By Brian Albright, Field Technologies magazine
End users seek ease of use, reporting, and integration with enterprise systems.
Deployment of fleet management solutions is on the rise as fleet operators look for ways to reduce fuel expenses, improve vehicle maintenance, reduce risk, and more efficiently track and dispatch their vehicles. According to analyst firm Berg Insight, the number of fleet management systems deployed in commercial vehicle fleets in North America was 2.1 million at the end of 2010 and is expected to reach 3.8 million by 2015.
In December, Field Technologies published the results of a reader survey about the most important features and functions of a fleet management solution. They were:
Ease of use/user interface
Ability to integrate with other applications (e.g. workforce management)
Ability to customize
Ability to set alerts/alarms
Mobile access to dashboard
Ability to integrate in-cab navigation
Taken together, that list indicates increased interest in advanced functionality from what used to be simple tracking solutions. Fleet operators want fast, easy-to-understand access to critical metrics about their fleet that will enable them to improve performance, shave costs, and correct driver behaviors like speeding and hard braking.
Benefit From A Simple User Interface
As fleet solutions become increasingly complex and feature-rich, the user interface has also become more complicated. “One of the most complex things to achieve in software design is having feature-richness while maintaining user-friendliness,” says Tony Lourakis, CEO of Complete Innovations. “Software that achieves this deserves a closer look.”
Look for software with an intuitive design, that places frequently used features within easy reach, that provides flexibility in administrative or configuration settings, and that doesn’t clutter the interface with seldomused functionality. “Minimizing keystrokes and avoiding complicated menu structures while using drag-and-drop functionality and setup wizards can help to easily walk dispatchers and office staff through the system,” says Mike Koebel, vice president of business development at Mentor Engineering.
If in-cab navigation devices are involved, the technology should not distract drivers from paying attention to the road while the vehicle is in motion. “For drivers, the screen size is limiting, so the user interface needs to be less complex,” says Ron Hodges, founder and CEO of Navtrak. “It should be simple to use with very little decision making, not too many screens to navigate, the use of drop-downs and check boxes as much as possible, and ease to get back to square one.”
Integration Increases Fleet Management ROI
For companies that want to get the most out of their fleet management investment, these solutions must integrate with workforce management, billing, human resources, and other systems. Leveraging location data this way can increase the return on investment and improve operations in other areas.
“To avoid challenges and difficulties, it is important to evaluate a vendor’s past integrations and to ensure that they will be able to integrate with your existing business systems,” Koebel says. “A common challenge users encounter is integration to multiple existing systems. These existing solutions may support integration via Web services, while others may only support file transfers or direct-to-database integration. Your fleet management solution needs to accommodate all types of systems.”
That means end users have to have integration on their minds early in the process. “Fleet management systems need to be built in such a way as to make integration a focal point, not an afterthought,” Hodges says. “Users face a lot of challenges, especially if thirdparty solutions are not built to current industry standards and are not flexible. However, integration in 2012 is a lot easier than it was just a few short years ago, as more and more third-party users see how valuable fleet management information can be.”
Increased Reporting Capabilities, New Mobile Functionality
As vehicle and mobile device technology advances, fleet solutions can gather more data about vehicle and driver activity. End users want access to as much information about fleet operations as possible, which is why reporting, customization, and the ability to set alarms and alerts is so important to companies looking for fleet management systems.
“This increased information provides the ability to build more complex reports and dashboards that can put the end users’ fingers on the pulse of their operations,” says Hodges. “Alarms and alerts are driven by this activity and provide end users with the ability to react to a variety of situations in real time — or in time to actually take corrective actions before certain events occur, reducing errors and increasing efficiency.”
End users need access to common “canned” reports, as well as the ability to create custom reports and evaluate data in ways that are meaningful to their specific business. Alarms and alerts, likewise, need to be flexible in terms of access and scheduling. End users also should be able to create alerts based on multiple parameters being true at the same time, such as time of day, type of vehicle, status of sensor, state of vehicle, etc.
Fleet solutions providers are also starting to make this data available to mobile devices as well as centralized dashboard/reporting systems. This gives managers access to important information, no matter where they are.
“Knowing what the entire fleet is doing, while valuable, is not widely applicable to the mobile operator who is more likely to be working in a supervisory role,” Koebel says. “These users need to be able to quickly drill down to individuals or specific events and be able to address these quickly. There tends to be more emphasis on the one-to-one relationship when mobile, versus needing to see the whole fleet. The solution needs to present only what is relevant to that mobile operator, as well as use intelligent grouping and display to give the mobile operator the details they need to do their job effectively.”
In-cab navigation devices are another important component. Some users will try to use consumer-grade personal navigation devices, but these computers seldom have very strong software development kits for integration into fleet management solutions and may not be rugged enough to withstand certain applications.
“If the user is a fleet of local service vehicles, such as cars or vans, it may be well-served by using a device like the Garmin,” Lourakis says. “If the user is operating heavier vehicles, such as tractors or straight trucks, it may want a more industrial-strength device that also provides features such as hours of service and support for driver logs, among other things.”
Increasingly, users want devices that are integrated directly with the fleet solution and that can provide automatic navigation capabilities. In-cab devices can also provide direct communication between the driver and dispatcher, eliminating the need for multiple mobile devices (like phones) and reducing the amount of time spent making calls or rekeying address information.
Focus On The Scalability, Flexibility Of Your Fleet Management Solution
Opinions differ on the value of customization. Obviously, each business is slightly different and may need alternative options when it comes to reporting or other features. “In my opinion, customization is very important, especially when working with larger enterprise users that may have custom needs or require custom integration with their various back end systems,” Lourakis says. “Enterprise customers should be looking for this capability when evaluating a fleet management solution. Small to midsize companies should ensure the solution has an API that can be used for most integrations.”
Significant customization, however, can increase costs and reduce return on investment. “In more difficult economic environments, most end users want a quick ROI on solutions that will be easy to implement, and that usually leaves out any customization,” Hodges says. “Customers typically want the flexibility to use more off-the-shelf solutions that are configurable and easy to integrate with their core applications.”
Scalability, on the other hand, is unanimously considered a key part of the selection criteria when it comes to fleet management solutions. “Users will want to ensure that the features which work for 100 vehicles will also work for 1,000 or 10,000 vehicles,” Koebel says. “Additionally, companies should ensure that a vendor’s hardware devices are backwards compatible, to avoid the cost of having to replace all the in-vehicle devices when a new version is released.”
Ensuring that a solution is truly scalable will require talking to customer references that operate a large number of vehicles. Other indicators include role-based access schemes, the ability to organize data by multiple divisions or work groups, and the level of customer support the solutions provider offers.