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Telematics: The Growing Trend

What is Telematics?

Webster’s Dictionary defines telematics as “The combination of telecommunications and computing; Data communications between systems and devices.” An article in Automotive Fleet magazine takes the definition a step further, defining telematics as “telecommunications” and “informatics.” Literally defined, telematics is the integration of wireless communications, vehicle monitoring systems and location devices. Telematics has become a tool to monitor idling time, help reduce bad driving behaviors and eliminate unauthorized vehicle use. Vehicle telematics systems also are increasingly used to provide remote diagnostics.

A Little History 

OnStar was launched in 1996 and is the product that announced the telematics revolution. Today we are witnessing a surge in the use of telematics in the towing industry.  This trend is due in part to the enhancements in On Board Diagnostics (OBD) that became mandatory on autos in 1996 and heavy-duty vehicles in 2010. As a result almost all vehicles sold in the

U.S. and most other developed nations are equipped with some form of On Board Diagnostics. In North America vehicles have common OBD codes and connectors. Think of it as a common language and means of access. This has given rise to a large number of companies developing smart solutions for vehicles and their owners and operators. These companies incorporate information from the Global Positioning System (GPS), cellular communications and OBD system into what we commonly refer to as Telematics. It’s all about smart vehicle technology and communications.

Telematics work by placing a small cellular transceiver in your vehicle. This small piece of equipment can be installed behind the dash, secure and out of sight. It’s connected to the OBD port and then transmits data through cellular connection. Data is being sent from the engine, transmission, PTO, throttle, odometer and many other components. Virtually anything that is electronically monitored by the onboard computers produces data. That data can be transmitted and translated into knowledge you can use to make your business operate more efficiently. The data includes information such as vehicle speed, fuel economy, idle time and much more. The telematics provider converts the data and presents the information in an easily understood format in real time on a website you can access at any time and from anywhere.

Telematics Options for Towing

Would it be helpful if you knew when your tow truck was out working making money anytime day or night? Would it be helpful to know exactly where your truck is and where it’s been? Would you like to know how fast it’s being driven, how long it’s been idled or if there’s a potential problem with the engine? Of course it would, and it is now easy to do. This article touches on both truck and driver telematics but if you are interested in purchasing telematics for your towing fleet, there are a lot of options available. Decide what you want to accomplish then look at products that meet your needs.

Truck Telematics

Welcome to the age when your equipment can communicate with you. And what an advantage it provides towing company owners ready to step into the world of telematics.

Diagnostics

Your towing equipment is how you make money. When it’s down, you are losing money – often by the minute.

Telematics systems proactively track preventive maintenance by mileage, engine usage, or days. Some telematics systems alert you to mechanical problems before they become too severe. For instance, International’s new system, On Command Connection, is designed to work with Internationals and most other trucks sold in North America and can be accessed through various telematics providers. It readsand reports on a wide array of items but one of its unique features is what it does with the DTCs (Diagnostic Trouble Codes). DTCs are reported using a color code system. The colors - green, yellow, and red - indicate the urgency and seriousness of the problem. Based on the DTC, the system suggests repair paths to assist the technician. This allows the user to assess the situation quickly and accurately thus reducing repair costs and downtime.

Tracking

Mapping and routing are the basics of any telematics system. Knowing where your trucks are at all times can assist in streamlining ETAs, reducing empty runs back to the yard and more. In addition to standard GPS features, one enhancement is Geo-Fencing. Let's say you want to keep your units working in a certain part of town or perhaps you want to put other locations "off limits" then Geo-Fencing is for you. You can easily determine the borders of the these virtual fences on a map. The system then notifies you anytime your vehicle passes through on of those virtual fences. 

Along with the GPS, some Telematics software provide reporting options based on mileage. These can be especially handy when comparing truck/driver productivity, fuel usage, or custom reports. In addition, Telematics can make reports such as IFTA (International Fuel Tax Agreement) and IRP (International Registration Plan) easier with automated reports that provide more accurate data.

Karen Vanderpool, co-owner of Lazer Tow Service in Grandview, Mo., has been using BudgetGPS for approximately five years. The company operates 35 trucks serving the Kansas City metro area and a transport division that is nationwide.

While Vanderpool uses numerous features, truck tracking capability is the primary usage. Knowing exactly where trucks are located enables her company to provide customers with the accurate ETAs and dispatch the closest truck to a customer’s location. The “bread- crumb” aspect of knowing where drivers have traveled and when has also proved beneficial to show that drivers arrived at customer locations at scheduled times when a customer may say otherwise.

Other advantageous features include knowing when a truck’s ignition is on (when the driver is off-duty) and geo-fencing to alert when trucks are driven into “off-limits” areas.

“It’s one of the best investments I’ve made,” Vanderpool says. “It aids dispatchers in sending the right truck, allows us to provide better customer service and save money. We run more efficiently by knowing where our trucks are in real time.”

Driver

Tow trucks cannot yet drive themselves. Telematics are an important means of keeping an eye on drivers.

Behavior

The ability to report on bad driving habits like hard acceleration or panic braking events may indicate bad, aggressive and/or distracted driving, giving you a chance to coach your employees to improve safety. Speed alerts can be set so you are notified when the truck exceeds maximum speeds you determine. Modifying driver behavior can increase fuel efficiency, decrease insurance loss claims and keep peace between management and drivers. And you may want to consider a system that will track PTO engagement, allowing you to know when the towing equipment is being used. This is a great way to be sure you’re collecting for what’s yours.

Dispatch

Sending call info to a mobile data terminal (MDT), tablet or smartphone allows for quicker, more efficient driver response with one simple click or command such as: on location, hooked up, dropped, clear or finished. Some systems allow drag-and-drop features for dispatch, regular updates on a truck’s location, dispatching several calls to one driver for efficiency, fuel mileage savings, scheduling of future calls, real-time traffic reports and more.

Dispatch features can also enable drivers to communicate back – sending VIN numbers, photos of pre-existing damage and towing/ recovery procedural questions.

Accounting

Telematics can make your accounting easier as well and many systems work directly with accounting softwares such as QuickBooks. The ability for drivers to swipe credit cards at the scene can save significant processing fees depending upon the number of credit cards you accept monthly. In addition, many softwares offer reporting capabilities that can track everything from truck and driver productivity to call volume, driver commissions, time tracking to determine busiest times of the year, month, week or day.

Is telematics expensive? It depends on the level of service you want. Providers offer different levels of solutions for different needs. For example, you can get a very low cost battery   powered transceiver for tracking assets like a trailer. They may only check the location of the asset once a day and provide no other information. The other end of the spectrum may include dispatch, scheduling, customer records, in- voicing and business system integration. Most are affordable and, when compared to the value received, a bargain. One extra tow a month and usually you’re money ahead.

The benefits of telematics to the towing truck owner can provide a real edge over the competition. If improved customer satisfaction, efficiency, security, cost control and profitability are important to you then telematics may be in your future. Knowing where your equipment is, how it’s being used, if it’s making money for you (or someone else) are just a few examples of information that can help you better manage your business. Telematics can provide that information in real time and with it, you can make your business more efficient, responsive and ultimately more profitable.

Dayton Shepard

is Executive Vice President at Lee-Smith, Inc. We offer commercial truck sales, parts service, motor coach repair, and we are the Southeast's largest locally owned commercial truck dealer for International, Ford, and Isuzu Trucks.