Fleet operators and owners are challenged to ensure their vehicles and equipment can be operated safely and efficiently in isolated locations. Although more technology is available than ever before recent fleet management audits have shown there is substantial room for improvement, writes Ralph Adam
Here is a true, but very unfortunate, scenario. Australia. Scorching desert heat: a farm worker finds the decomposing bodies of two men and their dehydrated dog. They are lying on a mattress underneath their broken-down vehicle. The men had tried, it seems, to escape the burning sun. Press reports suggested that they had no idea they were near a source of fresh water; the remoteness of the location meant it took the farm worker two days to notify the police of his discovery and even longer for them to recover the bodies.
That is an extreme example of what can happen in isolated conditions where there is no modern
technology. These, of course, were ill-prepared people travelling independently. But how different is the situation for companies responsible for equipment or vehicles in far-away locations where wireless communication is poor or non-existent, as can easily be the case in a desert, a jungle, mountains or on the high seas? There are many important issues here. For example, how does a plant manufacturer or leasing company ensure it can pinpoint the location of its equipment or verify that plant and vehicles remain in good condition? And how does it check that the equipment is not being misused? What about monitoring health and safety to avoid accidents? None of this is easy; recent fleet-management audits suggest that the current situation leaves much to be desired.
The role of audits
An audit for the Canadian government found:
• No clear fleet management governance structure for promoting good practices and providing support for managers to carry out their duties;
• A failure to develop a consistent suite of directives, guidelines and procedures – and verification that procedures matched directives;
• Insufficient – and often inappropriate – training given to employees engaged in fleet management;
• The inability of staff to understand the differences between specialist and nonspecialist equipment;
• Ineffective monitoring programmes for operational managers with little support for developing guidelines and tools to assist in monitoring their fleet’s performance;
• Insufficiently frequent risk assessments – this should be a regular part of the strategic planning process.
One might add many other factors: for instance the need to encourage staff in distant locations to practise reflexive thinking to help assess their roles, functions and the logic of their situations.
Reflexivity can lead us to question the need to spend vast sums on high-value equipment in remote locations with poor wireless services. Communication with owners, manufacturers and maintenance staff in such industries as deep mining and construction remains crucial – if only to monitor the positioning of equipment and ensure that it is being used as intended.
Location, location, location
The key lies in the availability of high-quality tracking services: the use of software that can easily and cost-effectively monitor a wide-range of in-vehicle features of importance to owners, manufacturers and service companies, such as distance and route covered, fuel use, engine diagnostics and the reliability of communication systems.
Vehicle-tracking is probably the most basic feature of fleetmanagement systems. M2M devices often depend on USsatellite based GPS (Global Positioning System) platforms. GPS has become the premier platform type due to its wide use for position and location awareness. It is now an essential tool for both consumer and business applications.
Also important is GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System), of which the best-known product is probably the Russian government’s GLONASS platform. This system can be valuable as a complement to GPS because its satellite orbits may be better-suited to work in both northern and southern high latitudes – where it may not always be easy to get a good-quality GPS signal. Using GPS and GNSS in conjunction with one another is likely to result in faster performance with greater and more stable accuracy. They can be further supplemented by the use of mobile phone triangulation platforms.
Online software services which can easily be accessed via web browsers are increasingly popular; they obviate the need for user-installed software. Telematics is also becoming increasingly important for vehicle monitoring – ‘tele’ means ‘far away’.
Tracking the evidence
How do M2M applications and related software link to enable effective fleet and asset management in high-value situations?
The software is designed to manage all aspects of equipment from acquisition to disposal. Individual functions may include driver, vehicle and trip profiling, as well as the monitoring of vehicle efficiency plus activities such as despatch – including job scheduling and the transmission of information to workers in the field. Active disabling is possible, too. Vehicle diagnostic information can also be related to a management site, depending on the type of hardware installed in the vehicles.
Advanced fleet management systems can use mechanical diagnostics from onboard computers to profile a given driver’s behaviour patterns. This works by automatically collecting and analysing data on, say, usage style such as average speed, detour frequency, braking patterns, and fuel consumption in order to profile the driver’s behaviour and to feed this information into a global data set.
Drivers’ behaviour brings us back to that thorny issue of safety. The UK’s current duty of care legislation covers company directors as well as their drivers. Where road deaths involve vehicles used on business the police will treat every fatality as an unlawful killing; they have the power to seize company records and computers during their investigations. These laws are part of a trans-European attempt to reduce the death toll for road users and are likely to spread to more countries.
This gives directors a responsibility under the law to ensure their vehicles, whether they are privately- or company-owned, are roadworthy and correctly insured. Every company, therefore, needs a Driving at Work policy in place covering vehicle operation, irrespective of the number of vehicles owned and by whom they are owned.
With so much high-value equipment in use around the world it is obvious that safety and security need to have a high profile. Those Australians just could easily have been remote employees of your company.