Hardware world of fleet management, especially for car sharing and car rental businesses can be a bit confusing to a newcomer. A lot of the products on the market offer similar features and sometimes it can be a bit hard to find a value in some extra features that some products offer. In this article, we will go over the basics of hardware for fleet management and then look at various on-board systems to see how they can serve your operational needs.
Hardware referred to in fleet management context is basically an extension of an on-board computer of the vehicle that helps the fleet manager receive additional information about the vehicle, its location, data on driving, and offer different types of access to the vehicle. It enables the fleet manager to gather information on vehicles, manage them in real time if such need arises, or make operational and business decisions based on aggregated data from vehicles.
The most crucial part of the hardware is a tracking device, it uses GPS (or in some parts of the world GLONASS) or cellular networks to send over the data from a vehicle. The data is sent to a server and then displayed in your user interface.
Broadly speaking there are three types of hardware for fleet management - cellular or handheld systems, wireless passive and satellite - real-time systems.
A cellular device uses a cellular network to transmit information about your fleet, it is the most used type of system due to ease of installation and convenience, not to mention affordable price. The data provided by a cellular device is almost real-time - data is sent at time intervals of your choice or product capacity – e.g. every five minutes. Such systems don’t usually provide a minute-by-minute update. Such devices also usually include cellular charges from a mobile network. This might be charged to you per vehicle, or if you have a hardware-software provider, it might be included in the service.
One disadvantage of cellular devices is the existence of so-called dead spots, where there is no cell phone coverage. However, the number of such places is very small these days and since you are not getting minute-by-minute data, it is less of a problem when the vehicle is actually moving through a tunnel or a similar spot. You do have to be careful about parking such vehicles in dead spots. A lot of modern systems also include an offline mode, where the system gathers data even in the dead spot but sends it over to you after the vehicle has entered a location with cellular coverage.
Cellular devices are perfect for smaller fleets, as it gives you data that you need to record the trip histories and process the data. It also requires less upfront investment.
Wireless passive systems work similarly to cellular systems, but they do not have recurring monthly cellular network utilization fees. They usually come with software, hardware, and database, which means more upfront investment. The reason for this is, a wireless passive device doesn’t send data over a network, you extract the data after the vehicle is returned to your base of operations. The system functions similar to a black box, it records the data but doesn’t transmit it. This type of device is fine for managers who don’t need a high volume of data or location data. Some wireless passive devices do include a modem that allows for the transmission of data over a network.
Satellite real-time systems work over GPS, it allows a manager to have access to real-time data of all of its vehicles at all times. These systems are the best for operations that require a high volume of data at all times. However, these systems are more costly than the other two - along with significant upfront investment, you will need to pay a satellite fleet tracking software monthly fee.
Along with considering tracking features of an on-board system, you will also need to look at the type of connection each system offers, as type of connection to vehicle will also determine how easy it will be to install and maintain these devices, whether they are transferable to new vehicles should you upgrade your fleet and what type of data you will be able to access. There are two main types of OBS here: Plug and play OBD II port devices and hardwired tracking devices. OBD stands for on-board diagnostics and is mainly used by car manufacturers or maintenance services to receive diagnostics data of four categories – Computer, Body, Powertrain, and Chassis – from the vehicle. Most vehicles manufactured after 2000 have such a port. The port has 16 point connector which is located in the vehicle’s instrument panel.
Most modern tracking devices connect to OBD port and receive rich data, such as vehicle location, vehicle speed, driver behavior, engine statistics, fuel level, battery level and temperature. Most of these devices, as the name suggests, can very easily be plugged in into the vehicle port, which means low installation fees. They are compatible with most vehicles and can easily be transferred from one vehicle to another. These devices are either powered by the vehicle or portable battery.
In some cases, managers might prefer hardwired tracking devices - e.g. if there is just one vehicle in the fleet or amount of data required is minimal. Hardwired devices are powered by the vehicle and are hidden from the eyesight of the driver. These devices however usually need to be installed by a professional and require more installation time than Plug and Play device.
Along with tracking feature and basic telematics information, car sharing and car rental business require set of features that might not be needed in traditional fleet management. Such features include key management (opening and closing the vehicle), immobilizer – to ground the vehicle in case of theft. Most OBS systems targeted at car sharing and car rental businesses include either keyless vehicle access - e.g. using a cellphone - or RFID reader to access vehicles through RFID cards. This allows the business operator to enable access to the vehicle through its mobile app.
Along with receiving rich data from the vehicle, on-board hardware gives a fleet manager additional benefits. Tracking your fleet enables you to make the fleet environment-friendly and reducing fuel expenditure. Through tracking of driving behavior, a fleet manager can punish drivers that increase fuel consumption through unordinary driving.
When choosing hardware provider, it is recommended to look at several issues. Firstly, data accuracy. As a fleet manager, you need to ensure that the data you receive from your vehicles is as accurate as possible. Another big issue is user interface – the data cannot be properly utilized if it isn’t paired with a user-friendly software. When looking at hardware providers, it is crucial to look at the software side of the product and ensure that the data is provided in an accessible manner and is integrated with other operations in your software. Your on-board system will usually include a SIM card for data transmission, it is recommended that you ensure that this SIM card is not locked to one mobile provider. Having a multi-network SIM card significantly reduces chances of dead spots, where data cannot be sent back to you. As you won’t be monitoring your fleet continuously, you also need to be sure that the hardware has an option for sending alerts and notifications, if something seems to be wrong with the vehicle, or the driving process.
Most of the hardware for car sharing and car rental businesses are sold as part of a whole business suit to manage all of your operations. It makes more sense to buy a whole end-to-end suite if you are not only managing your fleet but also have a customer facing side, like car rental or car sharing service. So, along with the hardware, it’s crucial to look generally at the provider’s suite, how the hardware and software products interact with each other and create value for you. It is important to see whether software and rest of the product is locked to a specific hardware, usually sold by the same provider, or the solution is hardware agnostic – meaning you could use your current hardware without a need to buy new as this protects you from being locked into a contract with the same provider.
Modern hardware is manufactured to include as many features as possible. It is crucial that you fully understand the needs of your business and pair it with hardware that fulfill those needs, but also won’t be obsolete in a couple of years.