Telematics, and in particular, GPS units, are growing in popularity among on-road fleet vehicles. With the ability to increase productivity, reduce fuel costs, and prevent theft, more and more fleet managers are making the investment. The notion that these devices can have an equally powerful impact with off-road equipment, however, is less popular. Nevertheless, using telematics with off-road vehicles can yield dramatic results for fleets.

Robert Donat, GPS Insight president, shared the story of one client's success.

"Rio Tinto's Kennecott Copper Mine in Salt Lake City achieved 1,500-percent ROI by using GPS Insight to radically reduce idling, remotely shut off vehicles, automate alerts when off-road vehicles were nearby in order to increase efficiency, as well as improve safety with panic alerts and latitude/longitude sent to emergency crews," he said. "They won an environmental award from the State of Utah for their extreme reduction of greenhouse gases in 2009," said Donat.

Telematics have the potential to increase the efficiency of all fleet units and prevent accidents or even disasters. As such, industry experts shared best practices when it comes to purchasing and using telematics with off-road equipment.

Prioritize Needs

When purchasing telematics devices for off-road equipment   or even when evaluating an existing program and developing best practices the first question fleet managers need to ask is, "What results do I want to achieve?" No single solution fits every need, so fleet managers must weigh price against a number of available options, then prioritize what they want to ­accomplish with a telematics program.

"First, they need to determine what they want to accomplish," said John Moscatelli, director of AT&T's Transportation/AVL Industry Solutions Practice. "Is it simple theft and unauthorized use protection or do they want full engine diagnostics and ­detailed custom reports?"

Some fleets may be concerned with using GPS units only to locate high-priced equipment. Others may want to install more complicated sensors that help determine hours of use for specialized parts such as buckets, plows, and spreaders. Still others may want to control equipment ­remotely through remote shut-off.

GPS Insight's Donat said major trade-offs include:

  • Price versus network coverage, e.g., cellular versus satellite.
  • Price versus ruggedness, e.g., commodity tracking devices versus ruggedized/weatherproof devices.
  • Price versus functionality, e.g., simple vehicle/asset locations versus diagnostics data and remote control capabilities.

Determining a fleet's exact requirements to managing off-road equipment and avoiding unnecessary purchases will not only save money spent on unused equipment, but also will ensure the fleet uses the equipment it has.

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Determine ROI

Once a fleet manager knows what data to collect, it's important to know it will yield results - and whether the purchase investment is justified. According to AT&T's Moscatelli, with off-road telematics devices, return on investment (ROI) comes from many areas, including theft prevention, reduction of unnecessary maintenance stops, remote payroll, remote utilization monitoring, actual off-road fuel use data capture for tax purposes, location verification, and more.

Donat offered two examples telematics' pay-off for off-road equipment.

"We have customers who pay a premium for satellite tracking to ensure their low-cost equipment is not stolen.  The cost of the equipment does not justify the premium alone the cost of sending a crew to a remote location only to find out they can't work because the generator is gone is what justifies the investment," he said.

Reducing idling is another major ROI driver, Donat said. "Off-road, remote crews still think it's okay to keep a vehicle idling since there is always a chance it may not start back up or that turning it off and on will cause increased wear and tear," he said. "That was fine when fuel was $1 a gallon and the environmental impact was not as apparent.  Now, running a vehicle 80 percent of the time when it's not actually moving is unacceptable from both a monetary and an environmental standpoint."
Donat has seen customers reduce off-road idling percentages from 60-80 percent to 2-5 percent in some cases figures that indicate fuels savings and reduced emissions, and justify the investment in telematics equipment.

Renaat Ver Eecke, vice president and general manager, Navman Wireless North America, agrees tracking idling time can have a huge ROI. "The ability to identify excessive idling, and thereby correct it, translates into lower fuel use, reduced emissions, less wear and tear, longer machine life, higher resale value, and longer intervals between maintenance sessions," Ver Eecke said.

Ver Eecke also noted using GPS location and geofencing (creating an invisible perimeter around a job site to indicate when a machine leaves the area) to improve the ability to find the machine in the field can offer an immediate ROI.

"You may be eligible for rate discounts or deductible waivers offered by some insurance companies for fleets using GPS devices for security," he said. "In a nutshell, reduced fuel and operating costs, reduced carbon footprint, better equipment management, increased security, and better accountability all provide an immediate return on investment."
Fleet managers may want to use an online calculator, such as www.FleetTrack ingROI.com, as a tool to determine ­telematics ROI potential.

Put Vendors to the Test

Choosing a telematics provider can be as important as choosing the type of devices. Fleets should research telematics companies, choose two or three that seem the best fit, then pilot them to see whether they truly meet the fleet's requirements.

Research can begin with a simple Web search. You'll want to look for providers who service agencies similar in size and fleet composition. Donat from GPS Insight suggested looking for vendors with a wealth of information about their hardware and capabilities, as well as case studies and real-life examples of how customers used their product and achieved exceptional results.

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Once two or three potential fits have been identified, contact the company to set up a trial run. "A trial/pilot should be mandatory," Donat said. "Always put the vendors to the test with five or so devices. This gives your management and users an ability to not only see the product in action, but also see how quickly the companies can fulfill orders, how good their support staff is, and how available their management and sales engineers are to you to ensure the success of a large project such as telematics. Vendors should be able to co-manage implementations and ensure the proper combination of hardware, service, and customizations are put into place to achieve significant results."

Perhaps most importantly, be sure a vendor not only meets the fleet's current needs, but future requirements as well. An initial telematics program might be simple, but fleets should ensure they can expand the product capabilities later using the same provider.

Start with the Basics

With all telematics can do in managing off-road equipment, it's easy to want to get it all right away. But, budgets and practicality beg to differ. Prioritizing needs and determining ROI can point a fleet manager in the right direction with purchasing decisions, but it's also important to keep in mind a simple rule: don't bite off more than you can chew. Start with a product that can be successfully implemented and will achieve immediate, guaranteed return on investment.

"We see customers who want to start with their first telematics project ever by tacking on every single possible bell, whistle, and software integration," Donat said. "Two years later, they still haven't achieved anything except wasted time and missed opportunity to save money with a 'reasonable' implementation."

Ver Eecke recommends starting with the basics: using the system to automatically capture machine hours, measure idle time, maintain preventive maintenance schedules, increase security through GPS location and geofencing, and use geofencing to help allocate job costs to the proper site. "Once you have mastered these components, up the ante by adding sensors that can measure power on/off, dump cycle counts, load counts, and so on," he said.

According to Ver Eecke, the biggest pitfall is buying a product and not using it. His advice is to assign a "champion" responsible for learning the system, tracking the data gathered, and initiating changes required to reap the benefits. "Any number of authorized personnel may be able to access the data, but having one expert/advocate helps you get the most out of the technology," he said.

Standardize Platforms

The goal of using telematics is to make managing off-road equipment easy. But when off-road equipment is managed with a different telematics program than on-road equipment or when different products use different software things start to get complicated.

Navman Wireless' Ver Eecke recommends using a telematics solution that supports all makes and models of machinery. "We have heard frustrations from customers about working with different OEM-branded products that normally can be used only with the respective brand's equipment, forcing organizations with mixed fleets (meaning everyone) to go to different Web sites to manage different brands. Fleets should select a solution that manages both on- and off-highway assets from a single Web application to eliminate extra overhead."

Donat agrees. "Because safety and on-demand vehicle location are typically stressed with off-road equipment versus frequent updates, speed, and dispatch priorities for service vehicles, the hardware, service plans, and data transmitted are very different. What is key to a successful joint telematics deployment is selecting a single provider and application that can handle both requirements. If two separate solutions are utilized, it will result in twice the training and half the utilization, realistically."

Invest in Safety

While safety is important for all fleet units, off-road equipment presents higher stakes. On a daily basis, telematics can monitor switches and sensors to interpret and control remote events, such as shutting down a vehicle left idling for too long. But sometimes, remotely turning off an ignition could be the difference between life and death. With large equipment that can do damage in an instant, telematics can do more than benefit the bottom line.

"Savings is important, but safety is much more important," Donat said. "A combination of cost savings and safety capabilities such as 'man down' alerts and satellite transmission must be balanced and ideally maximized to ensure the most benefit from telematics for off-road applications."
Telematics in off-road equipment can help companies avert liability and serious accidents.

Ver Eecke cites a near-miss that inspired one client, a machinery rental company, to turn to telematics.

"A few years ago, several children hopped onto one of their Caterpillar D9 bulldozers, threw it into forward gear and jumped off. The driverless machine hurtled toward a group of houses, risking extensive property damage as well as the lives of anyone who might have gotten in the way. Luckily, the dozer got trapped in a canyon and no one was hurt," Ver Ecke said. "That is when the company turned to telematics, with its ability to alert designated personnel by e-mail or text message when a machine goes outside a geofence or moves after 'curfew.' It's just one example of the benefits of telematics for off-road equipment."

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Differences Between On- and Off-Road Telematics

While telematics for off-road equipment often gather much of the same data as on-road units, such as vehicle location and idling time, three key differences remain in how each is used.

1. Determine maintenance based on hours, not miles. Maintenance should be scheduled based on hours of use rather than miles traveled to accurately schedule maintenance and replacements. Rather than relying on the odometer or hours in the field to determine use, sensors can record activities such as bucket-up, spreader-on, and plow-down, and maintenance can be programmed on actual accessory use numbers rather than hours or time.  Maintenance can then be accurately scheduled around the actual number of hours run.

"The ability to accurately track machine hours enables just-in-time maintenance, based on actual machine usage rather than automatically performing a given task every 90 days," said Renaat Ver Eecke, VP Navman Wireless North America. "By using the system to track maintenance due dates based on an accurate accounting of machine hours, you avoid the extra expense of servicing too early as well as the potential complications of servicing too late."

2. Select the right device for the right conditions. Off-road equipment often demands more rugged devices that work well in the remote areas than do on-road vehicles. Devices that stand up well to vibration or are weather-resistant may cost more up-front; however, using them in the appropriate off-road equipment will increase their longevity and usefulness.

Selecting devices that include "store-and-forward" functionality is important as well, as information is captured while equipment is out of coverage, then sent as soon as it is in coverage. "If it is anticipated that a vehicle will be used mostly outside of wide area network coverage, there may be a case for a satellite backup," said John Moscatelli, director of AT&T Transportation/AVL Industry solutions Practice. "Keep in mind that satellite still needs line of site and is far more costly than using a terrestrial network."

Likewise, off-road equipment may require different mapping software that accounts for terrain, power lines, sewer lines, parcel data, etc., in addition to normal street maps.

3. Theft is a bigger concern. Off-road equipment is both easier to steal than on-road vehicles and a great deal more expensive to replace. These factors underscore the importance of using telematics to prevent theft and the loss and liability that come with it.

"There are special location and security concerns for off-road equipment because of the nature of the machines and the work they do," Ver Eecke said. "Unlike on-highway vehicles that come 'home' every night and are securely locked, construction equipment is stationed on remote job sites, often for months at a time."

Further, off-road equipment is, in fact, easier to steal than on-road vehicles. "Every brand of machine has a common ignition key, so multiple people have access to any piece of equipment. eBay sells construction equipment key rings with every common key available, so would-be thieves can also gain access," Ver Eecke explained. "Children can easily play on a machine or even take a joy ride, increasing your liability. In addition, if a machine is moved, fuelers and oilers may not be able to find it. If it's stolen, the theft might not be noticed for weeks. Telematics solves these problems by instantly identifying machine location via GPS and geofencing. The system then alerts fleet managers by e-mail or text message to their phone if a machine is not where it is supposed to be."

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