In this excerpt from a wide-ranging interview with Dan Frank, recently appointed president of Wheels, Inc., we asked him to tell us what he considered to be the most compelling issues facing fleets today. “I think it is the complexity of their environment. The number and the breadth of issues that fleet managers and organizations have to deal with as it relates to their company fleet are quite extraordinary. It has become a very difficult job because the expectations are very high and the field is very complex,” he responded.
FMW: Among the complex issues fleets are tasked with is managing driver safety. Surveys of fleet managers tell us that this is a pressing issue for them.
Frank: I think there are a lot of reasons that safety has become more relevant in fleet, and that fleet managers or procurement professionals are getting tasked with being more responsible for safety.
Certainly one of them is liability cost. We have seen a number of cases where there have been huge liability judgments against companies. Not only is the liability cost greater, but because fleets have access to a lot more data on driver behavior, ignorance is no longer a valid excuse.
Technology allows fleets to know if a driver has a history of speeding, drunk driving or other dangerous moving violations. And if a fleet doesn’t take proactive action, that data gets used against companies in court. Companies are becoming more responsible and making sure they are doing something about it.
The fact is, there wasn’t as much that you could do about safety before, but with today’s technology, there are so many things we can do.There are safety features that you can put into the vehicle whether it is forward crash warnings, air bags, or backup cameras. There are many different things that you can choose.
There is also terrific training that is easily accessed online. There are driver behavior tools that many of the fleet management companies have. There is better access to things like MVR data, red light camera data, and speeding camera data.
All of these things have given us a lot more tools to do something about it and once both the companies and the courts realize you have the tools, they expect you to use them.
FMW: What would you say to a fleet manager whose company does not check MVRs or maybe not even have a safety policy, and says, “Well, if we can’t enforce it then it is better not to have it.”?
Frank: I would certainly explain to that fleet manager that burying your head in the sand is no longer an effective defense.
As I stated, there are so many tools available today to do something about it and to have the information to know whether you have a problem that most courts/judges expect you to do something about it, and they don’t buy the defense of “well, we didn’t know.”
Fortunately, most companies realize this to at least some extent; the ones that get into trouble are those that simply failed to execute an effective policy for limiting risk. So, I think if people work with their fleet management companies they all have the tools to help people ensure that they are doing the right thing.
FMW: Do fleet managers feel that they must order vehicles with the latest safety technology in order to protect their organizations against liability?
Frank: I think with vehicle safety technology, it is an interesting question.
Everybody recognizes that things like seatbelts and airbags have become standard technology. In fact, there are very few vehicles that come without those types of features today. But there are a number of newer technologies that are not yet standard – some of them are expensive and some aren’t. Also, some of them have good data around whether or not they are effective and some don’t.
I think it is reasonable for companies to ask the question “What is the cost benefit of these technologies and are they effective?” So, you take things like lane departure warnings, blind spot detection, or frontal crash avoidance.
We have seen some really good data on frontal crash avoidance.The jury is still out on some of the other technologies, though. It is not clear that blind spot detection, for example, is highly effective. It remains to be seen and I think we need better data from organizations like the National Safety Council, NHTSA and some of the universities that do these types of studies so that companies can make good cost benefit tradeoffs. I think the ones that are found to be effective will over time become expected and standard.
FMW: When fleets are searching for safety solutions, they often look to telematics.
Frank: We frequently get clients who come to us and want a telematics solution and my first question is always, “What do you want to use it for?” Cost is often an issue and the question is “What is the benefit you are getting for using that telematics system?” Some of our clients want to use it for safety. Some of them are using it for routing and dispatch. Others want to use it for optimizing vehicle maintenance and checking engine diagnostics or managing idling for green initiatives.
So, a lot of it depends on what you are trying to do with the telematics. I don’t think there is any question that it is going to continue to get better and cheaper and more informative. I think what’s important is figuring out what are your goals and what do you want to do with it as that technology becomes more available to you.
We will probably always deal with the fact that there is some privacy invasion when you adopt a telematics system, and I think there will always be some companies that don’t feel that the tradeoff is worth it. There will be others that do find a net benefit in that.
I think we are all becoming more and more comfortable with our lives online, being monitored, being tracked, and so over time that will become less of an issue. I do think that people fundamentally care about having some autonomy and some level of privacy. I think that will probably always be somewhat of a factor in an organization’s decision on whether to implement telematics.
FMW: Some fleet managers have told us that after they adopted telematics solutions, they have noted substantial fuel savings and safety benefits.
Frank: It depends on the application and how the data is used. For example, there are typically big differences between service fleets and sales fleets. Service fleets can get a lot more benefit out of call routing and dispatch. Often times they are operating in more dangerous environments so there are safety benefits. They might be using “man down” technology; they might be off-road in places that are remote, so they may be getting more safety benefits out of it than say a pharmaceutical sales fleet.
Clearly, there are benefits to be gained for everybody; we have seen some great results from it. But again, it depends on the specific application and how strictly enforced the use of that data is. You can have the data, and like we talked about with some other safety technologies, if you don’t use it then it can be more of a detriment than not having it at all.