Maximising vehicle utilisation can have many cost and operational benefits for companies. Andrew Ryan asks the operators of two major fleets how they do it
How have you identified under-utilised vehicles?
Alistair Patterson, fleet manager, National Grid: The most important thing for us is to get to the gas escape or make sure the lights are on, so you’ve got to get that balance. If you can’t get the engineer there, cutting down the fleet too much is a false economy, so you need the right balance of core and spare vehicles.
Identifying vehicles that are under-utilised has always been a challenge for us. If you’ve got telematics, as we have now, this makes life a lot easier. If you haven’t got telematics, you can look at the average amount of fuel used and focus on the 25% of vehicles which use the least. So, if the average fuel use was £100, this may mean you look at the vehicles which were using less than £50. Although those vehicles may be business-critical, you can consult with the manager to see if there are any options, such as sharing the vehicle.
On the flipside, if you identify someone who is using £300 of fuel, you can look at whether they are spending too much time in their van. This could also help you balance the workload of your under-utilised vehicles with your over-utilised ones, so you can reduce the miles and maintenance costs on the higher-use ones and improve residual values when you sell them. Telematics is the best way of doing that, but there is an expense to it and when you’ve got a big fleet it can get very expensive. So if you’ve got telematics, great, but if you haven’t, then fuel usage is another way to do it.
Mike Langford, senior customer relationship manager, BT Fleet: Our light commercial vehicle drivers have to complete an e-logsheet, which is a record of who was driving, on what date, and the start and end mileages, while we also use vehicle trackers. We’ll then look at any of those light commercials that, according to the data, have a utilisation rate of less than 50% over the past three months. We do the same for our larger commercials although, as they are very specialised vehicles, we look at whether they have a utilisation rate of less than 30% over the past three months. To make sure it’s nice and tight, we also look at the usage of that vehicle’s fuel card. We then compile a report and send it to the fleet manager for the relevant part of the business. They will look at the data and will contact the relevant operational manager and the driver if necessary. If that vehicle is going to continue to be under-utilised and there is no good reason for it, then it is returned to BT Fleet.
What happens to the vehicle then?
Mike Langford: If a vehicle is declared surplus we find a new home for it. Our process is simple and proven. Somewhere in the region of 3,500 vehicles have been redeployed, rather than us buying new ones. There is growth within BT Openreach; rather than buying thousands of new vans, we have been able to recycle under-utilised ones. It’s a successful programme. There may be some reason for genuine under-utilisation, and it may be that it has been identified as under-utilised as its engineer is sick. We’ve introduced a policy whereby if someone is on long-term sick leave, their vehicle is made available to somebody else until that person returns.
National Grid has a pool of spare vans to use while other vehicles are off the road. How do these work?
Alistair Patterson: If a vehicle is off the road, we can hire a replacement. Our challenge is that, although we get them with beacons and roadworking signs on the back, there’s no racking inside them so where do our engineers put their tools? This limits what they can do, so instead of selling a few vehicles that we’ve freed up because of improved utilisation elsewhere, we’ve put a few of them at our maintenance provider’s key garages. This means that when a vehicle goes in for maintenance, our engineers can use a van that is already racked, more suited to the job and cheaper than a hire vehicle.
We’re also using a collection and delivery service offered by our maintenance provider or a courtesy vehicle to get our engineer home. If someone drops their van off at night for extended hours servicing, which we are looking at as well, they can use that vehicle to get home and then again in the morning to pick up their van. If the van needs to go in on an engineer’s rest day, they can drop it in the day before and pick it up the day after, using the courtesy vehicle. This just makes the movement of the employee a bit easier rather than tie up two people: one to pick up the employee from the garage and to take them back when the vehicle is ready.
Mike Langford: We operate a BT-owned daily hire fleet of 1,100 vehicles. They are in every BT garage, so if a van is in for maintenance and repairs, the engineers have another vehicle they can use.
Have you taken other action to increase vehicle availability?
Alistair Patterson: We’ve been trying to reduce the number of visits to the workshop. The amount of equipment we have on the vehicles means we do suffer from breakdowns, so we work with our maintenance provider to identify the causes and implement solutions to reduce the number. We also have components such as brake pads wearing between services, so you could have the vehicle serviced every 12 months, but then at 18-month intervals you might need a set of brake pads. Now we look to replace brake pads on the service, so although you might lose a bit of life on your brake pads, it prevents another visit. When you look at the cost, it is far better to replace the brake pads early than to have the vehicle off the road again. We do a similar thing for tyres as well where we change those early to avoid that extra visit. We also try to do as many jobs on one visit as we can, so if the dates of services and MOT are different, we pull them back together because the cost of an MOT is much less than the cost of having a vehicle off the road.
Mike Langford: BT Fleet has a network of more than 60 garages and in order to improve vehicle availability we have employed – and are recruiting – more mechanics. This year we are taking on another 100 fully-trained mechanics and recruiting 40 apprentices, with a view to recruiting 40 more every year for the next three years. Also, where there is a business need and demand, from both internal and external customers, we will consider opening more garages: we have opened four in the past 12 months.
We’ve also invested heavily in the fleet over the past three years and by the end of March next year we will have put about 15,000 new commercial vehicles on the fleet to replace old ones. The service patterns and their reliability is improved over the vehicles they will replace, which will increase availability further. As the demands for superfast broadband just continue to increase, it is absolutely vital to the success of our business that we are able to respond as quickly as we can to customer need and get a man and a van to the customer premises in a very timely manner.
Have you seen a move towards smaller vans?
Mike Langford: We saw the trend a couple of years ago for smaller vans because of their cheaper costs, but I am now starting to see a move away from those into vans that are more specifically aligned to meeting skills and operations. We’ve gone away from designing a van that can be used by a ‘broadband’ engineer into a van that can be used for two or three skills, so we are now seeing a move back into medium panel vans. We understand that an engineer may have more than one skill, so their van needs to be versatile to meet that need. If an engineer is multi-skilled he will be carrying more equipment, therefore there is a tendency to have fewer vans but each van does more things. It also makes reallocation easier as you can move the van to any other part of the business rather than to a limited number of engineers. In the past where we may have said ‘let’s have a small van for a broadband engineer’, that broadband engineer may now be broadband and television, they might be both copper and fibre network, and they may work above and below ground – whereas that used to be two separate jobs. Getting the vehicles right for multi-skilled engineers is key for us.
How else are you using technology to increase productivity or vehicle availability?
Alistair Patterson: All of our vehicles have laptop computers, which are used to schedule work for our engineers, and they also provide maps of the gas mains network. If we attend a gas escape we can look on the system and see where the pipe will be in the ground, so it gives our engineers an idea where to dig instead of having to do a lot
of tests. Our vans are also fitted with telematics so we know exactly where they are, and this helps us improve work allocation. This means we know we are sending the right engineer to the right job rather than having them cross each other on the road, which also helps us meet our standards of service.
Mike Langford: The onboard technology of vehicles, such as telematics, will certainly help us to monitor availability and utilisation much better in the years to come. The data will not only tell us where a van is, it will be able to tell us who is driving the vehicle, and look at driver and vehicle utilisation together. The merger of BT and EE has also brought together some opportunities to develop mobile technology for use in our fleet and we are now exploring all those opportunities.