To buy or not to buy: Can communications save you money?

by Ingrid Phaneuf

TORONTO, Ont. – Do tracking technologies pay off? They do indeed, at least according to the panel members of Vehicle Communications – Fact, Fiction and Urban Myths, one of the sessions held at the annual Canadian Fleet Maintenance Seminar at the Inn on the Park in Toronto in May.

Moderated by Jim Pinder of John Grant Haulage, the panel included Paul Decou, president of Tach West Instruments, Jeff Gardiner, from Harper Detroit Diesel-Allison, Lynda Harvey, from Natural Resources Canada’s FleetSmart program and Colin Sutherland, from GEOTAB (a company which specializes in GPS applications in the transport industry).

Each presenter had their version of which technology best serves the interests of cost-conscious fleet managers, but basically all the technologies presented offered access to the same vital data: equipment use, MPGs, idling time and fuel tax charges, basic information needed to help a fleet save money.

First up was Decou, with a brief history of tachographs, followed by a pitch for his company’s in-vehicle black box and Smart Key combo, a technology that allows fleet managers to keep track of equipment use via an information-storing key inserted into an in-cab black box.

Once the driver returns the key to the manager, information about everything from idling to RPMs, MPGs, and braking can be downloaded, allowing for an informed assessment of the vehicle’s efficiency.

“The black box and Smart Key are especially useful after an accident, if the driver doesn’t need to be towed. He can still drive the truck back to the yard, as long as he takes the key out of the box first. All the accident report information is stored in the key,” Decou pointed out.

Next on the panel came Sutherland, extolling the virtue of GPS tracking technology satellites developed by the U.S. military.

“Finding the location of your vehicle is free, and that can be accomplished within a 21-foot range of accuracy,” he explained to seminar delegates.

Additional information reports on vehicle use and efficiency can be tailored to a company’s requirements, depending on what they need, courtesy of software developed by GEOTAB, Sutherland explained.

Gardiner gave a talk on the kind of information that can now be extracted from engines, thanks to the compatible software available from engine manufacturers.

“The engines already have all the information needed to determine whether the truck is being used efficiently,” he said.

On-board sensors calculate and store specific data, and a choice of access tools, including readers, software programs and palm-held readers provide managers with reports on trip miles, average MPG, idle times, brake applications, speeding etc…

Last but not least, came Harvey with a general overview of how information on equipment use can help save fleets money.

Harvey pointed to a study of bus drivers tested for fuel-efficient driving habits without and then with FleetSmart coaching.

The study is a good example of how technology can be used to measure drivers’ performance and thereby increase the ability to reduce emissions and save fuel, thereby benefiting both the environment and fleets.

“Reducing idling can result in significant fuel savings,” Harvey said, pointing to another study, in which a 40-truck fleet reduced its idling time from 50 hours to 25 hours per week, thereby saving $130 per week per truck. When the company multiplied that savings by 28 weeks per year (which is the average time each truck spent on the road) they ended up saving $145,000 per year. In addition, the same company showed a $19,600 savings in oil changes per year, thanks to the fact they only needed two oil changes per truck.

“The savings ($145,000 plus $19,600=$165,200) can be put back in the company, into equipment, salaries, or whatever else is needed,” Harvey said.

The bottom line, according to panelists, was that good monitoring technology more than pays for itself in terms of savings on fuel and maintenance costs.

During question period, delegates showed a healthy interest in the topic of discussion, with questions ranging from “Can drivers disable reporting devices or erase information?” (some are easier to disable than others) to “How can I use satellite tracking for fuel tax reporting?” from the audience.

Audience members were also eager to see the MNR perform fuel efficiency tests on truck drivers, which Harvey said is on the way, along with a fuel management training course, Fuel Management 101, to be offered at community colleges this fall.

Audience members were also curious about just how much data could be recorded on on-board computers prior to downloading ( about 5,000 to 10,000 kms or two to four weeks was the estimate).

Another major concern was the fear tracking technologies appear to inspire in drivers.

“Some drivers may accuse their fleet managers of trying to see what they’re doing all the time, but the fact is, tracking technologies are fleet management tools in a competitive market,” Gardiner said. “They’re not a disciplinary tool, they’re intended to help managers improve the drivers’ performance.”

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