Veteran fleet managers often reminisce upon how things were “back in the day” — before computers, the early days of room-sized mainframes, and the advent of PCs. Dealing with the avalanche of data and daily communications that fleet management requires has changed dramatically over the years.

Today, technology enables fleet managers to communicate instantly with drivers, informing them of where they are and how to get where they’re going, making reporting and data mining simple and effective, and providing more information for better decision making. In short, we are awash in technology, and the biggest problem often seems to be choosing what to use. But, can a fleet manager become too dependent on technology? Is there a down side to introducing as much technology as possible into the operation of a fleet?

How Technology is Used

In the early days of the profession, the tools of the trade were the telephone, paper (snail) mail, pads of paper, an adding machine, and a box of sharp pencils. Little by little, technology was introduced to the job, with items including:
■ Simple calculators.
■ Mainframe computers.
■ Fax machines.
■ Word processors.
■ PCs.
■ Word processing and spreadsheet
software applications.
■ The Internet/e-mail.
■ Smartphones.
■ GPS/telematics.
■ Social networking.

Two characteristics of fleet management that lend the industry to the use of technology are communication and data.

Communication. Fleet management requires communication about a broad list of subjects with hundreds or thousands of drivers practically 24/7. Where in the past a fleet manager would have to do a mass mailing to inform drivers of a change in policy, it can now be e-mailed, posted on the company intranet site — even texted directly to drivers’ smartphones.
Fleet newsletters are no longer paper; they’re posted online or distributed via e-mail. Vehicle orders aren’t completed manually on three layers of NCR paper; they’re placed online directly by a lessor or dealer. The point is that today, technology advances offer fleet managers communication tools that were unheard of as little as a decade ago. 

Data. Operating a fleet of vehicles creates a staggering amount of data; from odometer readings to operating expenses to license/title/tax, fleet management is a data-heavy activity.

Company-provided vehicles create mounds of data. From fixed costs such as depreciation to variable costs of fuel to maintenance/repair to accidents and safety, the data pours in daily, even hourly. Since fleet managers often manage vehicles that are geographically dispersed, using and managing that data is the only way fleet managers can do the job.

Not unlike the communications technology revolution, the capture and management of fleet information has undergone a technological transformation. While fleet managers once communicated via telephone, paper, and snail mail, so, too, did they depend on manual processes to handle fleet data. Processing paper expense reports (containing key purchases and critical mileage data) was the foundation of those processes. Loaded, again manually, on green spreadsheets, fleet managers and their staff calculated cost/use ratios and created reports on typewriters.

Once computer automation appeared on the fleet scene, capturing and manipulating data began to become faster and more accurate. Initially loading that expense report data into mainframe computers, reporting became automated, followed by the capture of such data electronically and the automatic creation of scheduled reports. Today, there is very little (if any) fleet information and data that is touched by human hands.
Thus, advances in technology have made both communication as well as data capture and use automatic, accurate, and “real time,” which enables fleet managers to better use their time on more strategic matters.[PAGEBREAK]

That’s the Good; Now the Bad

At first glance, it might seem that fleet management has entered a golden age, a business utopia where fleet managers are as much overseers as managers, letting technology do the heavy lifting. But, a more careful review of this new reliance on technology can reveal some potentially serious problems, which can sometimes bring fleet operations to a grinding halt.

Let’s look first at communication. Although fleet managers today still use telephones regularly, it is far from the most common method of communicating with drivers and other stakeholders in the fleet process; indeed, more communication is accomplished today via e-mail than by telephone. Whether or not e-mail is a good communication tool depends upon the content being communicated.

If the fleet manager is sending out an e-mail “blast” informing drivers of a change in policy, e-mail is a perfect venue. Written changes can be sent via e-mail as an attachment (Word document or Adobe PDF) with a simple message instructing drivers on what to do with it. Better yet, drivers can be informed of a change by referencing that specific portion of a policy that has been posted on the company intranet site. Either way, the message reaches drivers almost instantaneously.

What about “conversational” communication? What if a driver e-mails the fleet manager with a problem or issue, which entails a back-and-forth e-mail exchange? E-mail can, in such cases, be a weak and even misleading venue, as the written word can be easily misunderstood, turning an innocent response into an insult. Recipients can be misled in ways that can be prevented by picking up the phone and speaking to that person directly.

What about other communication technology? Cell phones have been ground zero for the argument against technology advances. Some fleet vehicle drivers can remember looking for a bank of phone booths, at which they reported in, checked messages, and returned phone calls. Cell phones have made that communication requirement far more immediate and convenient, as drivers can use a Bluetooth device or other means to make calls from behind the wheel — much to the consternation of the fleet manager.

No matter how insistent the message is given, telling drivers not to use cell phones while driving, the sheer simplicity and convenience will cause the message to be ignored as drivers go about their day-to-day duties. Then there is texting, the absolute taboo of fleet safety. The dangers of cell phone usage are well documented, as drivers become more and more reliant on their smartphones to communicate and access information.

Then there is the “Catch 22” of technology: advancements result in greater user demand, which can lead to the kind of reliance that interferes with the job at hand. One need only attend a meeting, presentation, or some other large gathering and hear cell phones ring, or look out over the attendees to see many of them hunched over their smartphones, reading e-mails or texting away, and missing out on what is actually occurring right in front of them at the event. Indeed, it has become a regular occurrence to hear a speaker or meeting’s host ask participants to turn their phones to silent mode or turn them off completely.

While there are a number of situations that do require immediate communication (accidents, for example), most day-to-day communication in a fleet operation is relatively routine, and can wait for a telephone, or the safe use of a cell phone.

Data (Again)

Much of the technological revolution in data capture and use has been a boon to fleet managers. Capturing data is often completely automated: a driver swipes a fuel card and full level-III data on the transaction is captured immediately and becomes available to the fleet manager in real time online, viewable on a computer or even a smartphone. Regular and exception reports can be scheduled and run on a predetermined basis; all the fleet manager has to do is set up the report and schedule it, and then it is either posted online or e-mailed directly.

But, an important question can be asked: Who owns that data? Historical data captured and relayed by a supplier is absolutely critical to the ongoing management of a fleet. What happens to that data if the fleet changes suppliers? Can a fleet manager expect full and prompt cooperation from the supplier losing the business in transmitting all of that information to the new vendor?

These questions must be answered before entering into any supplier agreement. In the past, fleet management “systems” were most often homegrown, developed and maintained in house. The company warehoused the data, owned it, and it could be used as the company saw fit. While that method might be looked at today as being a relic of the past, relying on new technology where data resides on a supplier’s server perhaps hundreds or thousands of miles away can cause serious problems, not the least of which is getting the cooperation of a supplier being replaced by another.

What about data integrity? When fleet data was housed in individual car files (manila folders, which contained all the records for company vehicles), a mistake was a mistake on a single piece of data, for a single vehicle. Now, an erroneous keystroke can compromise an entire field of data for all vehicles in a fleet — and it can go on for a long time before the error is discovered.

Anyone who has used a toll-free service line has encountered the message, “Our systems are down right now. Please call back later,” or words to that effect. System outages can cause substantial disruption in day-to-day fleet operations. And, if the fleet is dependent upon a supplier for that critical data, an outage is beyond their control. Misplacing a car file would stop the fleet manager from examining data from a single unit; a system outage can halt examination of data and information for an entire fleet.

The Internet

Sometimes, it seems as though the Internet rules our lives. The Internet, whether accessed via a computer or a smartphone, can be a godsend — or a curse. Fleet managers and their staff must have access to the Internet; the aforementioned supplier systems must be accessed, as will the company intranet site, and all manner of vehicle- and fleet-related sites are also available and helpful.

Realistically, however, a fleet manager would be naïve to think that employees don’t use the Internet for personal use, such as personal e-mail, social networking sites (e.g. Facebook and Twitter), and surfing the Web. It is not unreasonable to assume that a typical employee spends at least a total of five hours each week doing so (a very conservative estimate). Doing the math, assuming two weeks of vacation, this amounts to 250 hours per year — a mind-boggling 31 days, or an entire month, posting on Facebook, sending messages on Twitter, shopping on Amazon, or checking last night’s scores. Access to the Internet is a must, but controlling that access can be a major problem.

Steps You Can Take

The technology revolution has given fleet managers tools that enable them to do their jobs more thoroughly, more accurately, and service their drivers better than ever before. But becoming over-reliant on that technology can cause problems if it is not implemented carefully. Here are some steps you can take to ensure that you control your technology, rather than let it control you:

■ When signing an agreement with a supplier that involves accessing their online systems for fleet data, negotiate a data agreement stating that your company owns the data, and that they will provide it to you upon request.
■ Limit access to the Internet (most companies do this now). Software is available that blocks access to certain sites, as well as tracking (also called “sniffing”) software that can track access, sometimes down to the keystroke.
■ Although preventing drivers from using cell phones while driving is not always enforceable, at the very least have a firm company policy against using them without Bluetooth or some other hands-free method, and a ban on texting. Make sure that the consequences are severe if a driver is cited for cell-phone use (in a state or locality where it is illegal to do so) or has an accident when calling or texting.
■ Backup, backup, and more backup. Ensure suppliers have a disaster plan, under which it can make a fast and smooth transition to backup systems if there is a service outage. Ask how often the company backs up its data, and how it audits data integrity.
■ Although nothing ever disappears completely from the Internet, print out important e-mails and keep them safely stored. Keep and secure original copies of key documents, such as titles in a fireproof safe, or confirm that your lessor does. Any used-car pro can tell you, you may not be able to sell a car, but you can sell the title.
■ Don’t allow technology to do the job for you. For example, even though the lease vs. own analysis can generate calculations on a spreadsheet, make sure to understand what is happening on that document. Know the math and what is being calculated.

There is no question that the dizzying advance of technology has been a boon to fleet managers. Just make certain to take the steps needed to keep it that way. FF