Fuel expenditure is a key issue for fleets, with budget restrictions ruling any fleet decision. As a result, fuel cards regularly hit the headlines for their cost-cutting and fleet management benefits. And the introduction of online initiatives has eased the administrative burden for fleets and ensured fuel card use can be monitored even more effectively.
Danny Clenaghan, director of fuel and business solutions at Arval PHH, which runs the Arval and Overdrive fuel cards, said the firm would be enhancing its online offering this year.
He said: 'Fifty per cent of our customers now use the internet, mainly for creating new cards and invoicing. This year we will be looking at online invoicing and plan to add a new reporting function which will enable customers to draw data onto their systems or put information onto ours.'
Arval PHH secured the Best Innovation title in this year's Fleet News Awards for its Online Authorisation (OLA) service. The system enables payment cards to be checked instantly against a host computer when they are swiped to pay for fuel. If a card is stolen or lost, the system immediately blocks its use at all participating fuel stations.
Several fuel card providers also announced online initiatives last year.
CH Jones, parent company of Keyfuels and Diesel Direct, has launched its 'smart' fuel card, which aims to improve security and provide accurate fuel management information. The card uses a microchip instead of a magnetic bar code, which makes it almost impossible to clone. It is fitted into a vehicle-mounted unit and automatically updated with mileage and fuel consumption. The information is downloaded through terminals at approved fuel suppliers.
Total also launched a new service last year. Its internet-based reporting software for fleet customers is part of a four-year plan to double the size of its fuel card business. TotalCard allows companies to examine fuel costs and create tailored reports online. At the Fleet News Budget Briefing in April, industry speakers highlighted the use of fuel cards as a means of controlling fleet budgets.
Speaking at the briefing, Stewart Whyte, managing director of Fleet Audits and a director of the Association of Car Fleet Operators, said: 'Fleets would be better off with a card to monitor fuel use. It makes good sense and is a way to control fuel costs. Reducing fuel use also protects the environment.
'Many fleets still believe they don't need to, can't or shouldn't bother monitoring their fuel use and cost on a careful basis. But fleets should review, revise and re-appraise their entire fuel management strategies.'
Fleets not offering a fuel card as part of an employment package could be at a disadvantage, both financially and in terms of offering the best package to potential employees.
Even if drivers opted to pay for their private fuel, a fuel card would help manage fuel costs by identifying the split between private and business fuel.
Clenaghan said Arval PHH would investigate the issue of private business mileage this year, looking at ways for drivers and employers to effectively work out the cost of fuel.
Despite regular fuel card innovations, a study compiled by Datamonitor last year indicated that more than a quarter of European fleet managers were unhappy with the service provided by their card supplier.
The European Fuel Cards Intelligence Service from Datamonitor showed that 27% of fuel card users wanted a better service. The speed with which fuel card providers respond to queries was one point of contention.
However, Datamonitor said the slow response could be remedied by the internet, an idea supported by more than 60% of fuel card users who felt the web would play an integral part in the future of fuel management.
Datamonitor believes that by moving online, fuel card providers will improve customer service and also cut their own administration costs.
For those not convinced by the use of fuel cards, there is always the system of paying for fuel and then re-claiming it on expenses. However, this can provide inaccurate fuel expenditure, increased administration and is more susceptible to fraud. And there is the potential problem of fleets not being able to claim back the VAT on privately-bought fuel.
Major fuel card providers
The AllStar fuel card from Arval PHH can be used at more than 12,000 UK outlets. Last year, the group urged fleets to be aware of card theft as figures showed Britain lost more than £40 million through plastic card fraud. Its Online Authorisation (OLA) service to cut fraud helped it secure Best Innovation at this year's Fleet News Awards.
Fraud is also top of the agenda for BP. Last year the group introduced the use of online authorisation of its fuel cards across its network, opening up the possibility for greater security checking.
Established in 1992, BP Fuel Cards UK targets a pan-European audience, offering a range of services designed to reduce fleet costs and improve fuel management. The BP card can be used at 17,000 outlets across 33 countries.
CH Jones forged ahead in the fraud stakes last year as it launched its new 'smart' fuel card to improve security and provide more accurate fuel management information. The microchip card can be tailored to fleet needs. CH Jones also offers an online directory, journey planning, email invoices and online account services.
Esso's European fuel card, Card Europe, is accepted in at more than 17,000 stations across 24 European countries and can be tailored to include breakdown cover, fleet management and vehicle maintenance services.
Like most fuel cards, it has been designed to control fleet motoring costs and ease the administrative burden. Fleets can access driver reports from the group.
Valid at more than 300 Q8 filling stations and the driver's allocated 'home' station, the Q8 Liquidcard can also be used to gain discounts on vehicle washing, lubricants and additional savings for high volume users. The card is re-paid on a monthly direct debit basis, with 50 days interest-free credit and email reports available.
Total focuses on the use of the internet with its fuel card, which offers card users internet-based billing and allows fleets to order, amend and cancel fuel cards through its website. It can be used across the Total, Fina and Elf networks. Fuel costs can be monitored and reports created according to cost centres or card users, with errors in mileage or registered fuel automatically highlighted by the system.
Shell re-launched its pan-European fuel card business, euroShell, at the start of last year. It is accepted at more than 10,000 filling stations across 35 European countries. It can be used in both UK Shell and Esso garages and replaces the Shell Gold card.
There is an online function that allows fleet managers to view transactions, create reports and analyse fleet running costs.
Overdrive, provided by Arval PHH, gives manufacturers, dealers, banks and finance companies the opportunity to use their own design and branding on company fuel cards, but with the service managed by Overdrive. A company fuel card can be produced encompassing the Overdrive logo and enabling users to benefit from fuel usage, servicing, fast-fit, short-term hire and fuel usage reports provided by Overdrive.