What Exactly is Telematics?

 In Fleet Management

The convergence of telecommunications and information processing, telematics has existed for quite a while. It’s a term that was coined at the beginning of the computer age, and merely refers to the transfer of information over telecommunications. It is the technology of utilizing telecommunications devices to send, receive, and store information relating to remote, connected objects.

Telematics versus Vehicle Telematics

That definition may not fit what you think of when you hear the word “telematics,” but that’s not surprising. In terms of commerce and the general public, the definition of telematics has shifted over the last few decades. Global Positioning System (GPS) technology is under the umbrella of telematics, as are computers and mobile devices. But often, in today’s context, the term “telematics” it is used almost exclusively to refer to vehicle telematics.

Vehicle telematics is based on the idea of gathering, storing, and transmitting information about the vehicle for tracking purposes. This information can be used to analyze vehicle performance, vehicle conditions, driver performance, and more.

In addition to the standard information gathering, it includes systems such as emergency warning systems, GPS navigation, integrated hands-free cell phones, wireless safety communications, and automatic driving assistance systems. These systems use the information gathered to help make decisions and improve the driving experience.

Telematics Devices

Telematics devices are unobtrusive, passive observers that are situated out of the way of your vehicle controls and your sight line. These monitors collect information and transmit it back to a data collection point.

The devices themselves come in a number of forms, allowing fleet managers to use what is best for them. Much of it depends on how you are planning on collecting the data, and your budget.

  • Mobile only and Bluetooth Assist telematics are cost-effective but are lacking in capabilities. Along with 12V connectors, they can be easily transferred from one vehicle to another, so they can be kept with drivers if users are regularly switching vehicles.
  • Onboard Diagnostic (OBD) devices hook into the OBD port on the underside of the steering column. They will have Bluetooth or even cellular capabilities and will be able to collect a richer set of data to be used. They can be moved from one vehicle to another, but it is a little more difficult than with mobile-only systems and 12V connectors. They are generally the best route for most fleets.
  • Professional installation and Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) products are very capable, but are also the most expensive, and are permanently affixed to the vehicle.

Telematics devices do suffer from some limitations though, and knowing these limitations may help determine what is the best choice for your vehicles. Satellite-based services offer great coverage, but can sometimes lose signal when under a bridge, in a tunnel or parking garage, or in other places where a direct satellite signal can’t be established. Similarly, cellular-based services can lose coverage if driven far enough out of the way. That all being said, the data packets can be stored by the unit and transmitted when it is back in service range. This may limit real-time tracking, but should not limit any other part of telematics usage.

Using Telematics Systems

Having the raw data is nice, but you’ll need a program to analyze, record, and compare this data. For passengers cars, this is often already provided. Chevrolet’s OnStar program was one of the earliest examples of this and continues to be a leader in the field. For these types of telematics, ease-of-use, convenience, and the integration of safety features takes precedence.

Common uses for telematics systems include:

  • Tracking vehicles and restricting areas where teen drivers can go
  • Recording driving behavior such as acceleration and braking
  • Tracking vehicle conditions to determine maintenance schedules
  • Automatic collision notification or emergency crash notification, where the telematics can sense a collision and communicate directly to a call center

Possibly the biggest users of vehicle telematics systems are insurance companies, who can utilize the information to deduce the level of risk inherent in insuring a driver. A driver whose telematics demonstrate erratic behavior, traveling or driving in high-risk areas, or not taking care of their vehicle will represent a higher risk. It wouldn’t be fair not to reward the good drivers though, which is why many insurance companies use telematics to also help reduce the premiums of drivers who show good behavior, including driving less at night and staying at or under the speed limit.

Fleet Telematics and Their Benefits

Fleet telematics is an entirely different beast. When you are in charge of a fleet of vehicles, you have much more complex needs and concerns than a family with two or three vehicles. You’re also running a business, balancing maintenance and replacement needs, and working with a roster of different drivers.  Fleet telematics is the idea of using vehicle telematics and connecting them to a central authority – your dispatch office or management.

The Fleet Communication System (FCS) is a database that stores vehicle positions, statistics, and messages sent from the driver and diagnostics. This information is then converted into visual displays, spreadsheets, graphs, charts, and maps that are easy to digest and analyze. Integrating this data into everyday business, fleet managers can then create customized insights into the character and conduct of the fleet. This can then be used for a variety of reporting, regulatory, or other business requirements. From scheduling maintenance, to conducting customer service, to discussing capital investment with financial officers, fleet telematics can simplify the life of a fleet manager.

Benefits of using fleet telematics can include:

  • Improved productivity through better mapping of routes.
  • Reduced operating expenses by optimizing routes for fuel efficiency – reducing fuel costs – as well as a reduction in labor cost by reducing hours spent in traffic.
  • Improved customer service by tracking and reallocating fleet units as needed, lowering response times and allowing more face time with the customers.
  • Increased fleet safety and security through monitoring dangerous driving habits.
  • Improved driver behavior by tracking areas where the driver may need additional training and development.
  • Optimal planning for replacement of vehicles or right-sizing of the fleet.
  • Reducing downtime by being able to determine impending vehicle maintenance events and rearrange routes and drivers accordingly.
  • The elimination of unauthorized vehicle use, as users will recognize their movements will alert the fleet manager and be tracked.
  • Tracking of cargo, such as shipping containers or trailers, so that even when it is no longer on the road you can still be tracking property or fleet objects. This can ensure that trailers do not get lost or misused if dropped at a location.

All of these benefits are aimed at one thing – improving business while eliminating risks.

Telematics Into the Future

The future is already shaping to be a big one for telematics, with numerous companies already dipping their toes in. Mercedes-Benz is a leader in this field, pushing the envelope with their Car-to-X technology. Car-to-X is a complex network, where the systems of vehicles communicate with the systems of other vehicles, as well as stationary devices, to provide an intricate picture of conditions and the road ahead. For instance, should the wheels of a vehicle detect ice at a certain point, it could then communicate this fact to other vehicles that are headed in that direction, all without driver input.

Similarly, traffic infrastructure such as road signs could detect where a tailback ends, and warn a vehicle as it is approaching it and needs to stop. This is a step above and beyond where navigation systems are now. You wouldn’t just see red or yellow bands on your GPS unit indicating a traffic back-up – you would be warned just how close you are to the end of it.

Telematics is also integral to the creation of self-driving vehicles. The current “intelligent” cruise control and steering, along with the automatic emergency braking, are derived from the capacity and technology of the telematics in the vehicle. Further semi-autonomous vehicles and fully autonomous vehicles will become increasingly reliant on telematics for input – that’s what makes them autonomous.

As noted earlier, insurance companies are a big fan of telematics – it helps them to get an accurate picture of drivers, and allows them to see who has risky behaviors, or who is a safe driver. While many insurance companies offer the ability to have a telematics device already, the likelihood is that they will become mandatory as time goes by.

When they first debuted, there was a certain fear of vehicle telematics having a “Big Brother” effect on drivers. There was certainly resistance, particularly amongst professional drivers who resented being tracked at every turn. The realization over time though has been that telematics is an important tool for fleet management, allowing businesses unprecedented access to information that can be used to optimize business. There is no doubt that they are here to stay, and you can expect to see them become an even larger part of fleet management as time goes by.

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