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What is telematics anyway?

We all talk about telematics, but what does the term actually mean? Telematics Guide goes back to basics to explore what it’s all about

What does “telematics” mean in a practical sense in today’s world? Well, it covers a broad spectrum of activities involving receiving, sending and storing data via telecommunication devices where location of the vehicle, person or object is the essential element.

Looking at the subject from the top down, at the macro level telematics can take in broad-based initiatives and government-led compliance schemes such as speed camera networks, congestion charging and low emissions zones, and automatic number plate recognition (ANPR).

Indeed, the most far-reaching of telematics-based legislative initiatives could be the EU’s eCall telematics-based emergency assistance system, which is due to go live in 2015. This requires automotive manufacturers to fit a telematics “black box” in their vehicles, and many experts are predicting this will lead to the age of “the connected vehicle”, as suppliers use the statutory black box to deliver other mobile services.

On the ground

However, most people who get involved in telematics tend to experience the subject in a more contained and focused way, with the emphasis on the running of their own business.

For fleet operators and companies with mobile workforces, telematics is the technology that provides them with valuable data about what is happening with drivers, vehicles and their operations. In particular, it enables them to identify those areas where performance and efficiency could be improved and costs reduced.

You don’t need telematics to run a fleet or a mobile workforce successfully, but if you’re not measuring your performance you don’t know which areas can be improved. That’s why telematics have caught on in such a big way in the last ten or fifteen years. For a relatively small investment, you get a lot of information about what your vehicles and mobile workers are doing.

There are two main types of telematics data:

  • On-board data about the vehicle itself and how it is being driven;
  • Operational data such as the vehicle location, order processing and so on.

Vehicle telemetry data can include fuel consumption, trip data, idling time, harsh braking, power take-off use, driver identification. Operational data may include location, driver hours, event alarms, automatic arrival and departure alerts, delivery schedules, customer addresses and even navigation guidance.

Telematics in action

A vehicle-mounted telematics black box (a simplistic term for a GPS-enabled mobile computing device) provides live, or real-time, connection with vehicles and mobile workers via the mobile cellular phone network. It’s this live connection that makes such a big contribution to fleet efficiency. If you can send and receive data, the traffic office can react to real-time events such as route changes, new pick-ups and unexpected delays.

For some benefits, you don’t actually have to do much at all. Take geofencing, for example. This simply involves defining a virtual perimeter around some geographical location of interest to you. So by putting a geofence around your depot, you can be alerted if a vehicle is moved unexpectedly out of hours.

Similarly if your customer premises are geofenced, your transport manager knows will be told automatically when a vehicle arrives and leaves. Improved customer service is a widely prized benefit of real-time location data; arguably it’s somewhat intangible, but the fact is that being able to notify customers of an impending delivery or unexpected delay does give a valuable impression of professionalism. It’s also useful in proving you have respected service level agreements.

Asset utliisation

Better asset utilisation is another benefit; basically you should find that fewer vehicles are standing idle. Historical analysis of trips helps confirm the route the vehicles take is the most economical in terms of miles, fuel and timing. Analysis of the routes driven can identify any issues – frequent hold-ups at customer premises, for instance, or congestion hotspots and occasions where drivers go off-route. By comparing workloads, managers can identify whether some vehicles are being worked harder than others, and spot any unauthorised vehicle use at weekends and evenings.

Digital tachograph inputs into telematics systems can provide live information on drivers’ remaining time before a break is due or before the driver runs out of hours, helping regulatory compliance. The latest telematics systems warn drivers and the office when statutory driving breaks are imminent.

For mobile workers not covered by drivers’ hours regulations, telematics can provide proof of when employees start and finish work, ensuring compliance with the EU Working Time Directive and simplifying payroll tasks.

Data overload

Being swamped with data is a real risk when you first implement a telematics solution, so businesses should prioritise the data that will bring the quickest return on investment. For many operators, that will be driver and vehicle performance data, and for one very good reason. Tighter control of those areas can have a major impact on one of the biggest costs areas in the transport world: fuel.

For field service operations, where the vehicle is simply the means for the engineer to travel from one client to another, the priority may be travel time, or scheduling that allows more visits per shift.

The hardware

With the drop in cost of telematics black boxes and mobile communications, cost is no longer a prohibitive factor in establishing real-time connection with remote workers. Whilst “traditional” telematics involved dedicated on-board hardware, these days you can even get away without this. If you harness the power of the latest generation of mobile devices with integral GPS location, it is not even necessary to fit a telematics black box to the vehicle; the GPS-equipped mobile device can capture and send a lot of real-time data on its own.

Many telematics packages are internet-based. The data is uploaded to the telematics company’s web site, and users then access it via a standard internet connection with a username and password. Various reports will usually be available, from idling time to arrivals and departures from specific customer sites. It’s up to the operator to decide what is required.

Paying for it

There are two main ways to pay for the telematics services: under a contract, or on a pay-as-you-go basis, where the periodic fee includes the telematics black box, the communications SIM card and the GPS modem.

Suppliers do vary in the number and frequency of location position fixes that they offer, and there may be monthly data limits, but some suppliers allow you to aggregate the data across your fleet. Some suppliers also charge extra for additional reports.

Another differentiator is that not all black boxes allow operators to add extra reporting functions once they have been installed, while others allow you to reconfigure the box remotely “over-the-air”, introducing new feaures.

Depending on the supplier, operators can end up paying separate leasing fees for the box and the communications contract.

Given the familiarity and simplicity of internet-based services, it’s worth issuing a caveat; don’t sign up for contracts involving equipment that no longer suits your needs. Examine the offering carefully before committing yourself. As you’ll see from the supplier listings in this Telematics & Mobile Data Guide, there’s no shortage of telematics specialists, so shop around.

Telematics or telemetry?

The word “telematics” derives from its two key linguistic components. One of those is the Greek “tele”, or “far”, and refers to wireless telecommunications; the other is computer information systems, or informatics.
So: Tele-matics.

Just to confuse the issue, another word is sometimes used as a synonym for telematics – namely “telemetry”. This one comes from “tele” plus another Greek word, “metron” or measure.

Arguably “telematics” puts more emphasis on the value of the information, rather than the technology involved in gathering it, but that’s a very fine distinction.

Frankly there’s precious little to differentiate the two; technical people sometimes tend to talk about telemetry, but in common parlance that word has now more or less been replaced by telematics.

Still with us? Of course you are – you already knew all that. What you might have puzzled over is whether “telematics” is a singular or plural word. The jury seems to be out on that one, so we’re going to be open-minded, and use whichever case seems to fit the circumstances.




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