It wasn’t too long ago when business technology meant a fax machine, a calculator, and a mainframe computer. We’ve certainly come a long way since then, as the dizzying advance of technology continues unabated.
Most fleet managers take advantage of technology they believe will help manage the fleet. They use online systems provided by suppliers to order vehicles, track status, capture and manipulate cost data, and keep inventory. They provide drivers with cell phones, laptops, and (sometimes) GPS and telematics. But, just using technology doesn’t mean using it to its greatest effect. A fleet can be taken to the next level if technology is used wisely.
Evolution or Revolution?
Business technology has undergone dramatic change over the past 40 years. We now have smartphones that can do far more than a room-sized mainframe did decades ago. The Internet has become a primary communication tool, as well as the source for data capture and reporting.
Some of the change has been evolutionary: Telephones evolved to include answering machines, which turned into voicemail, and the basic land line now contains such features as conference calling and call forwarding, which were all developed over several decades.
Other technology has undergone more revolutionary change. In less than 20 years, cell phones became smartphones, allowing business to be conducted on any number of levels. The desktop PC became a laptop, then a notebook, and now we have tablet computers that fit between the pages of a book (if you still read books, rather than carry an Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, or an Apple iPad).
Many of these changes have helped drivers do their jobs more efficiently. Rather than looking for phone booths to call in and check messages, a cell phone enables drivers to simply pull over at the first opportunity and dial or use Bluetooth to make the call.
Fleet managers, too, now have access to reporting capabilities based on real-time data, flexible report scheduling, and exception alerts. All of this — both evolutionary and revolutionary — has enabled fleet managers to know more, faster and more accurately, and communicate what they know more effectively.
What technologies do fleet managers sometimes overlook? We can begin with social media. There are a number of such communication venues that fleet managers can use:
■ Facebook: Most, if not all, drivers, staff, and other stakeholders likely use Facebook, primarily to keep in touch with friends and family on a strictly social level. But, there is no reason why the fleet department can’t use it for communicating with drivers, encouraging engagement with spouses and family, and even for networking with peers. Most industry publications and associations also have Facebook pages. Messages on safety; tips on maintenance or defensive driving; and even social exchanges about family, vacations, and more can help create a more “family” culture within the company.
■ LinkedIn: LinkedIn is more or less the Facebook of the business world. It is an excellent channel fleet managers can use to interact with peers to exchange ideas and trade advice. There are also a large number of fleet-oriented groups (both general and specific), where members can ask questions and trade process and policy ideas. Suppliers sometimes use LinkedIn to spread their message within the industry, too.
■ Twitter: Twitter is a relatively new, but very popular, Internet communication channel. Messages are kept to a maximum of 140 characters and are sent to “followers” with subjects grouped together by “hashtags” (# symbol). Followers are referenced by an “at symbol” (@). Twitter is limited, but it can be useful in expanding the fleet communication network.
Drivers can access Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter via smartphones, and fleet managers can send specific messages, such as exception notes, announcements, and other short communications quickly and easily.
Keep in mind that, much like e-mail, the typed word can be a misleading and incomplete means of communication. It is best to limit social media use to the simple passing along of information, rather than a more “conversational” tone (except for the Facebook and LinkedIn “forum-type” applications discussed previously). Anything, however, that improves communication in a fleet environment can only make the fleet operate at a higher level.
Fleet Management Tech
Most mid- and large-sized fleets use one or more fleet management company (FMC) services, such as maintenance management, accident management, or fleet fuel card programs. These programs, over the years, have added a number of features and capabilities that some fleet managers neglect to use. Here are some examples:
■ Maintenance Management: The basics of fleet maintenance management programs are well known. For a monthly per-vehicle fee, the supplier will provide a purchasing instrument (card, coupon book, etc.), a nationwide network of repair facilities, certified technicians to intervene and negotiate repairs, and online reporting capabilities.
Sometimes, however, fleet managers will implement a program and step away from the process. FMCs usually provide a full menu of tools fleet managers can use to limit expense and track costs. From reporting to automated fleet card controls, fleet managers should become familiar with all of them, and use them to full benefit.
■ Fuel Cards: Fleet fuel card programs are one of the most important tools developed for fleet managers in many years. They provide drivers with a means to purchase fuel nationwide, and provide fleet managers with the level-III data detail they need to properly track and manage this largest variable expense. However, the technology available with these programs sometimes goes unused.
The ability to filter use, (i.e., limit time of day, day of week, merchant, transaction size, and frequency) can make a fuel card far more effective at limiting use and abuse before it happens. Some cards can also limit use by fuel grade, too.
Rather than simply putting fuel cards in drivers’ hands as a matter of convenience, then managing exceptions as they occur, fleet fuel card technology can actually help reduce, even eliminate a fleet manager’s use of after-the-fact exception reporting to manage fuel expense.
■ GPS/Telematics: Satellite technology — the ability to transmit data via communication satellites — is a relatively new technology taking the fleet industry by storm. The possibilities are remarkable: Knowing where drivers are, enabling drivers to find out how to get where they’re going, efficient routing, and the transmission of real-time vehicle operational data all can help take fleet management to the next level.
The application of satellite technology to fleet management is still in its relative infancy, as compared to the more mature capabilities.
Imagine, though, a future where a fleet manager (and a driver) can get notification of the imminent failure of a vehicle component, or a driver could be messaged that the car is due for an oil change, complete with directions to the nearest facility, and a message to the driver’s smartphone with a purchase order bar code that the shop can scan for payment.
Today, fleet managers are using GPS programs to track drivers, which can help direct the nearest service van to a customer in need, and provide the fastest route to get there.
Phones Get ‘Smarter’
It has been said that smartphones will ultimately render personal computers obsolete. And, we’re rapidly arriving at the point where this is, to an extent, true. Smartphones today can do just about everything a laptop can do, and more. Voice and data communications, Internet access, the ability to create and view various common file types, and much more give drivers and fleet managers the ability to quickly and easily access information.
There is, of course, the ever-present issue of safety as it pertains to the use of smartphones by drivers. A fleet manager might cringe at the thought of drivers using cell phones simply to make calls; add all of the other newer capabilities and you could have a recipe for disaster. But, provided the fleet has a firm, strict cell-phone use policy, (and it is enforced!), smartphones provide drivers with office technology that fits into a pocket.
Consider the new jargon that has entered the language: apps. Smartphone applications, or apps, are software that can be downloaded to the device that enables the user to perform specific tasks, or access specific information.
There are a number of apps that can be used by drivers (and other employees who travel), providing such tools as:
■ Finding the lowest cost fuel.
■ Checking the weather.
■ Comparing flight schedules, booking flights, and choosing seats.
■ Permitting drivers to access information, place orders, check order status, and a number of other activities.
■ Locating electric and hybrid vehicle charging stations.
■ Researching vehicles and viewing specs.
■ Monitoring used-vehicle prices at auction and wholesale markets. (There are also apps that include VIN scanners.)
■ Placing drivers in direct touch with providers, and, combined with GPS technology, enabling agents to locate the driver immediately.
Apps make a smartphone a total business tool, and contribute to driver productivity, along with allowing fleet managers to communicate with them in a number of ways.
Interactive Vehicle Tech
A few decades ago, vehicle technology was specific to vehicle performance: electronic ignition, anti-lock brakes, and air bags. While all of these are still in use today, there is new technology resident in a vehicle, which interacts with drivers.
Consider the aforementioned GPS and telematics. Though both can be achieved via aftermarket devices, many manufacturers now provide both from the factory. GPS and Bluetooth communications can be acquired as an option in most fleet vehicles, and are standard in executive-level cars.
Such technology often includes “concierge” services, where drivers using Bluetooth can access agents who can help them obtain road service, find dealerships, make reservations for flights or meals, or diagnose vehicle problems. Some will alert agents upon air bag deployment, triggering roadside and medical assistance if needed.
Probably the most recent and exciting new vehicle technology is in alternative fuels. From compressed or liquid natural gas, to propane autogas, to electric vehicles, to hybrids, manufacturers are introducing new technologies that enable smart fleet managers to introduce fuel-saving vehicles into fleets (provided, of course, they are for the right applications). Although the infrastructure supporting these technologies is still in its relative infancy, it can be installed onsite for centrally garaged vehicles, and the savings can be significant.
Use it Carefully
Technology is exciting, and keeping up with innovations can keep fleet managers busy. There are so many different capabilities that possibilities exist for it to be “abused” — technology for technology’s sake. Some technology is fairly straightforward: a fuel price locator app is a no-brainer. But, the decision to purchase vehicles powered by natural gas, or install a GPS device in multiple vehicles requires careful analysis and study; not doing so can create as many problems and additional expense as it is supposed to eliminate.
There is so much technology out there today that it is nearly impossible to run a fleet efficiently without it. Using it carefully and intelligently will, indeed, take a fleet to the next level.