Sometimes things come together perfectly. For years, onboard computers have provided a wealth of information about engine and driver performance, helping fleet operators improve fuel economy, driver productivity, safety, vehicle performance and customer service, while reducing paperwork.
In recent years, several technologies have converged to make onboard computers more powerful. The advent of affordable, reliable, two-way data communications, married to GPS capabilities, has given managers real-time access to a host of information about the position and condition of drivers and vehicles on the road.
More recently, the addition of RFID tag technology is offering further opportunities to automate data transmission between vehicles and the office, enabling the development of new applications that can help companies improve efficiency and safety.
"The price of two-way communications has changed dramatically, within the last two years," observes Joel Beal, senior vice president, Tripmaster Corp., Grand Prairie, TX. "While five years ago, many fleets may have wanted real-time information, it was tough to cost-justify." Now the technology is within reach of even small companies.
Providers of onboard computing systems are beefing up their software applications to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by real-time data exchange capabilities. Many of these offerings can help companies improve performance in areas that have traditionally been prime targets of OBC applications: fuel economy, driver productivity, and vehicle performance.
Two other areas where enhancements to onboard computing systems offer significant leaps forward as well are in helping fleet operators to improve safety and regulatory compliance.
"Quite of few of the newer features we've designed in our system are beneficial from a fleet safety perspective," says Brian McLaughlin, vice president of marketing and product development for PeopleNet, Minneapolis. "The ability to have real-time data combined with traditional OBC functionality provides the opportunity for real-time identification of potential situations that involve safety and security issues."
One of the newer applications within PeopleNet's PerformX vehicle management system, McLaughlin notes, is a "speed gauge" which compares the driver's speed against actual speed limits wherever the truck is traveling.
"Instead of monitoring speed against a fixed limit, like 65 MPH, companies can set a variety of alarm thresholds relating to speed limits on different kinds of roads, such as a certain percentage over the limit on city streets and a different percentage for highways. This allows companies to identify the worst offenders, to see which drivers are putting them most at risk."
Some companies are using the speed gauge to provide real-time alarms, McLaughlin adds, "so that if a driver goes a certain percentage over the speed limit for more than X number of minutes, a message is sent to the safety manager's email or cellphone. Then he can respond on the spot with a message to the driver to slow down."
In addition, many users take speed data collected after the fact and feed it directly into safety bonus programs.
Another new tool from PeopleNet which can be used to enhance safety—and compliance––is its "geofencing" capability. This feature, used in conjunction with a company's routing/dispatch software, allows users to define "off-route" areas and create a system of alerts whenever a driver has crossed or is about to cross such "fences."
"Typically companies use this feature to automate arrival and departure conditions. It can also be used for safety applications," McLaughlin points out. "You could put geofences around prohibited landmarks, such as military bases, or areas that are off-limits if you're a Hazmat hauler."
Within the next few months, PeopleNet will introduce a new wireless vehicle area network application that utilizes RFID tags to automate sensing and reporting tasks.