Fleet Management in the Fast Lane

BTR_Feature_Art_Fleet_5_28_13 The world of fleet management is moving at a steady clip.

Broadly speaking, enabling workers to make their appointed rounds - toting the necessary tools and the right information - as efficiently as possible is one of an MSO's biggest challenges. It also is one of its biggest line items. However, wringing a few pennies out of the process telescopes across these large fleets and generates significant savings.

The good news is that several recent advances in fleet management are making those savings, along with opportunities to increase top line revenue and help the environment, more easily reachable.

The biggest change is Bring Your Own Device (BYOD). Indeed, the trend - which is impacting every facet of IT and telecommunications - is perfectly suited to fleet management. In this case, according to Christian Schenk, the senior vice president for product and marketing strategy for XRS - formerly Xata - the charge is being led by smaller and mid-term companies.

Use of employees’ privately owned tablets and smartphones is growing. The non-top tier companies are leading the charge for a couple of reasons. In traditional fleet management scenarios, expensive and one-dimensional GPS-only gear is placed in vehicles. Big operators are more likely to make this capital investment. During the life of that investment, however, a powerful and more generic set of platforms built on Android and iOS has emerged. Fleet management apps also have appeared. It is the smaller operators - with less invested in the purpose-built solutions and an easier operational approval process - who are more likely to be the first to try the new approach.

It’s a win/win: Since it is not a purpose-built fleet management platform, the field tech will use it for other functions as well. "Why put more technology in the vehicle that is … just used for employment purposes and you just get a bare minimum of  value from it?" Schenk said.

There are tradeoffs, however. The mid-tier operator rationale for using BYOD fleet management is solid. But, according to Joyce Tam, Trimble's principal product manager for field service management, some of the specialized and intensive insight that comes with a purpose-built platform could be missing. And, she said, the benefits from following an end-to-end workflow - not standalone apps - can be great. "When you look at the more comprehensive approach," she said, "I don’t think that message has been widely heard at some of those mid tiers."

It may be that there is a tradeoff of sorts. While BYOD approaches present a far lower barrier to entry, they may not offer the more comprehensive set of tools to let the operator to fully exploit the technology.

BYOD is not the only new thing in fleet management. Susan McLaughlin, the vice president of cable strategic accounts for TOA, said the cloud is enabling operators - or, more likely, providers they retain - to amass huge amounts of computer power to mine the almost endless amount of information a cable operator generates. The trends that are identified can be leveraged in useful ways.

For instance, it can be used to construct predictive analysis scenarios or for exception reporting in which workers performing far enough below or above expectations to deserve praise or remedial help are identified. "Companies like TOA are cloud-based and give you incredible capability power to process data with predictive algorithms," McLaughlin said. "The art and science is taking this data and displaying it in a simple view with visual cues for users."

The third ongoing issue for cable operators - and the third with upside and no apparent downside - is the expanding use of GPS. Karl Weber, the vice president of enterprise sales for SageQuest, said the data provided by GPS is a treasure trove of information for operators. It can help to increase productivity, cut emissions, improve safety and save fuel.

Cutting gas expenditures is perhaps the most striking feature. SageQuest parent  Fleetmatics Group CEO Jim Travers said on an earnings call that the head of service for Comcast’s western division told the Field Service Show in Palm Springs in late April that GPS was pivotal in reducing fuel consumption and overtime costs by more than $750,000 a month. The division uses about 5,500 vehicles, which is about 25% of Comcast’s entire fleet. The savings was about in the neighborhood of $25,000 per day.

Patrick McDonald, the Vice President of Technical Operations for Comcast's Western Division, validated the general thrust of the numbers, though he said that ongoing variables keep them from being entirely consistent on an ongoing basis. "I think it it was nice to see the reduction, the substantial reduction," he said. The reporting from SageQuest is very actionable and -- tagged with a campaign to reduce idle time -- is very positive."

Weber doesn't see the interest fading. "As the price of fuel remains $3.50 to $4 a gallon, being able to use GPS to understand the opportunities to cut fuel costs can be considerable," he said. "That understanding is further cemented, especially with the price of fuel [recently] going up a bit."

The startling thing about fleet management is that it is a winner on so many levels: Cutting fuel consumption is green and saves money; gathering actionable data improves the finances of the operator in many ways; finding better routes at a given moment in time cuts appointment windows; and careful monitoring does nothing less than prevent injury, death and property damage. Whether it is a set of apps downloaded from an online marketplace or a purpose-built platform, there is no question that fleet management offers nothing but upside.

Carl Weinschenk is the Senior Editor of Broadband Technology Report.  Contact him at carl@btreport.net

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