A growing number of utility fleets are turning to telematics to improve driver behavior, cut fuel consumption, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and uncover numerous cost-saving opportunities throughout their fleet operations.
But it’s not the GPS data itself that makes telematics so useful; it’s how fleet and senior management use that information when managing their people and processes that ultimately determines the business case for the technology.
How can you use telematics to more effectively manage your drivers and their use of your equipment? How do you handle potential pushback from employees who might be wary of “being watched”? How can you integrate telematics with other technology systems to help your organization improve vehicle uptime, emergency dispatch response and overall service to customers?
The fleet team with utility contractor INTREN Inc. has wrestled with questions like these since deploying GPS technology in approximately 700 vehicles over the past five years. And they’ve come up with some innovative solutions and interesting insights that might help other fleets get the most out of their own telematics deployments.
Started in 1988 as a small trenching company in Union, Ill., INTREN has grown into a full-service utility construction contractor with more than 1,000 employees and offices in Illinois, California, Wisconsin and Missouri. Today, the company serves major electric and gas utilities and private corporations nationwide.
As INTREN expanded, so did its equipment requirements. That’s what drove the company to look into GPS technology as a tool to more effectively manage the increasing number of drivers and equipment assets.
Jim Bishop, director of fleet services at INTREN, said that the company started a telematics trial with 50 units about five years ago, and then gradually rolled it out on additional vehicles to the point that today “we put it on every licensed piece of equipment and certain high-dollar off-road equipment.”
The company had clear goals that it wanted to achieve with the technology. “While we’ve viewed telematics as a tool to green our fleet [because of tracking capabilities that help reduce greenhouse gas emissions], a major factor in our decision to go with telematics was to drive down our operational costs like fuel expense,” said Pat Williams, INTREN’s senior director of supply chain.
Despite the value proposition for management, telematics initially was a cause for concern among INTREN’s drivers.
“When we initially rolled out GPS, our field personnel had significant concern with the idea of Big Brother watching them,” Bishop said.
In situations like this, when you’re encountering resistance on telematics deployment, how do you handle it in such a way that drivers don’t feel like the technology is being shoved down their throats?
“Include drivers in the process by getting their input and feedback,” Williams advised.
Take idle reduction, for example. It’s nothing new that telematics can help fleets monitor excessive engine idle with real-time alerts and reports, acting as a tool to hold drivers accountable for cutting down their engine idle time and eliminating fuel waste. But if drivers perceive that the technology is there strictly to catch them doing something wrong, this could have a negative impact on their morale and productivity.
INTREN’s fleet team was sensitive to this risk and decided to take a more collaborative approach with drivers.
“We wanted drivers to know that telematics isn’t just Big Brother watching,” Bishop said. “So when we focused on idle reduction, we sought feedback from the field as to specifically why they were needing to idle. Some of the feedback we got was that their trucks needed to be running because of the power drawn from their four-way flashers, strobes or the power inverters inside the vehicle.”
Instead of coming up with a directive of, “Hey, you’ve got to change your habits to bring down your idle time or you’ll be penalized,” the fleet team looked at potential equipment spec modifications that could address management’s objective to reduce fuel costs, while also considering the drivers’ concerns.
“We took their feedback, ran some tests, found out what the average draw was and realized that, in some cases, an incandescent bulb could run the vehicle batteries down quickly,” Bishop said. “So we switched over to LED stoplights, turn signals and strobe lights. Now, even on a 15-degree day you can run that equipment for six hours, and the truck doesn’t need to be running.”
According to Williams, “You can use the telematics to spot a problem. But then you need to get to the cause. And in many cases, the best way to get that information is to talk with your people and find a solution that satisfies concerns across the board.”
Increased Visibility and Productivity
With GPS technology, fleet managers can get real-time and historical data on the status and location of their vehicles. That’s a nice feature, but what does it mean in terms of real-world impact on your business?
“For our road service technicians, location data eliminates a lot of phone calls and helps speed their response,” Williams said. “When we alert the tech that a truck is broken down, we don’t have to give them an address. They just type in the unit number on their mobile device, find the truck location on the GPS and get directions to get there.”
It also helps with mobilizing and coordinating storm response teams.
“We may send up to 200 people out on storm response,” Williams said. “Without telematics, you can’t really see what’s going on with all those units, where they are, whether any of them are having any mechanical issues and so forth. Now, we can immediately see what assets we have available, where they are and can more efficiently coordinate them.”
Real-time location data also facilitates safety audits in a way that minimizes impact on staff productivity.
“Our crews are all over metro Chicago, San Francisco and other areas across the country. GPS helps us to supervise and audit our crews more efficiently,” Williams said. “If you’re trying to track down a four-man crew, a phone call is a difficult way to find those guys. For example, the safety department is not directly supervising the crews, but they are responsible to go find and audit them. With GPS location data, they can locate the crews without phone calls – just find them on GPS.”
The Next Level: Mobile Fleet Technology
While these benefits offer a compelling business case for GPS technology, what if you could take the power of telematics to a higher level: to maximize its impact – and value – throughout the organization? That’s what Williams said INTREN is doing with a proprietary system the company has dubbed “Mobile Fleet Technology,” or MFT.
With MFT, INTREN is integrating telematics data with the company’s in-house back office and vehicle maintenance software systems to help the fleet department more efficiently manage maintenance schedules, accelerate repair times and boost overall vehicle uptime and productivity.
“MFT is what we’re using with our technicians to record all of our repair services, so we can measure our costs better and really try to improve our speed of repair,” Bishop said. “How fast can we, as an organization, respond to a piece of equipment that is down? This helps us improve our utilization rates because we’re reducing the number of spares we need to keep in our fleet.”
“We’re also using the system as a repair and maintenance scheduling tool,” Williams said. “How should you go about scheduling your preventive maintenance, your road repairs, your in-shop repairs, third-party repairs? How do you manage all those repair schedules [for nearly 1,400 pieces of equipment] in a way that operations will optimize uptime on the equipment? That’s what MFT is intended to do.”
The Bottom Line
The key takeaway from INTREN’s experience with rolling out GPS technology itself is only half the equation. The other half is the human element. Fleet managers must be able to work through and with people to build acceptance of telematics and be able to think analytically about how the data can be integrated with other systems in ways that contribute maximum value for the fleet and the business as a whole.