Kevin Schlangen, CPFP, CAFM, CEM, has strong feelings about the use of telematics, saying that fleets should have a plan to get a return on investment from them.
“If you’re not going to really use it, don’t waste your money,” said Schlangen, who oversees about 700 vehicles and pieces of equipment as fleet manager for Dakota County Fleet Management in Minnesota. “If you think you’re going to plug this stuff in and you’re just instantly going to have all this savings, that’s not going to happen.”
Schlangen practices what he preaches. The county fleet uses Geotab telematics, which has helped reduce the amount of idling in the fleet. It has also helped with under-utilization issues, as telematics showed that some user groups in the county fleet showed less utilization for some pieces of equipment than the groups were reporting. “That’s in the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment we’ve eliminated and turned them into pool vehicles,” Schlangen said.
Dakota County started using telematics in 2005, tracking its snow plow operations and focusing on the amount of granular material the snow plows put down and where and how much they put down, because snow plow operations are a very high expense in Minnesota.
The telematics program got results, helping the county reduce the amount of granular material put down by more than 25%. The county went on to do a pilot program with its entire fleet using the Geotab telematics program, and that pilot resulted in an 8% improvement in fuel economy.
Telematics is now installed on every piece of the county’s on-road equipment. West Jordan City, Utah also first started using telematics with its snow plow fleet. The city began with the Verizon Network Fleet telematics program before moving to Geotab on about 230 of the other 360 vehicles in the fleet. The city’s fleet manager Ben Roueche said predictive maintenance is a main use for the city’s Geotab telematics system, which sends the fleet department a notification when a problem with a vehicle is imminent.
Roueche said, “I can call out to the manager and say, ‘I need that vehicle to come in. It's got a trouble engine light on it.’”
Dakota County and West Jordan City have achieved strong results from the use of telematics. For Dakota County, maintenance is just one example of how the fleet has benefitted from it.
Dakota County reduces aggressive driving, idling, accident liability
Telematics helped Schlangen and the Dakota County fleet team discover some inconsistencies in its snow and ice operations. Some of the problems involved operators who weren’t using the snow plows correctly. But most of what the fleet department discovered through telematics was that trucks were not calibrated correctly.
The department made the adjustments and got results, but telematics was still in its infancy at that time. When the department expanded the telematics to the rest of its on-road fleet, other telematics options were available, and the department used Geotab for facilities management, parks and sheriff’s office patrol vehicles.
That program has done so well that every piece of the county’s on-road equipment is now outfitted with telematics. The fleet department imports the telematics data into a spreadsheet, measuring factors such as utilization, speed, whether the driver is wearing a seat belt, aggressive driving habits, driving over the speed limit, amount of time spent in different areas, and whether or not lights are on.
“Some reports are sent out to user groups every day, some are sent weekly, but we always have monthly summaries, and all these things are posted to our internal website within fleet that all of the user groups can go to and see,” Schlangen said.
The reports have averaged more than 3,000 log-ins per month from fleet department personnel and user groups checking where equipment is and how the assets are being used. The fleet’s decrease in idling and its elimination of under-utilized equipment has benefitted the fleet’s budget.
Telematics paid dividends for the county after an incident in which a vehicle pulled in front of a moving county sheriff’s vehicle, causing an accident with substantial damage.
“It’s almost never that you get into an accident where you’re not partially at fault because you were there,” Schlangen said. “The insurance company just takes people for a ride no matter what.”
But in this case the telematics system proved that the officer took evasive action to avoid the other vehicle and that the officer did everything possible to avoid the incident. It was the first time the county got 100% reimbursement for an incident. Schlangen also said members of the public in the past have accused the county of causing damage with a snow plow truck. Telematics has helped the county prove several times that it wasn’t true.
“We know it’s not us because we can prove we didn’t have a truck on that bridge or that overpass,” he said. “Or we have people who always claim that you’re driving way faster than you are. We’ve been able to prove that that was a lie, too.”
West Jordan City: Predicted data helps address trouble codes in a timely way
Roueche and the fleet department for West Jordan City, Utah use the Geotab telematics system for diagnostics and to double-check items such as miles traveled and hours on the road when writing up work orders.
But predictive maintenance is the latest program for the fleet department, and Roueche works with the company, Pitstop Connect, which uses data to provide personalized predictive maintenance that it says helps fleets anticipate vehicle issues weeks in advance.
“When we start to see this O2 sensor give us this kind of reading, it means it’s imminent failure, and in two weeks you’re going to have a failure with a trouble code and that engine is not going to work well, so you probably want to bring it in before that and get it changed,” Roueche said.
Roueche said the Geotab device sends trouble codes and measures factors such as acceleration, braking, fuel level, location, and speed. After using telematics for the snow plow fleet, West Jordan City placed the devices on all of its vehicles except for the police department.
Roueche explained that the police department personnel did not want to be tracked by location, so the fleet department hopes to be able to use Geotab in the future for tracking maintenance issues with police department vehicles without tracking location. He has heard that Geotab is working on the capability to track items such as seat belt use without tracking location.
“You won’t get speed data and you won’t get where they are, and that way you don’t have a detective who’s worried about his location being hacked,” Roueche said.
He added that Geotab’s security already prevents hacking.
“But we still have police officers who are always going to be police officers, and they’re always going to be worried about who knows where they are,” he said.
When officers are responding to a call, they need to focus on the call and not experience a failing engine, Roueche said. Roueche wants the fleet department to be able to predict when the police vehicles will have problems and get them fixed.
“So that’s why I’m really excited about Geotab doing what they’re going to do, because I can actually go to the police chief and say, ‘Hey, we won’t know where you are now.’ I want to put these devices in so I can help maintain the vehicles and keep them on the road.”
He wants to do that because the maintenance department spends more time on police vehicles than for the rest of the fleet. Common fleet vehicle service life is seven years or 100,000 miles, but West Jordan City public works vehicles don’t put on nearly that many miles in seven years. The police vehicles do. In response to recruitment issues, officers can take the vehicles home. Also because of recruitment issues, the city is recruiting officers who live farther away, which adds miles to the vehicles.
“So I can have an officer putting 100 miles a day on a vehicle just driving to and from work and then as well whatever they do during the day, so those mileage numbers go up,” Roueche said. “So the police department is the one that I’m the most concerned about. Those are the ones that when they’re trying to respond to a call, they need to get the call, not have the engine fail on them. So if I can monitor them and predict when they’re going to have problems and get them fixed, that’s my big challenge right now.”
For the rest of the fleet, Roueche noted the move away from the “age-old” three months, 3,000-mile service intervals. The city has extended that to six months or 5,000 miles for some vehicles.
“But what the predicted data would say is you don’t need that vehicle to come in, it’s fine, it hasn’t been driven enough, it’s got plenty of life left on the oil, so then we can push it back for four or five or six more months instead of having it come in and waste the time of the person that’s bringing it to us and wasting the time of my technicians in the shop,” Roueche said.
The use of telematics for the West Jordan City fleet involves being able to see when the trouble codes come on because drivers won’t tell the fleet department, Roueche said. They won’t bring in the vehicle when the check engine light is on. They don’t care as much about that as long as it keeps going to get them from point A to point B.
“Now I actually know, and I can call out to the manager and say ‘I need that vehicle to come in. It’s got a trouble engine light on it.’” he said. He said factors such as speeding and whether the driver is wearing a seat belt are concerns of the risk management department and not as much for the fleet department.
“What I want to know is what’s going on in the engine, what’s going on with the transmission, what’s going on with all the stuff that I need to worry about maintaining to keep that vehicle going,” Roueche said.
To use telematics for learning all that information, fleets must put in the work to make sure it produces data their fleet departments can use. Schlangen of Dakota County expanded on his earlier thoughts that fleets should have a plan to get the most return on investment from their telematics systems.
“Especially early on, everyone just thought it was going to be magical and you just plugged this stuff in,” he said, adding that his department never had that illusion.
“You have to put some effort into it and work, and if you actually use the data and you hold people accountable, you can get a lot of money out of it,” Schlangen said. “If you’re going to plug it in and walk away, don’t waste your money. But if you have a plan, partner with a good supplier, have a willingness of your staff and user groups to actually utilize the technology, then there will be a return on investment.”