By Brian Albright, Field Technologies magazine
National towing service company United Road Towing gets to jobs approximately 35% faster since deploying a new fleet management solution.
To optimally manage and dispatch a large fleet of vehicles, real-time information about where each vehicle is and what each driver is doing at any given time is a necessity. If your fleet consists of hundreds of vehicles that are dispatched thousands of times per year all across the country, obtaining that real-time information and putting it to its best use can pose quite a challenge.
United Road Towing (URT) is the nation’s largest towing and vehicle impound management service. URT contracts with a number of municipalities and law enforcement agencies and dispatches approximately 500,000 tows per year, while managing more than 300,000 impounds across the United States. While the company has used a form of fleet management for some time, the company recently upgraded its GPS-based fleet management solution and, as a result, has reduced its response times by several minutes, reduced miles driven per call by 18%, and is now able to provide transparency into its operations to contract customers.
URT’s previous GPS tracking solution was pretty bare bones and only provided truck location data and limited communication. Tom Tedford, senior VP, says the company needed a solution that would provide additional features, such as reporting functionality to measure KPIs (key performance indicators) and navigational capabilities in order to improve operational performance and increase customer satisfaction. To find what it was looking for, URT knew it would need to find an alternate provider. “I was unhappy with our previous GPS provider,” Tedford says. “Their financial stability was questionable, they lacked the ability to interface and work with our plans for growth, and they didn’t offer the additional functionality we were seeking.”
URT sought a solution that would help meet the reporting requirements of its customers, who often require a detailed accounting of each tow before providing reimbursement. “Our business is built on contractual requirements with our customers,” Tedford says. “Customer demands can change on a day-to-day basis, and for us to meet our customers’ needs, we have to have transparency into operations. We needed real-time access to very specific information about the status of the vehicles and the services we’re performing.”
Web-Based Solution Minimizes Up-Front Capital Requirement
The company began looking for a new GPS solution in 2010 and issued an RFP to several fleet management solutions providers. Navigation and improved reporting were key criteria, but not the only criteria. “Cost was a factor,” Tedford says. “We wanted to obtain a more advanced solution, but it was important for us not to incur a huge capital outlay.” After four months of evaluating responses to the RFP, URT selected the Fleet Director fleet management solution from Teletrac. Fleet Director is a real-time fleet tracking solution that provides a modular approach to adding functionality. For example, with the Fleet Director SmartNav module, URT was able to gain the navigation functionality it sought. With the Fleet Director Messaging module, drivers and dispatch are able to communicate directly via two-way messaging (for more on modules Teletrac offers to expand on basic functionality, see sidebar). Fleet Director is based on a SaaS (software-as-a-service) model and delivered via the Web. This allowed URT to pay for Fleet Director as a subscription service, with the cost of the hardware bundled in, so the company’s up-front investment was minimal.
Before deciding on Teletrac, URT carefully evaluated the vendor’s financial health. The GPS/fleet management market has been flooded with low-cost providers over the past several years. Many of these companies offer discounted services, operate at a loss, and frequently go out of business. Since financial stability had been a problem with its previous vendor, URT didn’t want to take any risks with the new provider. “We went through the evaluation process until we were confident that not only could they provide the technology we needed, but that they were a stable company and would be around to back it up,” Tedford says. “We toured their facility in California, took a look at their capability for backup support, their infrastructure, their call center capabilities, and their help desk.”
As Tedford mentioned, navigation was a critical consideration for URT in its solution selection. While navigation is a feature that can benefit any company from a cost savings perspective, it was even more important to URT because of some of the services the company provides. For example, one of those services is setting up catastrophe response operations in the aftermath of natural disasters, such as hurricanes. “What happens in those situations is that there are no street signs,” Tedford says. “In those instances, having navigation capabilities is critical. We have to be able to dispatch our fleet from Los Angeles to, for instance, Gulfport, MS, and locate a vehicle without any of those traditional directional markers.”
The final reason Tedford mentions as to why URT selected Teletrac was the vendor’s ability to manage the deployment of the GPS hardware on URT’s fleet of more than 600 vehicles. “That was an important part of the RFP,” Tedford says. “I was looking for a provider that could handle the installation. We could do the installs ourselves, but it takes our people away from more productive jobs. Some of our locations have 80 units, and when you add up 2 hours per vehicle, that was a lot of time. It was important for me that the vendor had a viable system for installation, and Teletrac had installers who knew what they were doing.”
Before fully deploying the solution, URT ran 45-day pilots on 30 vehicles in Nashville, TN, and at the company’s Keystone Towing Division in Van Nuys, CA, which services the Los Angeles Police Department. Based on the pilot results, URT tweaked some of the electronic two-way messages that are sent between the drivers and the dispatchers. “We customized some of the wording for internal dispatch,” Tedford says. “These are messages like ‘arrived on scene’ or ‘en route.’ We just changed some of them to better fit the terminology our operation was used to.”
Leverage Fleet Management To Improve Driver Safety
Another option that URT added to its system was a panic button for the drivers on the in-cab device. “Unfortunately, nobody likes to have their vehicle towed, so our drivers sometimes get into high-risk situations,” Tedford says. “To improve driver safety, Teletrac installed the panic button capability so that in such an instance, the driver can send an alert to the dispatch center at the touch of a button, and their location is automatically recorded.”
Once the solution was tweaked, URT rolled out the solution one region at a time over several months. Drivers were trained at each facility on how to use the new invehicle display, and managers and dispatchers received training through a series of webinars. Teletrac also provides weekly webinars at no cost so that new employees can be trained on the solution on an ongoing basis.
The Teletrac solution is integrated with URT’s customdesigned Towing Operations Software (TOPS), which the company uses to run its business operations. TOPS handles all of the dispatching, customer information management, and pricing. URT, TowXchange, and Teletrac collaborated on this integration in order to facilitate the data transfer between the two solutions.
Once a call is received, dispatchers can access Teletrac Fleet Director to show them the closest available truck for the call. The call is then sent to the in-cab Teletrac Color Touchscreen display to alert the driver that they have a call. Drivers accept the call on the device. As the tow truck drivers enter updates (about arriving on-site, completing the call, etc.), that information is linked back to TOPS so that URT can generate customer activity reports. “We can show that our estimated time of arrival was met, what our average arrival time is, etc., to solidify our status with our customers,” Tedford says.
The in-cab computers also provide turn-by-turn navigation via the Fleet Director SmartNav module. SmartNav monitors live traffic conditions and can route trucks around streets where commercial vehicles are prohibited. In addition to directions, SmartNav provides live traffic information alerts to dispatchers, along with “nearest vehicle” locating functionality based on actual drive time, distance, and current traffic conditions. Drivers receive real-time, speed-calibrated verbal directions, and if they miss a turn or head in the wrong direction, they automatically receive revised directions to the correct route. Dispatch receives an automatic notification once they arrive. “In some cities like Chicago, they have parkways that don’t allow commercial trucks,” Tedford says. “If you use standard automobile routing, you could be sending the larger vehicles into areas with low bridges or other features, so truck-specific routing was important.”
Using Fleet Director, URT is able to generate customized dashboards and management reports to measure performance against a variety of KPIs in the field. “The most common reports we use are the power take-off [PTO] monitoring, along with calls received and calls run, and idle time,” Tedford says. “We customized our activity reports based on location. We can put the facility location in the system and monitor the trucks as they arrive and leave. We can also enter the home addresses of the drivers, so we know if they are stopping at home during their shift.” URT can see if drivers are using the most efficient routes possible and be sure they’re not racking up unnecessary mileage. Managers can monitor idle time, speeding, hard starts/stops, vehicle location, and driver activity. The system is set to automatically email the most common reports to the management team. “It’s nice to not have to go pull the reports,” Tedford says. “If people have to go get those reports, there is a tendency to just not do it. This way an email shows up in our in-boxes every morning and makes it easier to pay attention to what’s going on.”
Fleet Management Means Saving Time, Saving Fuel
The combination of vehicle tracking and improved navigation has increased dispatching efficiency, and providing status updates through the in-cab computers has eliminated time-consuming phone calls between the drivers and dispatchers. Arrival from the point of dispatch to job site has improved by about 35% — from 19- to 20-minute arrival times down to 13- to 14-minute responses on average. The company has also seen a reduction of 18% in overall miles driven per call. Driving fewer miles not only reduces wear and tear on the trucks, but also has a big impact on operational costs in the way of minimized fuel expenses.
Thanks to the advanced reporting features, URT can document arrival time improvements and provide that information to its contract customers. “We can provide statistical information back to our customers to support our service levels or demonstrate where we can show improvement for them versus other vendors,” Tedford says. If customers question how long it took a driver to respond to a call, URT can easily account for every minute of each tow. “We can show the actual time it took to run that call,” Tedford says. “We charge an hourly rate for the truck and driver in many cases. We can show that highway traffic was congested, for example, so it wasn’t our fault that it took longer than normal to respond. That way the customers have a better understanding of what was happening, and can see that we’re not overbilling them.” And because the solution is Web-based, URT can even give customers access to the map view online to check on the status of a particular truck themselves.
Because managers can monitor driver behavior, URT has been able to enhance its own safety programs by addressing specific driver issues such as speeding and hard braking. The company has also seen a reduction of 28% in liability and safety claims, as well as cargo damage, since 2009. “We’re doing a lot of things in the company to improve safety as well, but we feel that the reporting mechanisms, the visibility of the fleet, and the metrics we can monitor like speeding have helped reduce those claims,” Tedford says.
Improved monitoring also helps eliminate fraud, which can be a problem in the towing industry. With advanced reporting, the company has identified specific instances of drivers operating without authorization and towing vehicles for cash without authorization. URT has also been able to recover at least one stolen asset since the new solution was installed. Because the tow trucks can range in value from $85,000 for a standard truck to upwards of $600,000 for specialized heavy-duty vehicles, that capability has proven invaluable.
Fleet management solutions typically help companies reduce idle time, but in the tow industry this can be a tricky metric to get a handle on. Tow trucks have to idle in order to operate the winching equipment, so a certain amount of idling is expected for any given shift. “Fleet Director enables us to monitor when the winch is on or off, so if we take the PTO time and subtract that from the total idle time, we can come up with a ‘wasted idle time’ figure,” Tedford says. “We’ve been seeing that fall over the past 12 months.”
Flexible GPS Solution Provides Options For Future Use
United Road Towing isn’t done finding new ways to leverage its GPS solution to save costs and improve operations. Recently, URT switched from its original monochrome in-cab computers to Teletrac’s Color Touchscreen devices, and Tedford says there are plans to begin using the Fleet Director Vehicle Diagnostics module. This will allow URT to collect vehicle and engine operating data from the vehicles’ electronic control modules, which will facilitate real-time maintenance alerts and help URT avoid costly breakdowns in the field. “We’re hoping that will create a more proactive response for maintenance and eliminate some downtime on the road,” he says. The company may also add automated pretrip inspection reports to the solution, which could save drivers additional time.
URT already had experience using GPS to track its vehicles, but the company was smart enough not to stop there. Rather, it continued to learn about and seek the latest features and functionality of the technology. The company’s story is a testament to the benefit of evolving along with your currently deployed technologies to drive continued business benefits.
Integrated GPS Tools Take Tow Operator In New Direction
When United Road Towing, a nationwide towing services contractor with a fleet of more than 600 vehicles, began looking for a new GPSbased fleet management solution, a key piece of functionality it needed was integrated navigation functionality. The company’s previous solution only provided simple location data for tracking.
URT chose Fleet Director from Teletrac. With the Fleet Director solution, URT was able to combine dispatch, two-way communication between drivers and dispatch, and navigation with a single in-cab display device (currently the Teletrac Color Touchscreen) by leveraging Teletrac’s modular approach to fleet management. The Fleet Director SmartNav module provides the onboard navigation that was critical for URT. Fleet Director Messaging enables two-way communication between dispatch and drivers. When it comes to digesting the data Fleet Director provides, Teletrac offers a Fleet Director Mobile app in addition to normal desktop dashboard/report access, so that managers can view fleet data from their mobile devices when they’re not at a desk.
Teletrac also provides Fleet Director Vehicle Diagnostics, which allows you to integrate engine diagnostics information with GPS data to perform preventative maintenance, and Fleet Director Hours Of Service, which enables automated logging for Department of Transportation compliance. The modular approach to fleet management means that you can choose to deploy just the basic tracking solution along with whatever functionality you need — you aren’t forced to pay for a solution with capabilities you don’t need, and you can add functionality over time as your needs evolve. For more on Teletrac, visit www.teletrac.net.