Even when it's tearing along the back straight at 200 mph, a Formula One car can transmit the most intimate details of the way it is being driven to the be-logo'd race managers on the Grand Prix pitwall. It's not just the basics of how fast the car is going, but precisely how much throttle the driver is using, what gear he's in, how much braking effort he's applying, what his speed is through every bend, as well as the mechanical health of his winged projectile. That's why you'll hear a race engineer radioing his driver to use lower revs to keep the engine cool, to go easy on the tyres or, rather more embarrassingly this season, to ask Lewis Hamilton to slow down because the team hadn't put quite enough fuel in his McLaren.
The transmission of this data is known as vehicle telemetry and, as with paddle-shift gearchanges, movable aerodynamic wings and ceramic brake discs, it's race-bred technology which is entering the mainstream motoring arena. In particular, the world of company-owned vehicles. As in Formula One, the aim of this kit is to increase efficiency although in this case, not usually by encouraging drivers to go as fast as they can. Instead, it's all about managing vehicles' use more effectively and, as a consequence, the efficiency of both the fleet vehicles themselves and the employees driving them.
The systems behind this so-called fleet telematics are an extension of the satellite navigation systems found in cars, the data generated by tracking a vehicle's location and movement in considerable detail.
The potential benefits for both the fleet manager and (for the most part) the company drivers are considerable. Trafficmaster, one of the leading suppliers in this industry, claims fuel savings of as much as 13%, productivity gains of 12%, overtime reductions of 15% and cuts in the unauthorised use of vehicles of 12%. Across a fleet of, say, 500 vans and 100 trucks, that amounts to some pretty sizeable savings, and all for a relatively modest outlay.
Maximising the efficiency of what you've already got is an appealing message these days, when all companies are looking for ways to save money without having to invest big sums. The key appeal of telematics is that it delivers results without the need to buy new vehicles. But the benefits don't end there, with improvements in driver safety, emissions reduction and duty of care compliance all claimed for telematics.
So, how do they work? Imagine a fleet of vans driven by on-call mobile service engineers. Each has a planned schedule of visits, but the emergency back-up that their company provides could mean that a van may have to be urgently despatched to a specific location without much warning. How do you know which van it is best to send, when you don't know where they all are at any given time? And what if it then gets stuck in traffic? But with on-board telematics, the fleet manager will have the location of all his vehicles projected in real-time on a computer screen, a map that also highlights any traffic jams. And messaging systems make it easy to confirm which vehicle is most readily available to divert to that emergency job.
Both Trafficmaster - and rival telematics systems such as TomTom's Worksmart, and those from other providers including GreenRoad and Traffilog - offer an array of communication and analysis systems to provide basic navigation, rerouting around traffic jams, vehicle tracking, job dispatch monitoring, time management features and systems to improve driver safety and environmental performance. The data these systems collect can also be used to provide trend-spotting of productivity, service levels and costs, as well as mileage and working hours details. Vehicle breakdowns, and accidents, can be dealt with more speedily, and the vehicle's tracking device better protects it from theft.
The range of options may make telematics sound complex, but they're much easier to understand - and appreciate - when you see the screen read-outs of data and the virtual maps tracking the movements of the vehicles in question.
The adoption of telematics 'seriously started 10 to 15 years ago', says Giles Margerison of TomTom Business Solutions, although it was pretty basic back then. 'Vehicle tracking was achieved using a black box that periodically relayed its position via a phone to servers that could be accessed by customers. It's now become a lot more sophisticated, and can make more data available more quickly and cheaply. We can now update the vehicle's location every 10 seconds,' he says.
The harnessing of these highly accurate real-time tracking, navigation and vehicle-to-server communication systems is producing a whole array of business tools that are not only improving vehicle deployment, but also fuel efficiency and the safety and wellbeing of the driver.
No surprises then that in these days of ever-rising transport costs, the popularity of telematics is on the up. Trafficmaster has fitted systems to over 120,000 vehicles in more than 10,500 fleets so far, while Margerison reckons there's around 20% penetration across the UK's fleets of trucks, light commercial vehicles (LCVs) and cars. Fitment to trucks predominates, and when you consider the saving to be made when a 6 mpg, 32-tonne truck that costs £1,500 to refuel gets lost, it's easy to understand why. But only 15% of van fleets have the systems and when it comes to cars, both company and the privately owned so-called grey fleet vehicles used for business mileage, the number falls to a mere 1-2%. 'Around 80% of the market still hasn't made the decision,' he says. 'But fleet managers are finding it harder to put off.'
Why is penetration in company cars so low? There are various reasons, but one of the biggest must be driver attitudes. A van or a truck is a professional tool and drivers leave it at work at the end of the day. By contrast, for many, a company car is more of a perk and is used for both business and pleasure. The idea of your employer tracking your whereabouts and driving habits 24 hours a day is something which many company car drivers don't feel comfortable with.
Nonetheless, Trafficmaster's director of in-vehicle products, Pat Gallagher, reckons that 'the take-up of subscribers has risen dramatically in the past two to three years. Larger organisations are looking at fleet telematics. Fleet managers want to squeeze maximum value from their vans and trucks and they want to tick the health and safety and duty of care boxes and increase the efficiency of their fleets.'
And, he adds, there are upsides for drivers, too. 'It's not only about controlling the vehicles, but doing the right thing by drivers - for avoiding breakdowns and accidents and giving camera warnings so you don't lose your licence. If you run a fleet of 500 to 1,000 cars you have to have telematics to run the fleet effectively. Almost every local authority is now using it, so are Tesco, Sainsbury's and BT Open Reach. It's the only way to run a vehicle fleet tightly.'
Gallagher adds: 'One company found a 35% drop in the fuel used by its fleet of 400 trucks, because they were now in the right place at the right time, because there was no unauthorised use and the fuel bought was actually going in the vehicle's tank.'
Vehicle tracking can also promote fuel-saving by identifying so-called harsh driving events, in which a vehicle accelerates, brakes or corners with excessive, fuel-wasting gusto, while devices that plug into the vehicle's diagnostics socket (they're universal) can monitor its fuel consumption with great accuracy. It can cut fuel costs at a time when companies can't raise prices and improve driver behaviour, says TomTom's Margerison. Saving drivers from speeding fines and, worse, a costly ban is also aided by the real-time speed-limit information provided by the navigation screens.
Accusations that this is 'spy in the cab' technology are fading among truck and van drivers, many of whom appreciate the protection that these systems can provide, not only from fines, but the risk of working overlong hours. 'The systems were sold badly five years ago,' says Margerison, which provoked some driver resistance, 'but the art is not to beat people up over small things, to reward positive behaviour and work together to drive cost out.' As he points out, a company with lower costs is healthier and less likely to make redundancies. Drivers also learn to appreciate the automated separation of business from private mileage, which saves a lot of tedious administration, while it's easier for employers to meet their duty of care obligations with systems that better protect their drivers. 'Work-related road safety is the biggest killer in the UK - it's worse than construction,' Margerison adds, while Trafficmaster's Gallagher notes that 'the sensible employee recognises that the company has a duty of care.'
Health and safety, duty of care and the continuous pressure to save money are all likely to encourage more fleet managers to adopt telematics systems, whose savings soon pay for their relatively low installation costs and subscription fees. But, says Gallagher, 'for some strange reason they're reticent to use them in car fleets', despite the big savings that he and Margerison believe are there to be made. A case of one rule for white van man but another for car drivers perhaps?
Telent is a rail services technology provider, whose UK-wide field force has the challenge of maintaining almost 12,000 miles of railway cabling and fixing it quickly when a fault surfaces. The company's fleet of 150 trucks is being equipped with a TomTom tracking box with 10-second positioning, a satnav with two-way messaging and live traffic updates. Lee Clinton, Telent's installations and commissioning manager, says: 'We have reduced our response times by 80%, from an average of 75 minutes down to 15 minutes. This has resulted in cost savings and more competitive pricing coupled with overachieving the strict service level agreements in place with our clients.'
The mileage of each driver is now tracked to provide detailed reports showing the distinction between personal and business travel, and allows Telent to monitor excessive hours. 'Drivers are working over their maximum hours more often than we thought,' says general manager Stephen Pears. We are able to monitor this and plan resources more effectively.'
NOTTINGHAM CITY HOMES
Nottingham City Homes manages Nottingham City Council's rented and leasehold domestic and corporate properties. It uses a fleet of 312 Citroen vans to collect the rent and maintain around 29,000 homes and 1,000 leasehold properties, and employs over 1,000 people.
Pete Smith, procurement and operations support manager, explains: 'We looked at ways to streamline our business, at the same time as improving customer service and keeping our drivers happy. Citroen proved to be the best vehicle partner, and its partnership with Trafficmaster offered us the best commercial package.' Trafficmaster's Smartnav is standard on Citroen vans - other manufacturers are now catching up with the French maker's initiative - and the option to add the Fleet Director telematics system means that all 400 of Nottingham City Homes' drivers now have access to satellite navigation, real-time traffic information, 24-hour emergency and breakdown assistance and better working controls.