What to Look for in a Telematics Solution

We have all heard about the ELD mandate that’s coming and we pretty much are certain that this is going to happen. Are you still working with cell phones and trip itinerary sheets? Are you using a basic ELD and are looking to get a little bit more but are not sure where to start? Let’s take a look at a framework to help guide you.

First of all, what do you currently have – nothing, cell phones, a basic logging evict that maybe has some GPS capabilities? Are you currently on a contract? Finally, did you just expense the items or are they still on the books and depreciating each month? These are a few of the items that your Controller or CFO are going to look at as a baseline to see what sort of income statement impact this project is going to have on your organization.

For the next little bit we are going to ignore the financial aspects and look at some operational issues and opportunities that we might be able to address. First of all, what are the ages of the trucks that you will be installing these devices into. Many devices will connect into the truck’s data stream to provide data on fuel usage, hard braking, and possibly even engine fault codes and diagnostics. In general vehicles older than 2000 are trickier to tap into this data. Additionally you need to look at availability of the proper adapters. Most trucks use a 6 or 9 pin adapter but some trucks (such as Volvo) use a customized adapter. Even within the same manufacturer there may be differences based on model year. However you are investigating, make sure they know what your fleet makeup is and ensure that they can handle what you have. You really don’t want to have all of your fleet on a platform and have a couple of trucks without them.

Next where do you mainly operate. Most of the United States and Canada have blanket cellular coverage. However, some devices may use a particular provider that does not have good tower coverage where you run. Be clear with any potential provider where you typically operate and look at their coverage maps to look for any dead zones. Cellular coverage gives your most cost effective option, but you if you need constant visibility of your assets you may want to look at satellite coverage for some or all of your devices (most providers that offer satellite coverage allow you to mix and match with cellular devices).

Now, what kind of a device do you want to have in the truck. Some providers just give you an app that your drivers put on their smart phones. These give a low monthly cost to you but they do push the data costs onto your drivers. You lose some control over how the devices are used and you run the risk of a driver being caught using a handheld device and consequently that impacting your CSA scores. This model does have a use for smaller fleets that may not be as well financed as they would wish and that just need a fast and inexpensive way to do electronic logs.

Most fleets will be looking for something a bit more robust. Here is where you want to look at what features your company currently needs, what it will be facing in the near future (for example, things like FSMA compliance) and what items fall into the softer cost/benefit side. Do you need things like two way messaging, possibly using canned “macros” that may integrate into your dispatch software. Do you need mileage tracking for fuel tax filing based on actual mileages instead of out of a miler program? Do you want to be able to monitor truck and or driver performance? Do you want to be able to offer your drivers e-mail and internet access to use on their off duty time or while they are waiting at a shipper/receiver? Do you want critical event notifications such as hard braking events? Finally do you want to get some “black box” like capabilities in the event that your driver gets into an accident and you need to be able to prove road speed and when the brakes were applied while investigating an incident?

Spend some time talking both with your team and with some trusted colleagues at other companies to find out what they do and what items will give you a real return on your investment. When talking with any provider get a range of references – in fact if they will not give references that should be a fairly large red flag to you. Try to get a reference or two that is similar in size and operations to you. At the same time, make the effort to talk with their super users as they will give you a good idea of what that solution can do. Understand that it will take a longer period of time to get to that proficient user status than the provider will claim. In general add at least 50% to what the salesperson or implementation specialist tells you.

The last things to look at are how do you get at your data? Almost every provider offers a web portal. Take the time to look at the layout and ease of use for each offering. Have an average user go through it – can they get the information they need easily and quickly or do you need a step by step user manual? Can you get all the reports you need to monitor your fleet’s performance and make informed decisions? Is there a possibility of creating your own reports if you have the in-house resources or if not, will they do some customization work?

In addition to the portal, are you able to integrate the data into your existing dispatch software? This helps you leverage your investment even more as your users will not need to flip between applications to check on locations, send messages or even look at where a truck is at that moment. The more your staff can do what they need to perform in one platform the better. Better for monitoring, tracking and storing what is happening as well as improving communications as messages can be shared so your afternoon shift will know what the day shift was discussing with your driver sitting at a receiver in Omaha. Depending on the software you may even be able to have a macro (a pre-specified message that details what information is required or allowed) trigger an EDI transmission to your customer (for example an arrived shipper macro).

Finally we are hearing a lot about work flow capabilities lately. At a fundamental level, this will allow dispatch to give a driver event by event itineraries that either require an event completed message to be sent or use geo-fencing to automatically trigger those responses. As an example, your truck 145 arrives at the shipper and sends an “arrived shipper” message. Your dispatch software will get this message and automatically populate the arrival time. A similar “departed shipper” message will populate the departure time to your loading event, possibility even automatically determining and billing for detention time. A solution that can offer this sort of capabilities will allow you take your operations to the next level, automating routine events, reducing the time required to complete loads in your system and possibly reducing the time required to invoice. Your dispatch team will either get more time to deal with exceptions or you may find that you can redeploy or reduce head count.

The last things to look at with a device is any in cab printing and/or scanning options as these could reduce the amount of time used going to the nearest truck stop to fax in paperwork or receive the customs paperwork for your next load. Screen size also needs to be considered – smaller 4 inch screens are okay for younger drivers but may be hard to view and/or navigate for older employees. At the same time, a large device may be difficult to mount in some trucks, especially day cabs. Are external keyboards an option as some people find touch screens difficult to type on?

There is a lot to think about isn’t there? A lot of the criteria will be similar from carrier to carrier but a lot will vary from situation to situation. We will look at how to put a dollar value to some of these items and how to pull it all together in a future article.