What fleet managers need from software to meet today’s challenges

Interview with Steve Colliver, Manager Fleet Services with Dubbo Regional Council, is the National Chairman for the IPWEA Fleet Plus Panel and the Chairman for the Central West NSW Group.

INTRODUCTION

Fleet managers today face a number of challenges presented by legislative change, commercial pressures and priorities, and management demands for information and accountability.

At the same time rapid technology developments in telematics, communications, mobile devices and the internet of things are creating opportunities to streamline processes and generate data for analysis that can deliver insights and lift operational efficiency.

Fleet management systems are central to fleet managers’ ability to respond to these challenges and exploit the opportunities. However these systems are proprietary, inflexible and costly to customise.

What fleet managers need are low-code application development tools that enable them to create fleet management applications that will be able to meet their current needs and be easy to adapt to requirements that are evolving rapidly as a result of legislative change, commercial pressures and technology-enabled possibilities.

Chain of responsibility will shackle fleet managers

On February 8 in Dee Why, Sydney a 57 old woman was stuck and killed by a garbage truck.

The truck driver was charged with causing death by dangerous driving but police also raided the premises of the truck’s operator, inspected its fleet and found 23 defects: a range of mechanical, oil and fuel leaks and brake issues, according to a newspaper report.

The report did not suggest that these defects had contributed to the fatality. However, with the introduction of chain of responsibility legislation imminent, that unfortunate incident highlights the growing challenges facing fleet managers.

According to the Federal Government’s web site, in mid 2018, the Heavy Vehicle National Law will be amended to impose on every party in the heavy vehicle transport supply chain a duty to ensure the safety of their transport activities.

“In practical terms, this primary duty represents an obligation to eliminate or minimise potential harm or loss (risk) by doing all that is reasonably practicable to ensure safety,” the web site says.

It continues, “Anybody – not just the driver – who has control over the transport task can be held responsible for breaches of road laws and may be legally liable.”

In the case of the safety of vehicles and their compliance with vehicle safety laws that responsibility lies primarily with fleet managers who rely heavily on fleet management systems to give them the information they need to assess, and document, the state of their vehicles and ensure they remain compliant.

Steve Colliver, Manager Fleet Services with Dubbo Regional Council, is the National Chairman for the IPWEA Fleet Plus Panel and the Chairman for the Central West NSW Group.

He says this chain of responsibility legislation is just one of many pressures facing fleet management, but today’s fleet management systems are not meeting their needs in this rapidly changing environment, because they are inflexible and, where changes can be made, costly to adapt.

The growth of telematics and internet connected devices is generating a wealth of data that could help meet chain of responsibility requirements and other challenges, but the ability of fleet management software to ingest, analyse and present the required information is severely limiting his, and other fleet mangers’, ability to make use of this data.

Fleet managers need to defend their role

Collier manages a fleet of 900 vehicles that provide local government services ranging from waste collection to roads maintenance and land care. Some 540 council staff work either with these vehicles or in related office roles.

These assets are worth around $28m and he says there is increasing recognition within councils of the value of its fleet, which brings with it demands for greater accountability.

The value of these assets also creates another challenge: some councils contemplate selling these assets and contracting back the services they support.

To counter this, Colliver says fleet managers need to have the data to demonstrate the efficiency and cost effectiveness of the services they provide, and their ability do this is heavily dependent on the capabilities of their fleet management applications.

“There is always a risk that fleet is seen a service that could be provided externally, so the more we can present the successes of our operation, the more reluctant they might be to sell us off.

“It is incumbent on us to be able to push our achievements to the highest level in council. That way when the discussion comes fleet won’t be at the top of the list of potential selloffs.”

And he adds: “I have seen fleet providers lose out because they had not done their homework to be able to answer the questions, so fleets have been sold off that should never have been sold, and now those councils are paying an external provider twice what it would have cost to provide the service internally.”

He concludes, “Council fleets are now seen as significant and relevant assets and it is incumbent upon us to manage these assets well, but we don’t tend to market ourselves very well internally. We capture a lot of data but we don’t turn it in to useful information.

He says fleet management software is critical to providing this function but the available applications are unable to do so easily or without considerable expense.

“We collect a lot of the data we need and we want to be able to use our fleet management system to extract this data and get the reports we need from it.

“But the programs don’t move as quickly as the industry does, and a lot of them are very hierarchical so you have to go back to the supplier and get them to tailor a special report.”

Fleet management software falling short

More generally, Colliver says he needs a fleet management system that he can customise to keep up with the rapid changes in the industry.

“The challenge for the software suppliers is to keep up with industry changes or give us the mechanisms whereby we can do those changes ourselves.  If I want a specialised report I have to go back to the supplier and they have to tailor that report for me.

“Every time I do that there is significant cost, and that may be only a base report, I may want to change that again in six months.”

He concludes: “The software industry needs to keep up with industry change, or give us the mechanism whereby we can do those changes ourselves.”

However, he questions whether there is sufficient commercial incentive for software suppliers to meet these needs. “I don’t know how important it is for the software suppliers to make the changes. They just want to sell you a package,” he says.

And he also questions the expertise and commitment of some software suppliers to the needs of fleet managers.

“Most fleet management packages originate overseas, and are mainly built from asset management software with a fleet management module tacked on the end. I don’t think they have understand what is required from a fleet management perspective.”

There should be app for that!

Colliver is not without sympathy for the challenges facing software vendors, at a time when mobile applications are becoming widely available as the interface to business software applications of all kinds.

“There is a real expectation that software suppliers should just provide a mobile app., but these are not things that people are prepared to pay for, so funding their development is an issue for them.”

Another challenge for fleet managers is that they are being pressured to use software not optimal to their needs but which interfaces easily to other critical business applications, such as finance and enterprise resource planning.

“We are often driven by the finance department. They just want one corporate management system and a fleet management system that interacts fully with it, so they go to the likes of PeopleSoft and want us to use their fleet module,” he says.

“Those programs in my view are more fleet schedulers than fleet management tools. They don’t do a lot of the things we want them to do.”

But, he says, commercial applications developed specifically for fleet management are costly to adapt to provide the tight integration with financial and other key business applications.

Opportunities for efficiency gains

Beyond these basic requirements Colliver sees many possibilities for additional efficiencies that could be achieved if fleet management software was easily and cheaply adaptable.

Third party suppliers of vehicle consumables could be given access so they could see which vehicles were due for replacement of, for example, air or oil filters and what types were required.

Data from a device that can measure the depth of tyre treads could be fed into the system and that information retrieved by the tyre supplier.

“We have just started a new tyre contract and now the mechanic scans the tyre to see how much wear there is,” Colliver says. “It would be great to able to suck that data straight into the fleet management system so it is all in one database.”

Similarly, he says, brake efficiency data from rolling road brake tests could be digitally fed into the fleet management system.

Data from these and other test systems would then be stored centrally enabling a fleet manager to easily provide information showing that the vehicle was being correctly maintained in the event that it was involved in a major accident.

“The more data you have in your fleet management system that you can get with the click of a button the better you are indemnified on maintenance issues if there is a major catastrophe,” he says.

Colliver is also looking beyond a centralised repository of maintenance data. He envisages suppliers of new vehicles being able to directly populate the fleet management system with details of vehicles as they are added to the fleet.

All these things, Colliver says, are technically possible, and desirable but difficult and costly to achieve with fleet management systems that are closed and proprietary.

The benefits of standardisation

The rigidity of today’s fleet management applications also presents a barrier to industry efforts to standardise on data elements associated with fleet management.

IPWEA has developed a set of maintenance descriptors, a standard way of describing the maintenance performed on an asset. These will enable fleet managers to benchmark their fleets against others and identify opportunities for improvement, but only if these descriptors are common across fleet management systems.

Such standardisation would also enable data analytics to be applied to aggregated data from multiple vehicle fleets, providing valuable insights.

CONCLUSION

Traditional commercial software applications developed to meet specific needs, whether those be fleet management or any other function, are of necessity to a large extent one-size fits all. Users often have to adjust their practices and procedures to fit the software, rather than vice-versa.

Whilst such limitations might once have been tolerable, fleet management, like every other area of industry and commerce, is being turned upside down by the forces of digital disruption.

Fleet managers need systems that can easily adapt to meet new demands and exploit new opportunities opened up by, among other technologies, ubiquitous high bandwidth connectivity and smart portable devices.

Ideally they need a fleet management application developed to meet their specific needs and one where they can get ‘under the hood’ and easily adapt it to meet rapidly changing requirements.

Such an approach would be prohibitively expensive using traditional software development techniques, but today Low-code development platforms make this possible.

They enable the creation of application software through graphical user interfaces and configuration instead of traditional computer programming, with functionality being provided by combining a set of pre-programmed modules and with coding being needed only for special functions.

Low code development platforms that leverage the modern document databases MongoDB, Elasticsearch and Couchbase such as formbird.com enable people who will use the application and those who understand its requirements to contribute directly to the creation of an application, and for prototypes to be rolled out for user acceptance testing ahead of full functionality being developed. As a result, solutions fit the business need, are lower risk to implement and run at a much lower cost.