The role of feedback systems in fleet telematics

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Greg Nichols on behalf of Telematics Update reports on how telematics feedback systems can play a significant role in managing driver behaviour and reducing fuel expenditure for fleets.

A recent report from the DOE's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) highlights the link between driving behaviour and fuel efficiency. According to the report, aggressive drivers can expect to see fuel savings of up to 20% by implementing efficient driving techniques; drivers already operating their vehicles moderately efficiently can cut fuel expenditure by 5% to 10%.

The problem, however, is making drivers aware of their behaviour during real-world driving situations over extended periods of time. While a multi-pronged approach that includes driver training is ideal, the report finds that driver feedback systems can play a significant role in managing driving behaviour and reducing fuel expenditure.

Cut fuel costs, improve safety

Current driver feedback systems measure a number of variables to give drivers real-time assessments—via electronic displays or through audio warnings—of how efficiently they're operating a vehicle.

The most robust systems use complex indicators to calculate how efficiently drivers are accelerating and maintaining their speed and how long vehicles idle, areas of particular interest to fleet operators looking to cut fuel costs while improving safety performance.

In recent years, the consumer market has led the way in popularizing real-time driver feedback. Real-time MPG gauges are now standard on many new vehicles, a response to growing concern over rising fuel costs. MPG gauges purport to give drivers control of their own fuel use and have brought beneficial attention to the link between aggressive driving and low gas mileage.

Gauging efficiency

In order to be truly effective, however, driver feedback systems need to be more than mere warning gauges; they need to help inefficient drivers change the way they drive. This isn't an easy task. It can be difficult for drivers to see how fractional improvements in acceleration, measured in minute blips on an MPG readout, add up to real savings.

And, as the NREL report points out, in real-world conditions, MPG alone may not be a practical way to gauge efficiency. The best way to lower an MPG score, after all, is to drive at a snail's pace, an unattractive proposition for most drivers. Vehicle integrated feedback systems are also notoriously easy for drivers to forget about or ignore, especially in the case of simple MPG gauges that blend into cluttered instrument panels.

More advanced systems deal with these challenges in different ways. Smartphone applications, which are portable and easy to integrate for fleets already using smartphones for route optimization and order tracking, may be a promising solution down the road.

The now-defunct iPhone app Bliss Trek made strides by broadcasting driver efficiency scores over the driver's Twitter account, thus encouraging competitiveness and holding drivers publicly accountable. This social network integration and broadcast capability is one of the key advantages smartphone applications have in encouraging drivers to change their behaviour. As the authors of the NREL report found, accountability is key in getting drivers to modify their driving habits in the long term.

Integrating smartphones

The biggest constraint to smartphone-based driver feedback systems is the lack of OEM integration. Unless manufacturers build in solutions that allow smartphones to interface with a vehicle's operating information in real-time, the ability of these applications to measure true driving behaviour will be limited.

At present, smart phones can only glean how efficiently a driver is driving secondarily, by using integrated GPS tracking and the phone's built-in accelerometer.

In the short term, dedicated aftermarket feedback devices provide the most attractive combination of real-time driver feedback, overall score reporting and client customisation. Dashboards integrate with a vehicle's OBD port via wired or wireless connections. This interface gives aftermarket devices access to granular vehicle data like fuel flow rate and engine load, which allows for a much fuller picture of driver efficiency.

The simplest readout gauges can indicate driver performance with a yes/no message. Other devices give warnings during rapid acceleration or over-speed situations, either via an electronic readout or through audio prompts, and can offer advice about how to correct inefficient behaviour.

These devices can be expensive, around $200 per unit, and often require additional setup and training. The savings, though, add up quickly when you consider a 10% reduction in fuel consumption fleet-wide.

By curbing aggressive driving behaviour, these devices also help fleets lower costs associated with accidents and premature parts failure. With improved fleet safety in the long run, they also lower insurance premiums.

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