–GPS AVL the All-Purpose Fleet Management Tool

–GPS AVL the All-Purpose Fleet Management Tool

By John Kruse, IDA Corp.

Never before has technology offered such benefit to utility vehicle fleet management than what is available today with satellite tracking and mobile data communications. Global positioning system (GPS) technology will ultimately permeate virtually all segments of travel and communications. Today, using GPS, there is tremendous value to be obtained in automatic vehicle location (AVL). The utility vehicle fleet manager now has a powerful multi-function tool to achieve higher standards of fleet performance, as well as, provide greater support and safety to fleet personnel. Though there is diversity of wants and needs between vehicle fleets, GPS AVL can accommodate that diversity. For power utilities it can mean higher levels of customer service, cost reduction and increased safety for employees. Any utility fleet manager concerned with fleet performance or effectiveness should seriously explore the benefits of GPS AVL fleet management.

Traditionally there has been little direct control of vehicles away from the central office. Being out of sight of dispatchers and supervisors, valuable assets in the form of vehicles or equipment and utility personnel were literally out of reach. It was impossible, or at least very difficult, to manage the performance of remote vehicles and employees. Opportunity for efficiency was limited to anticipation of possible situations and there was only a vague perception of effectiveness of the fleet, after the fact. Without the ability to monitor fleets in real time, or at least document fleet activity, the fleet manager had little to work with.

Fleet management has improved with increased technology, especially in the area of communications. Two-way radio and cellular telephone have connected the remote vehicle with the base dispatcher and provided a measure of improvement in management. The dispatcher or fleet manager can make use of these voice communications to inquire locations, determine status, relay instructions, etc. Inherent with voice communications, however, is the time expended to communicate and the element of possible lack of understanding that may take place. With voice there is no permanent record or documentation of the communication. When an inquiry is made of a driver for his location, he may not be able to give an accurate verbal response. The dispatcher does not have a graphical representation of where the vehicle is in relation to landmarks or other vehicles, making it more difficult to make on-the-spot efficiency decisions. There is no opportunity to review data for analysis or documentation of fleet activity. Even though business radio and cellular communications have improved fleet management, there still leaves a lot to be desired to approach greater control of remote fleet assets.

Fleet managers are currently experimenting with a number of technologies for better fleet management. Besides voice communications, there are enhanced systems that may incorporate the use of notebook computers for activity logging and data capture. Also, there has been some advancement in the use of data communication terminals in vehicles that may more efficiently communicate status and other information with the dispatch base. Some of these methods still require unnecessary driver time and attention to be dedicated to operating the system. It also relies on the abilities of the system and the driver to accurately record pertinent information. The most desirable fleet management tool is one that captures and records essential information and is transparent to the driver, leaving him to concentrate on the task at hand.

Providing the best solution available today for improved fleet performance is GPS AVL. The combination of locational technology with enhanced messaging capability gives the utility fleet manager an all-purpose management tool to achieve the desired results. Even though individual fleet operations have individual objectives, the multi-functional nature of GPS AVL is adaptable to any situation. GPS AVL will contribute to safety, cost savings, increased revenue, better customer service, higher efficiency and tighter organization of any vehicle or equipment fleet operation.

To accomplish GPS AVL the vehicle is outfitted with equipment, including a GPS receiver and a communications device such as a business band radio. The location position is determined by satellite fix and is transmitted over the communications link to the dispatch base computer. The graphical presentation on the computer shows a vehicle symbol traveling over a digital map. There is a myriad of options available to configure the system. For example, the system can display how often locations are transmitted, vehicle symbols, map landmarks, custom map annotation, etc. Digital maps, displaying small areas or large areas, including the continental United States, are available. Addresses or locations can be searched and displayed. Messaging can be incorporated, along with the locational presentation, allowing direct communication with the vehicle. The tools of GPS AVL can be implemented separately or combined together to provide improved fleet performance.

Dispatch Control

The most obvious fleet management feature associated with GPS AVL is the ability to monitor and control remote vehicles. The base dispatcher can visually keep track of all fleet vehicles` locations. In utility service vehicle applications the closest vehicle can be easily determined and dispatched for the task. Progress on a task can be monitored or queried at a glance. Errors and mistakes can be observed and quickly corrected. A dispatcher recognizing a vehicle taking a wrong road or heading in the wrong direction can quickly detect the problem and advise the driver. The dispatcher can set up an electronic zone on the map which will cause an alert to be given to the dispatcher when and if a vehicle should enter or exit the zone. This can be used to alert the dispatcher that a vehicle is not in a proper location or that a vehicle has come within the proximity of a destination. With GPS AVL the dispatcher has more opportunity to direct and control the activity of remote vehicles.

Emergency Alerts

Knowledge of vehicle locations offers a new dimension of safety to drivers. Using the zone features the system can be used effectively to help protect drivers from entering high danger crime areas. In case of an emergency, a driver can press a button which will immediately alert the dispatcher of the emergency event and will display and record the exact location of the vehicle. Since the longitude and latitude coordinates are available, emergency units like life-flight helicopters can be dispatched immediately to the exact location of the emergency. Drivers can work with more confidence knowing that a higher degree of safety is provided by the system.

Driver Performance

By having the ability to monitor and record the activity of vehicles, the GPS AVL system serves as a “phantom supervisor” for drivers in the field. Heretofore, drivers out of sight of the home base were blindly entrusted to adhere to procedural fleet policies. There may be, at least, the possibility of temptation to abuse a situation and to not continuously stay on task. The drivers` mere knowledge that their activity can be monitored has resulted in as much as a 30 percent increase in productivity, according to one fleet manager.

Conversely, it is possible that the fleet manager, with better knowledge of fleet activity, can gain a greater appreciation for problems and challenges facing drivers in the field. The fleet manager can become more understanding of driver efforts and drivers have the opportunity to demonstrate and document their work performance. Control and supervision of drivers becomes less of a problem, and opportunities to motivate employees arise when fleet vehicle locations can be monitored and recorded.

Efficiency Analysis

The ability to analyze fleet activity and implement actions to increase efficiency is fundamental to achieving desired objectives. A playback of activity for selected vehicles where, for instance, a time span of a month can be compressed to a few minutes or seconds, can demonstrate clearly areas of opportunity for increased efficiency. If it is recognized that vehicles are traveling in a pattern that indicates a lot of backtracking, it may be advantageous to implement dispatch procedures to assign runs to certain vehicles in specific areas. Location data can be exported to computer data applications to be sorted and summarized, producing management reports on vehicle activity. The locations of a vehicle can be graphed in such a way as to give a detailed account of all of the activity over a period of time. With the playback and reporting capabilities available, the benefit to management is limited only by the imagination of the person performing the evaluation.

Preventive Maintenance

Along with locational data, the GPS AVL system can capture and collect data on vehicles or equipment that can be utilized by preventive maintenance programs. Time stamps are an integral part of GPS data. Manipulation of the collected data can yield information which, when incorporated into a preventive maintenance application, can alert persons responsible for vehicle maintenance or equipment of elapsed run times, indicating that certain procedures are due to be performed on the units. Not only will the service person be alerted of required maintenance, but that person will also know where to find the vehicle in order to perform the work.

Messaging

Data messaging can be a more desirable method of communicating between the dispatch base and the vehicle than conventional voice communications. Two types of messaging are most common. One is terminal status messaging, utilizing a vehicle terminal. The other is text messaging, which usually requires a notebook computer or other text-generating device in the vehicle.

A vehicle terminal that connects directly to the GPS AVL vehicle box is available. It is equipped with a display screen and a number of buttons, each indicating a pre-defined programmable message to be sent to the dispatch base. Instructions can be sent to the vehicle by the dispatcher which may be pickup locations or special directions. The driver acknowledges those messages and reports such status conditions as “en route,” “reached destination,” “out of service,” etc., by pressing one of the buttons on the terminal. All of the communications can be recorded with time stamps and vehicle locations in data files for future analysis. Text messaging utilizing a notebook computer or other text generating device in the vehicle is appropriate for situations where a terminal box does not allow the driver enough flexibility to send an extended message. The data message capability can be customized to accommodate almost any business fleet application.

Documentation

Recording of locations and other data by vehicles can be of tremendous value to utility fleet operations. It is sometimes important that certain conditions be documented. Not only does the data serve as documentation of activity, but it can also be used by analysis and even billing applications, streamlining the administrative procedures of the operation. When documentation and data collection are facilitated and real-time monitoring is not necessary, there may not be a need for a communications link to the dispatcher, eliminating the radio. The data is merely collected in the buffer in the vehicle AVL unit. The captured data can be downloaded directly to a notebook computer when the vehicle returns to the base. Using this method, the activity of a vehicle which travels cross-country or over large geographical areas can be reviewed and analyzed when displayed on a system that includes a wide area digital map. The documentation feature can be used to validate the performance of the fleet and can even replace costly and inefficient administrative procedures.

In-Vehicle Supervisor/Monitor

Individual vehicles in the fleet can monitor the activity of the entire fleet using supervisor/monitor. By running this application on a notebook computer in the vehicle, the driver can view the same fleet activity as the base dispatcher. This feature is useful when the one directing activity of the fleet vehicles is in the field. It can also be useful when vehicles in an area need to coordinate activity among themselves. When the supervisor/monitor is present in the vehicle, enhanced messaging is possible as well as in-vehicle navigation. In-vehicle navigation allows for searching addresses, plotting routes to be followed and determining one`s own location on a digital map. The in-vehicle supervisor/monitor can extend the capabilities of the entire system to each vehicle in the fleet.

GPS AVL technology offers considerably more than just knowing where vehicles are or have been. It is one tool with many uses and functions that can be used to build more effective utility fleet management procedures. Customer service, employee safety and cost containment can all be improved by intelligent implementation of GPS AVL systems. GPS AVL is here today. It is an exciting new frontier where exploration will return abundant benefit to the business of vehicle fleet management.

Note

A similar version of this article recently appeared in Telecom Exchange Magazine, an Industrial Telecommunications Association publication based in Arlington, Va. (phone: 703-528-5115).

Author Bio

John Kruse is president and CEO of IDA Corp., Fargo, N.D. IDA Corp. has been designing and manufacturing electronic equipment for the land mobile communications industry for 20 years. The company has introduced TRAKIT, a full-featured GPS/AVL fleet management system. TRAKIT-USA was recently released and features an address search utility and a digital map containing the entire continental United States. Contact Kruse at 701-280-1122 for more information.

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