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TELEMATICS: Thinking inside the black box

Date: 05 December 2012

BusinessCar charts the past, present and future of the telematics industry from its beginnings as a texting service to modern day rally cars. Jack Carfrae explains what fleets can expect from the little black box in years to come

If you run a fleet with a telematics system then you'll be familiar with the compact box fitted to your company's vehicles. Chances are you'll be even more au fait with the online software interface and its readout of your company vehicles' vitals. Furthermore, if the system's been in place for any length of time then it's probably become integral to your organisation by virtue of the massive bout of development within the industry over the past decade.

Ten years ago, real-time systems were thin on the ground and working out where your vehicles were was generally done by texting. Since the advent of General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) and Global System for Mobile (GSM) data, working out where company vehicles are and what they're up to has been simplified no end and become much more accurate.

In addition to increasing their effectiveness, the industry has worked on reducing the size of the technology and making it less of a hassle to install. Andrew Smith, managing director at Cobra UK,

says that the boxes have shrunk to a fraction of their former size: "The technology is getting smaller now and it has shrunk to a box no larger than a packet of cigarettes."

Rival firm Tracker has poured its efforts into cutting fitting times, as it believes that initial vehicle downtime is an issue that needed to be addressed, as Robin Fellows, product manager at Tracker explains: "Installation - getting boxes into cars and vans - is inconvenient. The black box - simply the installation technology - makes the installation time faster." The company's box requires only two wires to be fitted to the vehicle, neither of which are connected to the ignition module, which is usually the case.

Of greater note for fleet managers is the work that has gone into honing what you see on the screen so decision-makers have less information to decipher. "Traditionally, tracking systems had been good at dumping data on the fleet manager. Now it's a case of 'here's the data and here are the answers'," says Fellows. "We've done a lot of development with software. Ease of use and reporting are a very important part."

All of the telematics companies that BusinessCar interviewed claim that the industry has evolved to the point where upgrades are usually no longer an issue for fleets, as any tweaks to the system are just to the software and are carried out remotely. Cobra's Smith says: "From a business perspective we upgrade our technology all the time. If we need to change a parameter, we do it."

Irvin Gray, senior regional marketing manager at TomTom Business Solutions, agrees, and also claims that reputable providers shouldn't pressure businesses into unnecessary upgrades: "We try to keep the hardware as standard as possible. and allow the update to be fired in over the air rather than refitting. If you're being pressured to upgrade then that's not good. You need to look at the areas of the business you want telematics to affect. How exactly do you need your fuel monitoring to be? If you're just looking for a downward trend you can do that from a box alone."

The next step

Usage-based insurance schemes, which operate via telematics systems, are already establishing themselves in the consumer marketplace and the belief among the industry is that fleet is set to follow. Currently, the schemes work by fitting a conventional tracking box to an individual's car, which has the ability to monitor mileage and driver behaviour. The intention is to slash insurance premiums as a result of drivers complying with mileage limits and good behaviour. While this presently has limited appeal for companies with fleets that pound the motorways, there is a serious application for lower-mileage business drivers.

Smith explains: "Once the consumer market is more established with usage-based insurance, the next step has to be lower-mileage business drivers, such as public sector workers and grey fleet - even things like van drivers in London. It's the start of a revolution and is creeping into other areas of business - it could theoretically go into [heavy] plant and every daily rental car in the country."

Tracker operates a system for consumers and claims that there is plenty of opportunity to apply the same criteria to corporate customers. "While this is primarily a consumer measure, there is definitely overspill into the business sector as well. It's a case of pay as you drive - or pay how you drive," says Fellows.


In terms of hardware developments, BusinessCar has previously reported on the school of thought that smartphones and apps could impinge on the grounds of traditional fitted devices such as tracking systems.

All the core components are there, so in theory, there's little reason why fleets couldn't start using employees' mobile phones in place of existing technology.

Not only would it be an efficiency measure, but such a move also has the capacity to make the workforce more receptive to integrating a telematics system, according to Mark Timms, fleet and enterprise product manager at Garmin. "If you go to a company and say to them you're going to fit a fixed device in their car then you get one response. If you say you're going to supply the fleet with iPhones then that's a whole different kind of reaction - you're supplying the employees with quite an expensive, flash bit of kit," he says.

Fellows agrees that the potential is there to switch from fixed boxes to smartphones but claims that there are limitations due to the battery life and the fact that the phones are still mobile items: "There's a huge difference in using something connected to the vehicle and a smartphone, they're entirely different. For example, once the GPS is turned on, the battery will be used up quickly. There are issues with connecting from the vehicle so it's certainly not the same as having a hard-wired device. You need good GPRS and a good battery. Smartphones have their place - they're very effective in terms of things like lone worker protection - but they have their limitations as tracking devices."

The traditional fitted box also has competition from technology built into vehicles during the manufacturing process. The feeling among the industry is that if it's possible to provide their services on an entirely wireless basis by communicating directly with a vehicle's factory-fitted infotainment system then they've cracked it. Such a leap would remove the need for fitting an aftermarket device and quash vehicle downtime, boosting efficiency no end.

Both Fellows and TomTom Business Solutions' Gray are enthusiastic about the possibility of moving to such a system.

"Brilliant! When can we do it? If we can do it, it would be great for all concerned - there would be no fitting required," says Fellows, while Gray believes "that's the way it's going to go".

Smith goes one further and even puts a date on the beginnings of the change: "In two or three years the car and van manufacturers will have the technology built into their vehicles. We'll see a move away from devices that are supplied. They will become configurable and be able to connect to devices in each country. The only thing that's slowing down progress is the non-standardisation of global networks - the Japanese use different networks to the Europeans etc."

Only Timms disagrees, claiming that the flexibility of an aftermarket, fitted system is more desirable than factory-fitted items: "I don't see the benefits outweighing the aftermarket solution. I personally think you're more limited in choice that way."

Either way, if smartphones, apps and advanced manufacturer infotainment systems continue to have their way, it won't be long before the days of operating your fleets' tracking technology through a fitted box are consigned to the past.