GPS Monitoring Keeps Buses on Track

Dec. 20, 2011

With today’s increased fuel costs and tight budgets at all governmental levels, bus companies are under pressure to perform with fewer resources. Luckily, technology is making it easier. One of the most effective ways for a vehicle-based organization to stay up and running — and competitive — is by implementing GPS-based fleet tracking, available in a variety of software platforms from numerous vendors.

At its simplest, GPS utilizes a network of 24 U.S. Department of Defense satellites orbiting the globe. Because the system works in all weather conditions around the clock and worldwide, it has become a valuable mapping tool, to the point where it has even replaced the venerable road atlas in millions of cars traveling the nation’s highways and byways. It only makes sense that a commercial transportation company would take advantage of the same benefits.

In fact, some already do. According to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), as of January 2009, “about half” of the buses in the country utilize GPS technology to trigger automated stop announcements.

But GPS goes beyond simple driving directions. GPS-based fleet management software provides even more benefits — financial and operational — for any organization that relies on a fleet of vehicles to perform its work. For a bus company, GPS tracking essentially puts the dispatcher next to the driver’s seat of every bus in its fleet. By meticulously tracking each bus, the user can gain complete control over the entire fleet, significantly reducing costs, improving safety and boosting productivity.

Reducing Fuel Costs

Fuel is an obviously unavoidable expense for a bus company, and while such an expense can’t be completely eliminated, it can certainly be reduced. A recent study by the Aberdeen Group concluded that GPS vehicle tracking systems have helped companies reduce their fuel costs by an average of 13.2 percent.

Almost everything monitored by GPS vehicle tracking can work to help bring down fuel expenditures for an organization. For example, speeding is a huge factor in high fuel usage. A GPS tracking solution can provide speed information and send alerts when a vehicle exceeds the speed limit.

Excessive idling can also contribute to high fuel costs. A GPS fleet tracking system can help reduce idling times by alerting the user whenever a vehicle idles longer than a preset duration.

Conserving fuel has other benefits besides saving your company valuable money. With the ongoing concerns about depleting oil resources and the environmental impact of vehicles that rely on them, a bus company that’s actively cutting down on its fuel consumption can even be considered to be “going green.” That’s a key PR angle that should appeal to the public at large, and may even garner increased funds from local governments.

Improving Customer Service

It’s a fairly simple equation: When riders are confident in the performance of the buses they use, they’re happier about using them. By using the tools in GPS fleet tracking, a bus company can certainly serve its clients better.

Getting reports of a vehicle’s route can help the user track arrivals and departures. By providing accurate and verifiable proof of services, it’s a valuable tool for reviewing routes and frequency of stops, which can help a company streamline operations and run more efficiently.

Depending on the community you serve, some aspects of a fleet tracking system can also be shared with the public that relies on your buses. For example, in February 2011 Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., launched a bus-tracking website that gives students information on bus schedules and locations, and even enables them to wait in a safe and environment-controlled building until they see their bus approach their location. This helps students stay out of the rain, snow and other harsh environments.

Improved Routing

Of course, GPS tracking also delivers accurate, up-to-date mapping with traffic conditions. Some GPS solutions have partnered with trusted resources such as Google Maps, which provides zoom capabilities all the way down to street level. Dispatchers can use this information to adjust routes if necessary, help drivers avoid delays or make last-minute changes to service.

The mapping features of the software can help dispatchers quickly send a replacement bus to convey the passengers stranded by a broken-down or otherwise disabled bus. This can help save valuable time, mileage and fuel costs.

Increasing Security and Safety

GPS fleet tracking can also help improve security and safety for drivers and passengers alike. Should a bus go missing for whatever reason, GPS can help a company recover it and any onboard equipment quickly. Some systems even offer features that send an alert if a vehicle is used during off-hours. If the bus goes off its route at any time, the system will know. And in the unlikely — but not undocumented — event that a bus has been stolen, there isn’t a faster way to track it down.

Of course, proper maintenance is key to ensure that buses are compliant with safety guidelines and up to date on repair schedules. Some GPS fleet tracking systems feature alerting functions to let the user know when vehicles are due for routine maintenance or other scheduled appointments. This can greatly help reduce repair costs and other fees. And again, with the increasing concern about the environment, keeping vehicles properly maintained will reduce the risk of harmful emissions and fulfill other green efforts.

Monitoring Driver Behavior

Without a doubt, any transportation organization is only as good as the drivers it employs. As mentioned above, a GPS fleet tracking system can relay a variety of information regarding driving behavior, including speeding, idling time and unauthorized vehicle use.

Besides encouraging drivers to behave more responsibly on the job, it can also protect them in the event of an unwarranted complaint. The reports in a GPS fleet tracking system can prove, for example, that the driver was indeed following local speed laws, made stops at the appointed times and stuck to the established route. This can be a benefit not only for mass transit, but is key for buses that regularly transport under-age students.

Automated Timesheets

A recent study conducted by Motorola found that companies that use GPS technology save an average of $5,484 per employee per year. But that savings doesn’t just come from reducing fuel costs. The clerical features of a GPS tracking system can streamline processes in the office as well as on the road.

Many systems also provide the ability to automate timesheets. The user can know exactly when a driver starts and stops a route and takes a break, without having to rely on manual timesheets. This can greatly streamline payroll processes and help avoid costly expenditures due to timesheet falsification or unintentional errors. It virtually eliminates time-consuming checking about employee overtime.

Types of Systems

The GPS fleet management systems currently on the market offer one of two methods of tracking: active tracking and passive tracking. With active tracking, the data from the GPS receiver is transmitted at regular 60-second intervals to provide real-time location information. However, with passive tracking, all the GPS data is stored in the receiver during use, and is not transferred until the vehicle returns to the depot. Even passive systems that boast the ability to send updates every five, 10 or 15 minutes aren’t offering truly live updating, which is necessary to maximize the economic benefits of having the system.

Something else to consider is whether the system you choose is client-based or Web-based. Client-based systems involve software that is installed on the user’s computer. As with most software, this requires manual upgrades and downloads to stay current with updates and can only be used on the computers that have had the software installed.

With a Web-based system, information about a company’s fleet is provided securely over the Internet, accessible via login and password. Some providers have even evolved with the latest smartphone technology to offer tracking via a mobile application, giving the user the ability to access maps, reports and alerts about a fleet from an Android-based handheld or iPhone.

While the products on the market differ in a variety of ways, most are defined by their alerting and reporting capabilities. In the short term, alerts can notify the user of events via e-mail or mobile device. Triggers can include excessive speeding, excessive idling, engine start-up or shut-down during off-hours, unauthorized vehicle usage and when a vehicle enters or exits specific geographic areas.

Alerts can also be flagged in relevant reports. With equal emphasis on comprehensive information and ease-of-use, these can be generated on a weekly or monthly basis, or even on demand. Data can include information about bus activity, speeding violations, vehicle starts and stops, excessive idling times and more. Extensive historical reporting functions enable the user to compare the performance between two employees, or against the company average in such areas as speeding, idling, miles driven and engine-on or off times.

Getting Drivers On Board

Not everyone embraces technology, so introducing GPS fleet tracking to your organization may meet with some resistance — particularly from drivers who may feel as if this means management doesn’t trust them.

Hopefully, by focusing on the economic benefits of the system, you can assuage their concerns. Here are a few talking points:

  • GPS fleet tracking rewards hard work and eliminates bad habits that can lead to serious financial loss.
  • It provides important safety functions for the vehicles as well as the drivers.
  • The system protects drivers against false complaints about behavior and services not rendered.
  • The numerous benefits of GPS tracking help increase revenue, which adds to the company’s financial stability and provides drivers with job security.

GPS is fast becoming the industry standard for any organization with vehicle fleets. The economic and safety benefits alone should be enough to convince companies that have yet to implement it to do exactly that. Best of all, its growing worldwide ubiquity should help bring any doubters of its usefulness on board.

David Brown is the vice president of sales with FleetMatics.