Monitoring Fleets on the Move

By John Woronczuk

September 11, 2006

A telematics vendor makes the business case for metro Wi-Fi, saying citywide wireless networks can improve transportation programs.

Municipalities that have deployed low-cost Wi-Fi networks are seeking new applications to run over those networks, enabling businesses and residents to reap the benefits of access.

Each community has its own reasons for deploying a wide-scale wireless infrastructure, whether that's low-cost Internet access for citizens, making government more efficient, enhancing public safety or spurring economic development. However, once the broadband wireless infrastructure is in place, any municipality can improve its fleet operations - whether that fleet comprises 10 vehicles or 10,000.

A wireless fleet monitoring system is one of the many wireless applications that a municipality can deploy over wireless infrastructure. In so doing, a municipality will enjoy cost savings and increased efficiencies in fleets used for utilities, law enforcement and more. Going one step further, a city can even allow other local businesses to run wireless fleet services over this shared infrastructure.

Managing the Unmanageable

All government vehicles -- public transit buses, bylaw enforcement vehicles, public safety vehicles (law enforcement, fire or ambulance) or public works trucks -- need to be operating well, managed effectively, and proactively maintained. Often, the expenses of operating a fleet are thought to be unmanageable, particularly in light of rising fuel costs. This is no longer the case, and wireless networks are playing a critical role in changing how fleet operators view the management of their fleets.

Still, it is understandable that fleet operations are often seen as wildcards. Traditional methods -- and even some modern means -- of collecting the vehicle information that is necessary for fleet management have certain drawbacks.

Manually collecting data from city fleet vehicles is the oldest and most common means of managing fleets. Even for vehicles with some level of automation -- such as fuel management programs -- manual collection of odometer readings or manual calculations of fuel consumption often prevail.

The manual method leaves much to chance, with cost savings and productivity improvements unrealized. It leaves fleet managers with no viable means of anticipating problems like latent maintenance issues, or addressing sensitive issues such as likely "spillage" problems.

More sophisticated fleet programs such as anti-idling and clean air initiatives are impossible to manage with manually collected data. This type of information -- and the decisions the data is required to support -- depend on real data obtained from a vehicle's computer systems, easily, automatically and inexpensively.

Many organizations turn to outsourced fleet management companies that use software and a team of support staff to help make sense of fleet operations. They do this by having the organization's drivers use fuel and service purchase cards. This unifies reporting and billing, but still relies on manual intervention. Someone is required to input or record timely and accurate information about the vehicle, such as odometer readings.

Card-based outsourcing services can help to manage a fleet's costs, but these still do not get "under the hood" to identify problems or driver behaviors that contribute significantly to the cost and efficiency of a fleet.

One modern method of automatically collecting vehicle and driver data uses cellular phone network technology (GPRS, GSM, etc.). This method captures vehicle location information using satellite-based GPS and sends it from the vehicle over the cellular network -- it's just like making a cell-phone call. This information focuses more on location than vehicle diagnostics data and is more appropriate for real time needs such as lost vehicles, security and dispatch purposes. Information such as speeding and braking, for example, would be derived from the change in GPS location information over time and may have accuracy issues since the data doesn't come from actual vehicle computers.

The more frequently you have a vehicle send information, the more money you will be charged by the cellular carrier. There are also increased staffing requirements associated with real time systems as employees are needed to monitor and interpret the data at all times.

The most advanced method of capturing and transmitting vehicle location and key operating information uses the same technology but in municipal/public wireless deployments of 802.11b/g-based Wi-Fi. This method utilizes existing (or planned) metro wireless infrastructure to capture and download vehicle data without cellular airtime costs.

When a fleet vehicle drives through or parks in an area where there is Wi-Fi coverage, information can be automatically sent from the vehicle without any intervention required from the driver. The information can then be sent securely over the Internet or over a city's own network, and delivered to a Web-based business application where vital fleet management reports are run and actions can be taken.

This type of solution generally comprises three main parts:

  • The data collection instrument (located in the vehicle), called a Vehicle Interface Unit (VIU), which connects under the dash to the vehicle's diagnostic port, commonly called an On Board Diagnostic (OBDII).
  • The wireless communication mode. The VIU communicates with the vehicle's computers over the OBDII port and stores the relevant information and when within range of the Wi-Fi zone(s), automatically sends this information wirelessly to the Internet-based application.
  • The business application that provides data analysis, reporting and notifications. This application can reside on the city's network or that of a WISP or other third party (such as my company, Netistix).

Local government fleets and even local business fleets can expect to leverage and benefit from this Wi-Fi infrastructure with reduced operation costs, reduced capital costs, improved fleet utilization, increased maintenance/fleet productivity, safer vehicles and greener environmental impact.

Additional Benefits

Many other benefits, not directly related to cost savings, are byproducts of a wireless fleet monitoring solution. These include GHG (greenhouse gas) emission reductions through reduced idling and better vehicle health, as well as lower accident rates through improved driver training programs.

A wireless fleet management solution within a Metro Wi-Fi network -- or any other existing wireless framework -- will require no additional investment in Wi-Fi equipment and associated installation and maintenance, which have already been allotted and accounted for. This makes the payback for the fleet management solution even faster than it is in private or sole-purposed Wi-Fi projects, in which the Wi-Fi infrastructure typically accounts for 15-20% of the overall Wi-Fi fleet management project.

Taking the Next Steps

While any fleet can benefit, certain fleets may have a more pressing need for these advantages. Equipment maintenance and law enforcement fleets are two that are rapidly adopting wireless monitoring systems. In addition, numerous other municipal departments can benefit, including city environmental staff, health and safety staff, union representatives, IT and finance (including taxation and insurance). Some communities may view a wireless fleet application as an opportunity to offer the infrastructure as an economic development tool, allowing local businesses with fleet vehicles to also benefit.

Municipalities with public Wi-Fi infrastructures and those planning these new infrastructures can benefit on multiple levels from Wi-Fi-based fleet monitoring. That's because a well-managed fleet has widespread municipal impacts, encompassing safety, the environment, and better use of tax dollars. Through advanced fleet management programs, a city can demonstrate -- both through hard facts and soft benefits -- its commitment to a variety of programs and initiatives.

John Woronczuk is vice president of marketing for Netistix Technologies, developer and marketer of the FleetPulse telematics product.

Does your company have something to say about the Wi-Fi market in its myriad shapes and forms? Let us know.

Add to | DiggThis

Comment and Contribute
(Maximum characters: 1200). You have
characters left.