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TELEMATICS: Keep a close eye on drivers (continued)

Date: 02 October 2007

The environment, duty of care, staff productivity - the reasons for adopting telematics are poised to overwhelm driver fears about spying, writes Nick Gibbs

Strong resistance

So, there are plenty of upsides, but then you run into the firmly rooted tree of driver resistance. No one likes to be checked up on - or spied upon as a fleet drivers' union would no doubt phrase it - and this can't be construed as anything else; if you weren't checking, it wouldn't deliver the benefits. The same fears prompted 1.7 million people to sign the Government petition to drop plans for satellite-tracked road charging, and even Tony Blair, when writing to the road-pricing petitioners early this year, said: "Any technology used would have to give definite guarantees about privacy being protected - as it should be."

It's the reason why most leasing companies haven't rushed to include telematics in their car packages. "We've looked at it as a business for cars, but not gone to market because of the resistance from the driver population," says Martyn Pointer, head of corporate sales at Masterlease. "The Big Brother issue is a huge hurdle to overcome."

Like most people, Pointer can see the benefits. "For example, the technology works quite well if drivers have opted out of the company car and are claiming business mileage. For every journey you just press the 'P' for private or 'B' for business button," he says. "But then drivers can turn round and say, it's my own car, your can't force me to put in this equipment."

There's also the issue of cost.

All telematics companies like to quote a daily rate, say 75p. It's supposed to be more tempting that way. Except, as anyone who's ever hired short-term rental cars will know, seemingly puny pence-per figures soon multiply.

That 'from 75p a day' per vehicle figure (eg Navman's Fast Track) becomes £54,750 a year for 200 vehicles, and that's just the basic service. Add-ons - theft tracking, satnav screens, messaging service, traffic avoidance - add their own pence-per-day-per-vehicle figure. "The cost of the product needs to come down," says Masterlease's Martyn Pointer, who used to work at Trafficmaster. The hardware is getting cheaper, but since the black box also automatically 'texts' back to the provider's base, there are mobile phone fees also built in.

Weaken resistance

These days the extras are becoming ever more sophisticated, which could just be the thing to overcome driver resistance. "That's the key to it. If I as a driver was told I was being tracked, but that the system also had satnav and traffic avoidance, I might see that as a happy compromise. There needs to be more tangible benefits to the driver," says Poynter.

That could well be what makes Trafficmaster's new product, Fleet Director, more appealing for car fleets. It is based on the company's existing Smartnav navigation, so as well as offering all the traditional fleet telematic tools it can also include Trackstar stolen vehicle tracking, satnav and live traffic information (all for extra cash of course). There's even a speed camera alert, which might just send out the wrong message to your drivers.

The other solution is to wipe out the map part. That's the bit that's doing the most damage in the PR war: the feeling of being watched to within less than 5m. That level of tracking works well for CVs, especially vans, because they're more likely to be used exclusively for work, but could be less important for cars. If you'd rather focus on specific fuel, speed, driving style and servicing information, then ALD Automotive's ProFleet 2 system might be more acceptable.

The information sent back to base comes from the car's computer, which includes mileage, speed and, as mentioned earlier, even engine fault codes. It's transmitted over the mobile phone network, which knows enough about its location for the driver to separate business miles from private miles when reading his on-line reports, but not enough to be accused of spying. The driver also signs a consent form that can restrict what the fleet manager sees - ie nothing, just business miles or everything.

It's a smart system - one that even works out which gear the driver spends most time in - and it's set to become smarter as the ALD engineers work to mine the car's computer for ever deeper levels of information, such as CO2 readings. It's also something the car manufacturers have been slow to offer themselves, a weakness that's slowing telematics uptake according to Pointer at Masterlease. "I think ultimately demand will grow when the onus is more on the manufacturers than aftermarket. That would be more acceptable to the driver. If it's fitted to the BMW, it's part of the build." he says.

With all this new information to hand the first instinct is to send the sinners off to the training classroom, but fleet managers are also turning to rewards, says John Wisdom, group sales and marketing director of Cybit: "We do have customers who incentivise. Drivers are being presented with bonuses and awards for reducing speeding incidents. They stack-rank by different criteria and put people on pedestals."

Just how many car fleets are going the telematics route is unclear - the telematics companies themselves claim lots of satisfied customers, but can't point to case studies as quickly as they can to fleets who've rigged up their vans. ALD are fitting on average 500 cars a month, building on a fleet of around 46,000. But however great the resistance, the will of the responsible fleet manager might yet overcome. "What will support the take-up is the recognition that the business is responsible for the activity of all their mobile workforce. Whether driving a company vehicle or their own vehicle," says Wisdom.