Mine truck data and reap the rewards

by Elizabeth Bate

Your truck is a computer on wheels. The combination of telematics systems, electronic logging devices, and the so-called “black boxes” on all newer vehicles make your trucks a wealth of information, but what does it really tell you? And more important, how can you use that information to put money back in a fleet’s pocket?

Owning a telematics system and compatible software is the first step toward putting all that valuable data to good use, but if you have the hardware installed and confusion still reigns every time you look at the numbers, you may need some coaching to make the most of your investment.

The analysts at telematics maker Geotab give managers three pieces of advice:

First, take it slow and take the time to explore. When you become more familiar with a system, you know at a glance what kinds of data are available to you and whether you have the data to help make specific business decisions.

Second, get help if you need it. Not everyone is a technological wizard, and if even exploring a system leaves you with a sense of anxiety, you’ll benefit from hiring a data scientist or analyst to figure it out. Even a few hours with an expert can bring clarity to an otherwise murky subject.

The good news is that the company making your system should have someone able to walk you through some of the basics. If they don’t have someone on staff designated to help teach clients how to visualize their data and put it to work, they should be able to help find a data scientist that’s up to the task.

And finally, keep it simple. Focusing on too much information can make it hard to use any of it. If you really want to turn your data into dollars, narrow your field to just a few data points.

Start small, see big results

Data pours off trucks like water from a fire hose, and trying to take a drink could leave you feeling like you’re drowning.

While larger fleets can often afford to hire a single person, or even a whole team to help them download, sort and analyze data full-time, fleet managers at smaller companies may need to learn to do those tasks themselves. The best bet for fleets wanting to use their trucks’ information to make a difference in a bottom line is to start small.

“Don’t start off trying to tackle multiple areas, start with one area, set benchmarks and continue to monitor and measure the data,” Geotab’s experts say.

Starting small means picking a single area of concern and focusing on that specific problem. Trying to manage too many metrics at once could not only lead to confusion and frustration, but often trying too many things at once can lead to uncertain results – it’s hard to tell which change is having what effect if there are too many changes being implemented at once.

Simple areas to start with include improving driver behavior to increase fuel efficiency and improve safety, and lowering maintenance and repair costs. All three areas present opportunities for a noticeable return on investment, without spending a lot of time or effort trying to distill too much information.

Using the data coming off a truck, drivers and managers can pull just one set of numbers to make a big difference. For example, many companies have focused on idling, differentiating between the unavoidable time in traffic or in a yard, and that which burns fuel for no good reason.

Goals can then be set to reduce everyone’s average idling time, or just focus on those drivers whose idling time is the highest. Telematics devices can even be programmed to create idling alerts, reminding drivers to turn off the engine if they’ve been sitting too long.

Just like idling, speeding or hard braking events can be measured by telematics devices, allowing managers to download the information, map it out and use it to make safety-related improvements.

Safety first

Kristin Costas, Lytx director product management, says fleet managers will often tell her that they don’t need to monitor driver behavior for safety issues like speeding, texting, or not wearing seatbelts because they have policies in place forbidding those activities.

Just because a policy exists, doesn’t mean it’s being followed, says Costas, who teaches fleet managers to use Lytx telematics and driver-facing video systems to help alter driver behavior.

Video systems like the one Lytx and other companies offer in combination with telematics data allows managers to pinpoint events – such as a hard braking or sudden lane change – and see video of what the driver was doing before and during the event, in addition to the video focused on the road ahead. This allows fleets to verify whether a driver was distracted, speeding, or even wearing a seatbelt.

Even systems without video capability may have data points to help drivers strengthen their in-cab habits. Systems can be programmed to isolate braking, speed, sudden lane changes, and other areas that may indicate a driver needs work on a smoother technique behind the wheel.

Improving those driver behaviors fleet-wide will have obvious benefits such as fewer collisions and potentially lower insurance premiums as a result, not to mention the potential for less time lost due to injuries.

But there are some not-so-obvious benefits to driving improvements as well.

Drivers who follow at a safe distance, slow down, and brake smoothly save fuel and maintenance costs over time, making them a better long-term investment for a fleet over a driver who is quick but inefficient.

Once a carrier can leverage one or two data points into a better bottom line, it can choose to add more information to find further improvements, or be happy using what seems manageable.

Big data, big business

Not all useful, money-saving data needs to come exclusively from your own trucks to be effective. Telematics companies and truck manufacturers are using their data to create big savings opportunities for carriers.

With thousands of vehicles and millions of data points connected through their software, companies like PeopleNet and Geotab are harnessing that information and providing it to users to help make life easier.

One big data-based solution involves moving from preventive maintenance to predictive maintenance.

A PeopleNet predictive solution involves pulling information continuously from thousands trucks using vehicle identification numbers (VIN), focusing on makes and models. The system then works to identify when a related component is likely to malfunction. Once the technology has a reasonable idea when something will break down, alerts can be sent to fleets to let them know to get a part fixed just before it’s about to cause a problem.

The predictive maintenance model allows fleets to maximize uptime by not replacing parts too early — reducing service bills — while also not waiting until the systems fail, causing lost hours while a truck is down.

A similar idea from Geotab goes one step further. With the launch this spring of data.geotab.com, Geotab is sharing information pulled from over 1 million vehicles for free.

The company carefully made the data anonymous and is allowing fleets, governments, and schools to use it to do everything from seeing when their brakes are likely to fail, to which pot-hole-filled routes cause the most damage, to where a new stop sign might be needed.

Seller beware

Just like the selling of names, phone numbers, and email addresses, brokerage firms even exist to facilitate the buying and selling of fleet data. Everything from route information, to load weights, to driving habits and fuel consumption may be of interest to someone. But selling data your data isn’t necessarily recommended.

Even sources that say they use only anonymous data may have trouble removing all identifiable markers from a fleet’s information, presenting very real privacy concerns for everyone involved, Geotab spokespeople note.

Once data is sold, it’s out in the world forever and there’s no getting it back.

Another consideration: although fleets generally own their own data — not the telematics company providing it – selling data directly from the system that’s used may violate user agreements.

There are so many ways telematics data can generate money, this one may be best left alone.

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