Fleet Management: Simple Steps to Cut Fuel Use

BTR_Feature_Art_Savethefuel_12-16-13 If there is one thing that is as close to the heart of a C-level executive as making money, it is saving money. And nowhere is the ability to shave off a bit of opex greater than in field forces, simply because a few cents saved in the operation of one vehicle can happily be telescoped across an entire fleet.

The good news is that saving money on what a single truck and field technician do on a normal day or in a normal week doesn't seem to be too difficult. The difficult part seems to be having the discipline to incorporate these procedures in a methodical manner across the entire fleet.

But it can be - and is being - done. One of the key advances during the decade was the emergence of GPS. These eyes in the sky allow cable companies to track, with a great deal of precision, not only how trucks are getting to where they need to go, but also a tremendous amount of other important information about what is going on in the vehicle. "GPS ... can track vehicle to enable it to take the correct routes and monitor engine idling time," said Gary Dennis, a marketing manager for Trimble.

The obvious benefits of GPS are the capabilities to provide the best directions from point A to point B and to route workers around traffic jams and other big picture items. However, the basic ability to detect whether a vehicle is running but not moving is vital: Idling engines are to C-level executives what idle hands are to teachers. "Providing a report that says, 'Gary Dennis is idled 2 hours per day last week,' can have impact. Cable techs realize that what they are doing and what is being monitored and the numbers [managers] are looking at."

Simply telling drivers how much they idle can have positive benefits. Traditionally, many technicians didn't think twice about keeping the truck idling during the entire length of an appointment. It simply is force of habit, and many will stop if asked. In other cases, education, contests and, perhaps, a stern word from a supervisor can drastically cut down on idling. "Idling can be cut by providing positive incentives timed to an education program," said Karl Weber, the vice president of enterprise sales for Fleetmatics. "Some techs leave their vehicle idling all day and don't realize the environmental impact or the impact on the vehicle."

It is related but more subtle that GPS can track the way in which drivers accelerate and brake. Clearly, changing such entrenched habits is a more difficult task than simply remembering to turn the key off. But the technology exists to gradually improve driver habits. Such initiatives can be tied to sophisticated gamification strategies that award winners - financially or otherwise - for compliance. Such systems also can alert managers when vehicles need maintenance - such as when tires are not at the proper pressure - and even when parts are operating outside of parameters and therefore close to failure. Such information can enable proactive maintenance that impacts operations less and adds up, bit by bit, to more efficient and inexpensive operations.

The advance of technology also is making it possible to approach dispatch in a radically different - and potentially much less expensive - manner. In the past, technicians generally would show up at the warehouse or other central point at the beginning of their shift to get the equipment and materials they will be using that day.

The sophistication of the software and the emergence of machine-to-machine (M2M) communications is making it possible for operators to cut down - in some cases radically - on the number of times techs have to come to the distribution point. Now, for instance, there can be an M2M sensor on each device as well as the truck itself. All the information and tracking capabilities generated by those tools make the idea of skipping visits to the distribution points - which, in rural systems, can be significant distances out of the tech's way - more feasible.

It is not a slam dunk, however, and not for every company. The operator needs to trust the techs to work with less overt supervision and ensure that they are adequately securing equipment-laden vehicles during off hours. Of course, the need for much equipment is not foreseen days ahead of time. Plans must be made to deliver these materials to people in the field. "It takes the relevant data and manages it proactively," said Doug Simmons, the senior vice president of sales and marketing for PenguinData. "You need to do a significant amount of planning from there warehousing aspect."

Perhaps the easiest way to save on fuel is the most obvious - and one that has nothing to do with the vehicles themselves. Training field forces effectively avoids revisits and saves money. Said Simmons: "The better educated the field forces are, the less fuel consumed, for sure."

Carl Weinschenk is the Senior Editor of Broadband Technology Report. Contact him at carlw@pennwell.com .

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