How to buy telematics
Written by: Simon Creasey | Published:

The dedicated device versus mobile app debate (one that will be familiar to those in the lone-worker sector) has spread to the world of telematics, as Simon Creasey discovers

Traditionally, ‘black box’ telematics were deployed to tell fleet managers where their vehicles were, whether or not they had turned up at customer sites on time and how the fleet could be better optimised. Once installed, these box-based solutions were incredibly powerful tools. However, traditional telematics solutions are also quite costly. First you have to splash out £100 or so for the black box and a further £150 or more to get it installed. Then you have to pay for the telematics software to monitor and measure the data the box is churning out.

But things are changing in the telematics sector thanks to mobile phones. With mobile phones becoming omnipresent in businesses large and small, and as organisations get increasingly comfortable with the idea of rolling out apps across employees’ phones to give them access to email or expense account tools, there is suddenly more awareness and acceptance in the market of the potential for mobile phone apps to do more in the telematics space.

To date, most of the uptake of mobile-phone-based telematics solutions has been by grey fleets, but one person who believes the future direction of travel for telematics will be mobile-based is Marcus Puddy, managing director of PVS.

“There are very few [telematics systems] out there in the market that are mobile-app-based,” says Puddy. “However, if you talk to the major telematics providers, they’re all trying to develop something that will be on a mobile-based device.”

One mobile telematics solution Puddy singles out for praise is Brightmile, which is backed by AXA. “What the market has been asking for for a long time is a way to provide a tool focused more around driver behaviour and driver risk management,” explains Mark Watts, chief product officer and co-founder of Brightmile. “In two minutes a driver can sign up, and once they have installed the app we take them through an onboarding process and educate them about how they’re driving.”

The app, which is primarily targeted at the grey fleet market, feeds back information to the driver in real time about how they are driving. Where Watts believes Brightmile’s solution differs from rival mobile telematics products is it generates an “electronic view of the world” to create what he describes as “contextual risk”.

“We know where the driver is on the map, what direction they are heading in and how fast they are driving,” says Watts. “We also know what infrastructure is coming up and whether the driver is approaching a school zone, a junction, tight curves or roundabouts, and based on that information our algorithms look at the appropriate speed for that infrastructure. Rather than just telling the driver ‘you’re speeding’, we say ‘it’s a really high-risk area – you’re not slowing for junctions, you’re going through stop signs’. That allows us to provide a new level of risk measurement and coaching for drivers via audio alerts over Bluetooth. For instance, the app will say ‘caution school zone’ as the driver approaches.”

Watts says the app has already had a meaningful impact. He cites the example of a large “global customer” that has experienced a 25 per cent reduction in accidents since rolling out the app.

Significant improvements in road safety are not the only upside offered by mobile-based telematics products. There is also a potential cost saving that can be enjoyed, according to Jez Strong, strategic alliance director at Radius Payment Solutions.

“Obviously it removes the need for fitted black box technology so they are easy to implement and cost-effective,” says Strong. “It is especially focused on short-term or hire vehicles and, more so, grey fleet drivers, [where] fitted technology will meet with opposition. It is great for retrospective reporting such as business versus personal mileage.”

While there are numerous upsides to using mobile-phone-based telematics solutions over traditional black boxes, they are not without their downsides.

“It is obviously a very portable device and the user can easily decide not to be tracked if they so wish,” says Strong. “There is also growing demand for phones to be switched off while driving and possibly enclosed in a ‘Faraday cage’.”

And although the cost of using the app is low, you have to invest upfront in the mobile phone hardware to give to drivers. “When you look at some of the van fleets, they say ‘I can’t do that because we don’t provide our operatives with mobiles’,” says Puddy.

Another potential issue is that automated recording on a phone is dependent on a Bluetooth connection to either the vehicle or a proximity device within the vehicle. “However, whenever changes are made to iOS or Android operating systems, this can affect engagement of Bluetooth and affect recording,” says Strong. “In summary, it definitely has a place, but is not appropriate for all situations.”

It may not be appropriate for all situations, but mobile telematics do appear to be gaining traction among a new audience of people within large organisations who could drive future adoption beyond just grey fleet users.

“We’re seeing a lot of interest from health and safety executives, so not necessarily fleet managers, but HR teams or health and safety teams who want to address the problem of health and safety on the roads,” says Watts. “Many organisations have a zero accident culture, but when it comes to accidents on the road, very little is being done.”

He says the company is also attracting interest from fleet managers who had either looked at traditional telematics systems and thought they were too costly or logistically challenging to roll out, or they had “already invested in traditional telematics and had not gained the benefits because they bought it for the wrong reasons. All they wanted to do was look at driver behaviour, and you don’t need high-end telematics solutions to look at driver behaviour.”

While Watts evangelises the benefits of mobile-based telematics, not everyone is convinced that this is where the future of the sector lies. As Len Mifsud, marketing manager at Microlise, says: “There has been no suggestion within our industry to suggest that mobile phone telematics is making headway. These are usually the domain of even smaller, start-up telematics providers and are often geared toward the single user [rather] than a fleet of vehicles that need to be managed.”

But even he concedes they could potentially have some role to play in the industry in the future given that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. “There are many telematics companies out there offering systems at a variety of levels,” says Mifsud. “Most offer very basic functionality while others offer functionally rich systems. It’s important that if you’re looking for a telematics system, you consider what you would like to get from it, how does it fit with your operation and will it fulfil your needs? Always get an overview of the benefits on offer and the best ways to achieve them.”

Mifsud adds it is important that users understand that just installing a telematics system will not immediately equate to the huge benefits that can potentially be realised.

“Telematics is not a magic wand,” he continues. “This is why you need to ask what support structures are in place to help you realise the benefits of using a telematics system. So many suppliers will offer plug-and-play solutions, which so often leads to the system being under-utilised throughout the length of the contract and can leave the user with a poor impression of what can be achieved through using a telematics system.”

Watts says another common mistake people make when buying telematics is they fail to address the question of what problem they are trying to solve and why they are buying a solution in the first place. Strong agrees that some companies don’t consider what they actually intend to use telematics for, and this can lead to a costly mistake.

“Too many invest in a solution that on the surface delivers a lot, but often is not applicable to their requirement,” he explains. “Often these systems are built on older legacy platforms and are not particularly user-friendly. What is it that the customer actually needs and that will deliver ROI? Focus on a user-friendly, modern platform, manager and driver app for viewing behaviour, allocating business and private journeys and ultimately pushing offers and messages – eg, 2p off fuel at a local station. Also the biggest cost to any fleet once they have procured vehicles is fuel. Therefore integrating this into your telematics solution for mpg, fuelling trends, fuel theft should be a must for any buyer.”

Going forward, many in the industry don’t see mobile-phone-based telematics solutions ever completely replacing the traditional black box. However, vehicles are increasingly being fitted out with a range of technology (such as keyless access and the ability to turn the car’s heating or AC on remotely) that uses smartphones to provide an intuitive user interface and experience. When you factor in the way that the product roadmap of many telematics providers is anticipated to have even more of a focus on tech in the future, it is easy to envisage a situation in which the smartphone becomes the hub around which all the other in-vehicle tech revolves.

This is reminiscent of what’s already happening in the world of public safety where vendors such as Sonim are working to replace tablets for in-vehicle use with ‘dumb’ large displays that connect to the user’s smartphone. Such a hub could ultimately make the familiar black box redundant.

Driver acceptance
Historically drivers have railed against the use of telematics, and there have been heated debates between companies and their drivers and union reps who object to such ‘Big Brother’ technology. However, according to Microlise’s Mifsud, driver acceptance of the technology has moved on considerably in recent years.

“Telematics is generally accepted as part of the job nowadays, particularly when drivers are specifically qualified in their profession, such as HGV drivers. Most drivers no longer view the technology as the spy in the cab, but realise that it’s in place to benefit both them and the company they work for,” says Mifsud.

Acceptance levels have improved in part thanks to the use of gamification in some telematics systems. “We have performance apps that allow drivers to manage their own driving scores, meaning they aim to get better by each journey leg and know immediately when and where infringements have occurred. The app also gives them tips on how to improve,” says Mifsud.

Watts at Brightmile, which also features gamification in its app, believes mobile-phone-based solutions will further help to break down walls in terms of driver acceptance of telematics.

“The driver has it [the mobile phone] in their hand and has control of it so it is already less suspicious perhaps than a box installed by a mechanic that they never see and they don’t know what it’s doing,” says Watts.

What to consider: the dos & don’ts of telematics

  • Do – make sure the system you buy hits the sweet spot of your business’s needs. Radius Payment Solutions’ Jez Strong says high-end telematics solutions are more aimed at hauliers and therefore focus on things that van fleets do not need.
  • Do – ask a potential supplier about connectivity and if their telematics unit has the ability to store information when going through a connectivity blackspot and then submit that information when it restores coverage, says Mifsud. He also thinks it is worth asking if the system’s cameras use the latest compression technology to reduce data usage.

  • Don’t – ignore reliability issues. Microlise’s Len Mifsud advises asking the telematics company where they get their hardware from. Better still, use a company that manufactures its own hardware. “Often, if something is too cheap to be true, it is,” he cautions.
  • Don’t – buy a solution that is only suitable for your present-day needs. If you are going to sign a contract with a supplier for a three- to five-year term, you need to make sure that the telematics system can be scaled up as your business grows.

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