMBs may prefer a hosted application because it requires less capital investment, while enterprises may desire the control and customization the premise-based solution offers.

Alleviate The Big Brother Objection
When deploying your GPS solution, you should be aware of the common Big Brother objection that may accompany it. Many fleet workers have an aversion to the feeling of being constantly watched and monitored and can interpret the implementation as an invasion of their privacy. The experts provide a few tips on how to handle this objection. "Management has to provide a clear explanation of what benefits the GPS solution will offer the fleet worker," says Dan Huber, president and CEO of Agilis Systems. "Point out the fact that the GPS will increase their safety while they're on the job. With GPS, if an accident occurs, you know where they are and will be able to react immediately."

Huber adds that most employees with Big Brother objections are those who aren't doing their job as efficiently as they should. For instance, a company Huber worked with said that when a manager rode with a fleet worker for a day, productivity increased 30%. When that company implemented a GPS solution, its fleet workers' productivity increased by the same percentage. Another pointer for increasing GPS acceptance is a phased rollout of the solution. "Deploying the solution first to employees you know will be accepting of it can help ease the Big Brother objection," says Levy. "If fleet workers are hearing from their coworkers that the solution is a good thing, they'll be more likely to embrace it."

Integrate GPS With Onboard Diagnostics
In addition to tracking your fleet, a GPS solution enables you to increase your fleet efficiency in other ways. A truck-mounted GPS device offers a couple of unique capabilities. First, the GPS unit can be integrated with the vehicle's onboard diagnostics computer. "If a GPS unit is integrated with the vehicle's diagnostics, it can determine if the vehicle has fault codes that indicate a problem," says Levy. "This monitoring enables a company to schedule preventative maintenance and repair on its vehicles rather than experience unexpected vehicle downtime."

With gas savings being increasingly important in today's economy, the ability of a GPS solution to track vehicle idling time is another important feature to mention. According to the Motorola study I mentioned earlier, companies that implement GPS solutions see a $51,582 savings in annual fuel costs. "Connecting your GPS unit to monitor vehicle idling gives companies the ability to see exactly how much fuel is being wasted," says Huber.

"Companies are hesitant to pass on a fuel surcharge to their customers, and uncovering ways in which you can decrease your fuel costs eliminates the need to do so." Johnson notes, "Many employees have idle times of over 1 hour per day, with the average idle hour using between 1/2 to 3/4 of a gallon of gas. By monitoring the length of time an employee is leaving the engine running while stopped, fleet managers can correct this behavior and often save hundreds of gallons per employee per year."

GPS Data Enables Route Optimization, Real-Time Dispatch
Tracking your fleet with real-time GPS gives you up-to-the-minute location information. This data can be combined with other data, such as routes, customer histories, SLA (service level agreement) information, and fleet worker information and used in a route optimization application for fleet management. "With traditional dispatch environments, you were always in reactive mode. With route optimization, you can take a more proactive approach," says Huber. For instance, with traditional dispatch, a fleet worker may call 5 minutes before his next stop and tell you he's running late. At this point, you will miss that SLA because there is no way to get a worker there on time. With route optimization, you monitor the location of the fleet workers in real time and can see when conflicts might arise and send the next nearest fleet worker. This proactive approach helps you to meet SLAs and increase customer satisfaction. "Also, by using real-time dispatch and choosing the nearest available fleet worker to a new or existing job, you can once again reduce fuel costs," says Johnson.
According to a recent Aberdeen Group report, the average cost to a company for a field service worker who arrives at a job location and is not able to complete the job is $270. GPS data can decrease these unnecessary visits. With real-time location data for each fleet worker, the dispatch center is able to provide customers with an estimated time of arrival (ETA). Providing customers with an ETA gives them a chance to respond if it isn't a good time for them. Companies can take this a step further by using IVR (intelligent voice response) technology. With IVR, an automated call can be placed to the next customer as a fleet worker is finishing his current job. The recording will let the customer know the fleet worker is on his way and ask them to press one to confirm or two to reschedule. These measures help reduce costly unproductive trips.

Navigation and geofencing are two other ways a company can use GPS data to increase its efficiency. Navigation provides fleet workers with turn-by-turn directions to each location, which decreases the likelihood of them getting lost, which can lead to missed SLAs and wasted fuel. Navigation can be integrated into the route optimization solution so that as a driver is dispatched to a job, the directions will be sent to his handheld or truck-mounted computer. At this point, the solution can automatically provide an ETA to the next customer. Geofencing allows the fleet manager to create boundaries so that when a GPS-embedded device leaves or enters a predetermined zone, an alert can be sent via phone call, email, or text message. This is yet another way to automatically notify a customer of the fleet worker's ETA.

I believe the benefits of GPS speak for themselves — from improved SLA compliance leading to increased customer satisfaction to the reduction in fuel costs due to less idling time and fewer unnecessary visits. What should your next step be? Brown offers some advice for companies that want to implement a GPS solution. "If you're not ready for the deployment of a fully integrated solution, phase GPS and its benefits into your company," he says. "Begin with GPS itself, add a route optimization application next, and then mobilize your solution." He also notes that it is imperative to measure the results of your solution to make sure you are fully utilizing the technology to maximize your fleet's efficiency.