FORT COLLINS, CO -- With low-cost global positioning systems still a relatively new consumer and business technology, the applications continue to sort themselves out as new services and devices enter the market. This is particularly true when it comes to vehicle tracking and fleet management. As the price of gas at the pump rises and the cost of GPS technology drops, the same efficiency-enhancing tools that once delivered big savings for large fleets of route vehicles are now getting a closer look from operators with relatively small fleets, and even single vehicles. What was once cost-effective only for large fleets with a dozen or more vehicles is now within the reach of even small operators.
Some of the most widely used GPS tracking applications today can be found on smartphones, including iPhones and Android-based instruments. Convenient and easy to use, smartphone GPS apps have become increasingly popular with operators. But are smartphones really the best way to go when it comes to fleet management?
It's helpful to make a distinction between "GPS" devices, nowadays widely available to help drivers find their way, and "AVL" (automated vehicle location) instruments, which maintain a record of the vehicle's position and can transmit it to a remote host. Long in use by large trucking companies and public safety organizations, AVL equipment is now widely available -- as is its personal equivalent, which used to keep track of children.
There are plenty of vehicle location choices out there, offering technology to fit every size of fleet and budget. The trick is picking the right system.
One of them is offered by Rocky Mountain Tracking Inc., a company that specializes in so-called "black box" technology. This category of device works as a management tool, providing detailed vehicle information that typically isn't available from a smartphone application -- the kind of data that allows managers or owners to not only track a vehicle's location and use, but also assists in route planning and maybe even lowering insurance costs.
Brad Borst, president of Fort Collins, CO-based Rocky Mountain Tracking, pointed out that GPS smartphones are very limited in terms of management functions, largely because they are controlled by route personnel. "The phone isn't always tracking them, because they're turning it off, or they're taking the batteries out, or putting foil around the phone to attenuate the signal," said Borst. "The other complaint we get is they lose their phones, by accident or intentionally."
According to Borst, dedicated blackbox units hardwired into the vehicle are resistant to this type of tampering by route personnel. His company's Smart Tracker and Informer Lite GPS device lines provide a host of functions not available on smartphones, and can also serve to aid in recovering a stolen vehicle.
The Smart Tracker device sends vehicle location data as Short Messaging Service (SMS) or text messages. Not only has the device found wide use in vehicle recovery, but it also offers the ability to program it with up to 32 "geo-fences" that alert the manager or owner if the vehicle moves outside a designated series of geographic coordinates. There is also an "on demand" feature that allows management to activate the unit only when needed, as in the case of theft.
Rocky Mountain's Informer Lite continuously tracks vehicles in near real time. In addition to vehicle location, the unit monitors other essential data. Managers access this information by logging onto a secure website that requires a low monthly subscription charge, based on usage. Information available includes reports with detailed information on specific vehicle activity including location, speed, stops, stop times and durations, and idle time. It also can send alerts for excessive speed.
"There are also features that let you track all the mileage, speed and direction of travel, when and where they stop, and the addresses," Borst said. "You can go back in history five minutes or a year, to know where they are or where they were. And if they were involved in an accident, the records are court-admissible. There is a lot of management functionality."
As with the Smart Tracker, the Informer Lite also permits setting up as many as 32 "geo-fences" and alerting the manager, via text message or e-mail, if a vehicle moves outside them. The company is also set to introduce a feature that will allow managers to calculate mileage by state, for tax purposes. Borst added that several insurance companies offer lower rates for both theft and liability on GPS-equipped vehicles.
The power behind Rocky Mountain's devices is its NavIQ software package. This advanced software suite offers users the ability to not only receive near-real-time updates on vehicle location and activity, but also the capability to customize automated reports and alerts, such as excessive speed or off-hours use of a vehicle. There is also a choice of mapping functions, and even satellite views.
As with a lot of technology, the choice for operators involves tradeoffs. An iPhone or other smartphone, for instance, offers inexpensive functionality, with all the limitations that accompany a multi-application device. On the other hand, while a dedicated GPS black box system may cost more, it provides greater management functionality.
"You have to narrow it down to what is your application -- what are you trying to accomplish?" said Borst. "The second question would be who is going to help you accomplish those goals? Once you establish that, then it comes down to who you trust to do business with: what's the history behind the company? Those are the questions we encourage people to ask."