There’s no doubt that the roles and responsibilities of fleet managers have evolved over time. To say technology has played a role in that would be an understatement. Gone are the days of pen and paper. The data insights provided by technology like telematics devices has led to a more proactive approach in fleet management.
Government Fleet talked with two longtime fleet managers about the evolution of fleet management over the last three or so decades. With a combined nearly 70 years in fleet, Charlotte Ashcraft and Robert Gordon have noticed a major shift toward data-driven fleet management.
With More Data Comes More Responsibility
In the last 10 to 15 years, the fleet industry has a whole has seen a wider-scale adoption of telematics technology.
Prior to using these devices, government fleet managers used mileage, fuel records, spreadsheets, and compared the data to similar vehicles to try to extrapolate what was going on inside a vehicle. Some of the insights from this data included getting an indication of excess idle time and driving habits.
Having a quicker and more accurate way to measure idling in vehicles can be a huge benefit to public sector fleets, which often face pressures from their local governments to curb emissions output.
“That's a double-edged sword, because it gives us information that is very good for fleet and helps us in planning and plotting and scheduling. But yet it also gives us information — I'll say on the HR side — as to what the employees are doing,” said Ashcraft, director of fleet management for Franklin County, Ohio, Commissioners, who has worked for her fleet for 33 years.
Telematics devices can provide insights into not only the health of a vehicle, but also driver behaviors such as harsh braking, speeding, and other things like where drivers spend downtime during the day.
Fleet managers can then share this data with user departments in an effort to curb certain behaviors both for the health of the vehicle, and for the safety of the driver.
“Once I give vehicles to my customers, it’s up to them to manage the people that drive those vehicles,” said 35-year industry veteran Gordon, deputy director of fleet management for DeKalb County, Georgia.
Remote Vehicle Health Monitoring
One major win with telematics devices is the ability to monitor a vehicle’s health from a distance.
“We don't have to rely on the person driving it to tell us; the car tells us now,” Ashcraft said.
Previously, drivers didn’t report issues such as a check engine light coming on until it became inconvenient for them, like when the car wouldn’t start. Telematics devices notify Ashcraft of vehicle alerts like check engine lights.
“The drivers only communicated when they had to. Now they can't get away from it. We get a report every day that tells us where the check engine lights are,” Ashcraft said.
When the department first instituted the telematics systems fleet-wide, of the 400 vehicles, around 70 of them had a check engine light that no one had reported, quickly proving the need for the technology.
Another piece of technology that has helped with this is a fuel management system. When drivers fill up their vehicles, their mileage is recorded, which helps the fleet department keep track of preventive maintenance schedules.
“That was helpful, because we can keep track of the mileage and say, ‘Hey, your vehicle is due for service. You need to make an appointment,” Ashcraft explained.
Now, the fleet team can be more proactive about keeping regular PM schedules.
Previously, public sector fleet managers used fuel data and patterns, calculating an expected due date for preventive maintenance.
“We don't have to rely on them for mileage or anything, because all of the systems talk to each other and it updates it directly from the car, which was definitely a game changer for fleet,” Ashcraft said.
Fleet managers have a responsibility to use data insights to make more informed decisions.
For someone responsible for managing a large fleet like the 3,700-vehicle fleet in DeKalb County, the vast amount of data can be a beast to analyze. As a number of fleet managers have done, Gordon hired a data analyst to help him sift through the data.
“Old fleet managers like me cannot go in and try to clean the data up. Recognizing that there's things that you can't do and hiring the people that can do it and or at least delegating that to people that can do it, that was a big evolution for a lot of us. We really didn't have anybody who was capable of really cleaning up the data,” Gordon said.
Gordon’s data analyst has helped him find data insights on vehicle utilization and vehicle replacements, the latter being especially crucial as the pandemic kicked into high gear and threw the global supply chain for a loop.
“After COVID hit, you’ve really got to look in a crystal ball now — two years, three years ahead of time before you're going to replace a vehicle because of lead times. Getting pickups and cars is not so bad. But with heavy trucks and heavy equipment, the lead times on my fire trucks are between two and four years depending on the truck,” Gordon said.
When submitting his budget for vehicle replacements, data helps back up the requests, so stakeholders have a better understanding of the state of the industry and the longer lead times on vehicles.
The data fleet managers use to make these decisions is generally the same as it was in the days of pen and paper — vehicle age, mileage, and maintenance costs. But data collected from telematics devices and fleet management systems can ease the process and help with decision-making.
Fleet management software can also give you a recommended vehicle replacement list with this extrapolated data to help with this process.
Using Fleet Management Systems to Ease the Data Collection Process
The amount of technology pulling vehicle data can be overwhelming. Fleet management systems often integrate with the various data streams, rolling them into a single system for fleet managers to collect data from.
“We can do so many things with fleet management systems, and they do all of the predictive analysis for you,” Ashcraft said. “I used to have like 12 spreadsheets. Fleet management systems [merge the data] for you. I'm amazed. I still do it on my Excel spreadsheet, just to make sure it's right. But it’s never been wrong.”
Ashcraft noted that the industry as a whole struggled somewhat to get onboard with these kinds of systems for a while, but the data has proven to be accurate.
“It was a slow roll for a lot of people to get. But definitely, once you have it, you're not giving it up. Because you see what benefits it can give you,” she said.
Whether through adopting emerging technologies, alternative fuels, or other practices, fleet management will continue to evolve. Who knows? In the next 10 years, we may reapproach this topic and find that data analysis was the easy part.
“The evolution of fleet is a constant change. As long as the automotive industry does the research and they evolve the cars into more fuel-efficient vehicle, or [they create] more gizmos and gadgets, we're going to follow along,” Ashcraft said. “We all have the same goal: providing the right vehicle for the employees so they can get their jobs done — keeping efficiency, safety, and practicality in mind. In the end, you’re going to have to take your time to get there.”