Technology is changing company fleets

If you read nothing else, read this…

  • The new generation of in-car technologies include automatic braking, parking and steering, stability control, cruise control, adaptive lighting, speed limiting and environmental innovations.
  • Telematics-based systems include GPS, mileage capture, vehicle tracking and fuel cards.
  • Mobile devices are expanding what data can be collected.
  • Before investing in new technology, employers should carry out a cost-benefit analysis.
  • Communicate motives, build trust and do not forget people/HR issues.

Case study: Best Electrical keeps track of drivers’ overtime

Stevenage-based electrical contractor Best Electrical estimates it is saving £26,000 a year after installing GPS tracking technology into its fleet of 10 cars 18 months ago.

The system, provided by FleetMatics, enables it to monitor precisely the location and status of its cars. Director of operations Robert Ranson says: “We were getting massive claims for overtime and had no way of checking it. It was not that we distrusted our drivers, more that we simply wanted better accuracy.”

Some training was required for office-based admin staff – provided free by FleetMatics – and there was a need to explain to drivers why the technology was being installed.

“There were some murmurs around ‘you don’t trust us’, but if people don’t have anything to hide, there is no problem, is there?” says Ranson. “The most significant change for us has been a reduction in overtime claims. People were never allowed to use their vehicles outside work, but now we can see it.

“We can check someone has parked their vehicle on a Friday night and it has stayed there. The system will also tell us if a driver starts up the car and leaves it running in the driveway, or if they have been sat by the side of the road taking a two-hour break.”

New technology is transforming the lives of company car drivers and helping employers to track fleet costs, says Nic Paton

An employee is between appointments, another boring motorway stretches ahead, and they are gritting their teeth because they know this is ‘dead’ time they will probably have to make up outside office hours.

We are not quite there yet, but as technology advances, the company car is becoming almost an ad-hoc office. Mobile devices such as iPhones and iPads are expanding the horizons of what can be accessed from a car, while GPS, fuel cards, vehicle tracking and mileage-capture systems are enabling firms to pinpoint what their fleets are doing and costing.

In fact, in-car technology is developing so quickly that it is just possible to foresee a time when drivers will be able to sit back and get on with something else while their car ferries them safely to their next job or meeting, says Paul Hollick, general manager – sales at leasing company Alphabet. “Perhaps in 10 years’ time, we might be at a point where the driver is not actually driving the car any more,” he says. “Already the technology is there for automatic braking and steering, so I suspect making the car safer will be more and more a case of removing the main cause of accidents: driver error.”

At its most basic, fleet technology can be split into on-board devices fitted during manufacture and equipment added after manufacture, says Mike Waters, director of market insight at leasing firm Arval. “With on-board, you are increasingly looking at electronic stability control, adaptive cruise control, adaptive headlights, and so on,” he says.

On-board innovations

Other innovations include lane departure warning systems, self-parking systems, intelligent speed adaptation and start/stop technology, which automatically shuts down and restarts an engine when it is idling, perhaps at traffic lights, to improve fuel economy. “We are also starting to get more diesel/petrol and electric hybrids,” says Waters.

“So you might be coming into [a city such as] London and the GPS will automatically switch the power supply over to electric. More fleet-related smartphone applications are appearing, such as accident apps, as are more plug-in devices that allow you to collect, update or submit data.”

For post-manufacture technology, most recent activity has involved telematics, mainly GPS, mileage capture and tracking, and fuel card-based systems. Paul Jackson, managing director of the Miles Consultancy, says: “Tracking within commercial vehicles has become quite mainstream now. A lot of people are moving to fuel cards and I suspect we will see more going that way to try to mitigate the effects of next year’s VAT rise.”

Arval’s Waters adds: “Through telematics, employers are able to collect data not only on vehicle performance, but driver performance too, for example if someone is being too heavy with their foot.”

Food manufacturer Heinz is rolling out a fuel card and mileage tracking system for its 500-car fleet, having run a pilot scheme last year. The change was motivated by a desire for better accuracy of fuel reimbursement for business mileage, and, with fuel costs often out of sync with HM Revenue and Customs’ advisory rates, simply to make things fairer, says Ken Horrocks, Heinz’s UK and Ireland reward manager (see case study, p43).

“The HMRC rate is fixed and does not take account of fuel price rises, so we see this system as far fairer because we are giving people back what they actually spend.”

The system has been linked to a new electronic expenses infrastructure. “It is very straightforward,” says Horrocks. “It is a single, standard form where staff log the trip by putting in the postcode of where they have come from and gone to, fill in a few drop-down boxes, and then it tells them the pence per mile they can claim for that trip. Before, each department had different forms.”

People implications

When introducing systems like this, it is important to think about the ‘people’ implications of the technology. “We have made a point of trying to make it something positive,” says Horrocks. “So we have not challenged anyone about anything yet. There was a feeling from some departments that it was all about checking up on people. But we have spent time communicating the benefits and rewards. Of course, if someone is way out on their fuel use or racing around in their car at the weekend, we will be able to see it.”

But does all this extra technology increase the administrative burden, either for the driver or the back-office benefits team? And does the fact that everything is so computerised and interlinked make maintenance more expensive if something goes wrong?

With modern, reliable vehicles, the reality is that extra technology actually tends to aid the maintenance process, says Arval’s Waters. “The technology can monitor things more, so it can tell you when the car needs a check-up. There is much more preventative maintenance than there used to be.”

On the issue of administration, the fact that many telematics providers offer their technology as software as a service (SaaS) – in other words, on demand – minimises extra administration and means services can be scaled up or down as required, says Derek Bryan, sales director at telematics firm FleetMatics. “Doing it under SaaS makes it much more manageable, especially for smaller businesses which might have been put off by the capital cost,” he says.

But just because employers have the capability to gather and monitor all this data does not mean they need to do so, says Alphabet’s Hollick. “There can be a risk of ‘death by data’,” he warns. “Employers can end up with so many data reports – telematics, fuel, and so on – that they may have a load of information, but not a clear view of the issues.”

Employers must also consider the monthly charges and any costs around fitting devices or removing them at the end of their fleet life, says Waters. “You need to have done a proper cost-benefit analysis, because this is not the right answer for everyone. The key is to choose the technology appropriate for the business and its drivers.”

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