And in the boardroom, while many bosses would love to be sure that their reps were actually at the meeting they claimed they were, and not sitting in a pub somewhere, the accountants will break out in a cold sweat, envisaging high tech IT and satellite-linked systems costing vast amounts of cash to implement.
The truth of tracking is actually somewhere in the middle of those opposing, and somewhat hysterical, views.
Over the past few years, vehicle tracking has become a key weapon in the battle against high running costs for many fleets, while drivers have often found it less invasive than they at first thought.
Organisations ranging from public sector fleets and unions to delivery firms and car fleets have introduced the systems successfully.
The uses are incredibly varied, ranging from simply monitoring mileage, to creating an automated timesheet system.
They also play a key role in helping companies meet their health and safety commitments, as total mileage, top speed and hours spent on the road can all be produced as standard reports. And fleets aren’t limited to one provider, as there are a host of suppliers who will battle for a company’s business, which not only helps when choosing the perfect solution for a fleet’s requirements, but enables companies to be particularly tough when it comes to negotiating prices.
Already this intense competition has driven prices to relatively insignificant levels when compared to the cost of providing the car itself.
Vehicle tracking company Quartix, based in Cambridge, charges from 77p per day, depending on fleet size, for its internet-based service.
Reports are automatically delivered by email at pre-agreed times and the tracking system is hosted on the internet, so fleets don’t need to invest in specialist software.
Andy Walters, director and one of the founders of the four-year-old company, said a key benefit of using the system was massively reduced administration, both for drivers and managers.
He said: ‘You can programme addresses with company names, so when salesmen are doing their rounds, you can see who they saw and how long they spent there. It creates an automated visiting log. It also provides the obvious benefits of making vehicle movements more efficient and helping save money, because you can see routes and how fast drivers are travelling.’
Some fleet managers have rejected the idea of tracking technology for car fleets, saying they would have too much information and wouldn’t know what to do with it.
But Walters argues that ignorance is not a defence for a company failing in its duty of care to drivers.
He points out that exception reports can be produced which pinpoint drivers who are breaching certain limits, such as speed or drivers hours.
He added: ‘It also tackles the issue of theft. We have about two to three vehicles per month recovered using the system.
‘Although it might seem like a double-edged sword, it is good for employers and employees.
‘You are getting a real financial benefit from day one.’ Certainly a number of fleets seem to agree, with turnover for 2005 hitting £3 million, up 70% on the previous year. Another jump of 70% is expected this year as demand swells.
To see what fleets are getting so excited about, we put the system through a long-term test. See how we got on below.
The manager’s verdict
I HAVE already been sold on the benefits of vehicle tracking for specialist uses, such as van drivers, where it can be used to create timesheets, improve customer service and make routes more efficient.
However, I wasn’t sure what to expect with using it for a car driver. The first hurdle was getting someone to allow the system to be fitted to their company car. Although it was a trial and anonymous, the fear of big brother and what the information would be used for still had an impact.
Once a ‘guinea pig’ was found, getting the system fitted was simply a matter of making an appointment. I then sat back and waiting for reports to arrive. At first, something didn’t work and the weekly emails in Excel format said the vehicle hadn’t moved all week, which I knew was wrong.
‘An engineer corrected the problem and the emails started providing useful information each week. I could see every trip, distance, start and end location, time, distance covered, average speed and maximum speed.
‘But if I was running a fleet of 100 vehicles, I wouldn’t want 100 separate emails. I would want an executive summary highlighting everything I needed to know.
‘So I sent in some questions, asking for information such as total days used, miles covered, time driven, incidences of doing more than 250 miles without stopping and when the car travelled at more than 70mph. I received a brief written report, answering all my questions, but I was also pointed to a new email report Quartix produced that allowed my to put in my own figures to analyse areas such as maximum speed and driving time.
‘This highlighted that the test driver regularly exceeded the 70mph limit, although I would have to look at his travel log to see exactly where – such as if it was in a 30mph zone.
‘This then raised the question of how I would tackle this issue, something the tracking system can’t do automatically.’
The driver’s verdict
I WASN’T particularly worried about what the system would show – it just felt invasive. I was intrigued to know what data would be available to my manager.
As this was in the name of a test, I agreed. Getting the system fitted meant choosing a morning when I would be in the office so it could be installed. Once it was in, I wouldn’t have known any different.
‘I did change my driving style at first, knowing I was being monitored, but because there is nothing on view, I soon reverted to ‘normal’ style.
‘This showed when the reports arrived. I was copied in on the weekly emails and could see where I had been and how fast I had gone.
‘Speed limits seemed to be an issue mainly with overtaking, but there was another, rather major problem. When I had the system fitted, I didn’t tell my wife and she had been travelling on the motorway when the highest speed was recorded – over 90mph. She was consistently between 80mph and 90mph.
‘It was an embarrassing issue, because not only did I have to tell her the car was being tracked, but also that she had been seen breaking the speed limit by a lot.
It was also re-assuring that if the car had broken down I could easily locate her.
‘At the end of the test, when an exception report was asked for, one of the questions was whether I had been driving past 11pm. This felt intrusive as well, because that would be during personal use and I don’t think anyone should be able to watch me outside of working hours without first of all asking my permission.
‘Apparently, the aim was to see if I was travelling on business late at night, but it still didn’t feel right as my working hours are between 9am and 5.30pm and the 11pm seemed excessive.
‘Since the test, I have been given a computer-based risk assessment and there is also a company policy reminder stating that drivers should not speed in company cars.
Case study: Burgin Maintenance Services, Colchester
BASED in Colchester, Essex, Burgin Maintenance Services is a family-run business, specialising in design, installation and maintenance of heating, ventilation, air conditioning and water systems.
Established in 1977, the company lists Tesco Stores, the Salvation Army, Holiday Inn Hotels and Dovercourt Ford amongst their clientele.
The Burgin fleet of 24 vehicles provides round-the-clock cover for customers over an area which encompasses south-east England, East Anglia and the Home Counties.
With annual turnover of about £3 million and a burgeoning growth rate, the company currently employs 40 staff, 26 of whom are multi-skilled engineers.
Around two years ago Nick Burgin, financial controller and company secretary, initiated the decision to have GSM-based vehicle tracking units installed in each of the firm’s fleet vans. Initially, the company encountered some resistance within the workforce towards adoption of the new technology. However, sensitive management techniques, employed before the installation proceeded, helped to overcome this hurdle.
He said: ‘With a fleet the size of ours, with engineers paid on a door-to-door basis, savings per year are in excess of £20,000. The savings arise through more efficient call placing, with associated reductions in travel time, fuel outlay and mileage, concurrent with a decrease in fleet insurance costs. Accurate timesheets are generated for each vehicle, so the company also saves on average, one hour per employee per week, in terms of previous overestimations of working time.’
The firm’s busy service centre receives up to 60 new calls per day, which have to be placed efficiently. Burgin said: ‘The biggest benefit of the Quartix solution is that it allows more frequent delivery of a four-hour response time – in preference to a 12 or 24-hour response.
‘This is due to the real-time location up-date on engineers; at any given time, we know exactly where each of our engineers is and can pinpoint the fleet vehicle closest to the client.’
Case study: Greenthumb UK, Denbighshire
GREENThumb has grown to become the UK’s premier lawn care treatment specialist.
Operating from more than 110 locations throughout the country, the company has an ever increasing customer base of nearly 200,000 households.
Growth of GreenThumb’s business over the past seven years has been driven primarily through franchising and through this organisation GreenThumb carries out more than 2000 lawn treatments a day.
Early in 2003, GreenThumb decided to consider vehicle tracking as an important tool in monitoring its service delivery to customers and, following an evaluation of the market, it chose the Quartix system for its internet-based real-time tracking and reporting capabilities.
Michael Raine, GreenThumb’s franchise support manager, said: ‘Using the tracking system, we can ensure that appointments are made on time and that jobs aren’t rushed.
‘It’s not a question of ‘Big Brother’, it’s more a matter of trust: we provide our staff with the best in vehicles, training and technology to do the job, and in return we need to know that our standards are being maintained, and that the brand image that we have developed is not being compromised in any way.
‘We also encourage our franchisees to use the system to help their staff manage their time as effectively as possible, which of course can only help them improve their productivity and the success of the organisation as a whole.’
The system is also effective in regulating private mileage, he said the the firm was also able to negotiate better insurance premiums through having the extra security available through the tracking system, which could help locate vehicles if they are stolen.
He added: ‘As our vehicles will often have to be left unattended in areas of high theft and crime this is especially important to us.’
Staff receive a letter outlining the capabilities and benefits of tracking, including proving they arrived at jobs at the correct time.