A fuel management system gives fleets the who, what, when, where, and why of fueling.
The City of Toronto, for instance, uses an automated fuel management system to fuel more than 10,300 assets. Each time a unit is filled, the city knows in real time which asset is being fueled; who is fueling it; the fuel type; the quantity dispensed; the time, date, and location of the unit; and operating data such as odometer and/or engine hour readings. This data is all collected seamlessly during the fueling process.
The results have added up for the city. "With over 250,000 fuel transactions per year, moving to the FuelFocus RFID program has resulted in significant improvements regarding fuel security and fleet management," said Lloyd Brierley, general manager, Fleet Division, City of Toronto, Canada. "Under this program, there are almost no transaction discrepancies or failures, compared to a much higher number with the previous processes."
The City of Riverside, Calif., which operates 1,500 units, implemented its second fuel management system at a facility last year, so the fleet knows what challenges to expect. "As with any major infrastructure change, there are challenges such as downtime during the transition, users learning a new system, and technical challenges encountered during the installation," said Garrett Reynolds, fleet operations manager. However, Reynolds said using the FuelMaster system has yielded benefits that outweigh these challenges: tighter controls over fuel, better accountability of fluid products, and elimination of losses.
Fuel management systems help prevent and identify fuel theft, gain insight into each vehicle's MPG rating, and can yield helpful information for preventive maintenance. But what level of effort does it take to implement such a system? Brierley, Reynolds, and fuel management providers discuss the typical challenges fleets face and how to overcome them.
Integrating with Your Fleet Maintenance Software
One of the first questions to ask when implementing a fuel management system is whether it will integrate with your current fleet management software. If the two can't "talk" to each other, the value is essentially void.
"A large number of government fleets have spent thousands of dollars on fleet management software that tracks maintenance and total vehicle lifecycle," said Jeremy Lewis, director of service for Wildco PES, a petroleum equipment sales and service company. "When purchasing and installing a new fuel management system, fleet managers want to make sure that the new fuel management system will interface with the fleet management software that they already own."
Integrating fuel management data with a fleet management system can be as simple as having the fleet management software import a specific file each day, or it can require custom software development. As such, it's important to ask a provider at the outset how this will be handled.
Lewis says Wildco PES only sells and supports software that provides automatic custom export functionality. This makes integrating with existing fleet management software simple. "We work with the fleet manager during the sales process to ensure that the software we are selling will work with their existing software."
Russ Whelan, sales director for fueling automation provider FuelMaster, said custom export files allow FuelMaster to export data from the fuel island and import it into a fleet management software. "We work directly with our customer and their software company — engineer to engineer — to work through the process."
Brierley's fuel management provider also offers fleet management software, so integration wasn't a challenge for the City of Toronto. "We use AssetWorks FleetFocus as our fleet management information system, and the FuelFocus module is one of the available applications so it is a fully integrated solution," he said.
When importing data from one fuel system to another, Reynolds from the City of Riverside recommended working with both the provider and all involved parties from fleet. "Work with your current software vendor well in advance to make sure they can accommodate your data needs and timelines," he said. "Also, make sure to involve your IT staff, fleet staff, and internal customers — everyone who will potentially be impacted by the system."
Handling Time-Consuming Data Entry
Beyond data flowing seamlessly from the fuel management system to fleet management software, ensuring the integrity of this data is also important during the implementation phase. Many new fuel management systems require vehicles, drivers, and users to be entered into the system before the system can be up and running.
"This data entry must be done by someone who has familiarity with the fleet, or incorrect data can be easily entered into the system. It is often very labor-intensive and must be factored into the initial cost of the system," Lewis said. Rather than manually keying in every operator and every piece of equipment, Lewis suggested finding a provider that offers software that allows for data imports to make the initial programming phase easier.
Whelan agreed. "A data conversion service for both vehicles and users allows the new system to be populated with a fleet's current data and eliminates manual entry," he said. Data entry can be time consuming, eating up valuable hours fleet staff could spend on their core duties. Using a system that offers data conversion can both reduce administrative time and error.
You may import data correctly, but if drivers aren't properly trained to use the system, you can jeopardize the integrity of the data you collect going forward, while also losing the support of drivers. That means training is key.
"New fuel management systems have a large learning curve for the fleet manager and the individual that is actually refueling the vehicle," Lewis said. "Not addressing these training issues can lead to frustration, dissatisfaction with the new fuel management system, and escalated ownership cost."
Lewis said fleet managers will usually provide hands-on training events scheduled around drivers' shifts the first day the fuel management system goes live, then post a laminated instruction card for ongoing reference. Then, new hires are trained on how to refuel as part of their on-the-job training.
Whelan said FuelMaster provides a project manager who creates a project rollout plan for each customer. "This plan includes both on-site hardware and software training along with a follow-up WebEx with our professional in-house software trainer," he said.
Getting staff up to speed can be a challenge, but pairing training with a concerted effort to gain buy-in from the team can help overcome it. "We recommend involving all employees when making such a purchase so that everyone understands the need for the technology. The need for accurate data is strictly based on utilizing the data to better manage their fleet, provide properly maintained and safe vehicles, and potentially later model vehicles to their constituents," said Joseph Basile, VP of Hardware Solutions, AssetWorks LLC, an asset management solutions provider. "Most people live their daily lives by some sort of a budget so they understand this."
This approach worked for the City of Riverside. "We eliminated most of the challenges by involving everyone who is affected by the system change to include customers, electricians, I.T. staff, and fleet staff," Reynolds said. "We developed an install plan with the installer and the appropriate staff to mitigate as many challenges as possible. Proper planning was key."
The City of Toronto also made buy-in a priority, and took a "train the trainer" approach so training resources would always be available. "Prior to starting, we developed a project team and a project plan that included operational, technical, and IT support. This combination of support has been instrumental to the success of the program and finding or developing solutions when problems arise," Brierley said. "We have our own training section, so these staff have provided the required training to all new users. We are also in the process of developing a video that will be posted on our intranet that will provide the required training and use information for any new users without them ever having to leave their office or work site."
Cheating the System
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges of implementing a fuel management system comes after the initial rollout. Drivers aren't always accepting of the technology, fearing it's a way to track them, not fuel. Drivers have even been known to disconnect devices. Others try to beat the system or enter incorrect mileage. As a result, vehicles' MPG ratings can be incorrect, which can have an impact on preventive maintenance.
"Some drivers and employees feel this is Big Brother technology and there are cases of device tampering," Basile said. "While fleet acceptance is becoming less of an issue, there are still reports of drivers trying different methods to beat or cheat the system. Probably the most common today is still the 'passing of the nozzle.' "
Let's say a driver is authorized to fill up to 20 gallons per transaction. He tops off his tank with 4 gallons. When his colleague pulls up, he has 16 gallons left, so he passes the nozzle over so his coworker doesn't have to enter data herself. This can go on until all 16 gallons are used. "All fuel is being charged to the first vehicle, so his MPG will be flagged as being very low while all his colleagues that fueled for free will receive a very favorable — but yet out of the norm — MPG rating," Basile said.
Whelan said sharing fuel management keys or cards is fairly common. "We call this misallocation; it creates challenges with record keeping and preventive maintenance services," he said. "Fleets eliminate it by replacing the key or card with onboard vehicle modules that prevent drivers from sharing these devices and allows for additional data to be collected directly from the vehicle's ECM [engine control module] or onboard computer."
Brierley has been lucky in that most of his drivers have been receptive to the program once they understand how it works. Having an automated system has helped eliminate the issue of inaccurate odometer readings, but device tampering has still occurred.
"As our solution is fully automated, the mileage or engine hour meter readings are captured automatically, so recording mileage is seamless. In fact, if vehicles or equipment are within 600-700 feet of a fuel site or transponder, it will automatically capture and update the mileage and/or engine hour meter reading," he said. "We've had a couple of devices tampered with but as soon as this happens they aren't able to obtain fuel, so the problem is quickly detected. We manage these situations appropriately so it is something that typically doesn't happen more than once."
Thinking Toward the Future
In addition to thinking about the implementation phase, it's also important to think about what happens with your fuel management system in the years to come.
"Fuel management systems are long-term investments that usually last more than 10 years," Lewis said. "Make sure you are buying something that is scalable, upgradable, and comes from a company that will continue to support the unit for years to come."
Whelan said this is especially important when it comes to the evolution of a fleet's makeup. "There is a lot of new technology for fleet fuel management in the marketplace," he said. "Make sure you know clearly what your needs are now and in the future. Many fleets are turning to alternative fuels, so make sure systems you are considering can be upgraded in the future to meet these and other needs."