In the information age those with the greatest knowledge are going to be the biggest, sometimes only, winners. Tony Richards looks at how computer-based fleet management systems are providing added value to customers, operators and fleet providers.

Fleet management systems have been operating for well over a decade, but they have moved on from basic check and chase, and managing repairs and maintenance in a workshop. They are now a valuable asset shared between providers and end users.

The concepts of increased profitability and cost-saving will always be important criteria, but they have been joined by a mature, long term and considered view of how service providers can work with the customers and operators of fleets to maximise efficiency and productivity.

Almost all the local authority and contractor fleet providers now operate sophisticated computer-based systems, the adoption of which has been encouraged and directed by historical shifts from local authority owned and operated fleets to the private sector. Whilst this may be changing back and forth as finances are researched and reviewed, the principle of well-managed maintenance of fleets remains.

Examples of how advanced digital and satellite-based technology can be adopted and adapted to provide feet-on-the-ground solutions are found throughout the fleet supply industry. SFS has researched the market thoroughly and made the decision to operate the FleetWave system, while Gulliver's have, with the help of outside experts, developed their own, Genesis system. Both companies are recognised leaders in total customer service.

Neil Jeremiah, Sales Director at Gulliver's, sums up the industry's current trend. 'Where it used to be about simply managing the fleets we had on the road, it is now all about added value. That's not added value just for ourselves, but tangible, measurable value for our customers, especially local authorities and their contractors.

'The system allows us to monitor and track in detail all the costs incurred in the workshop and, by doing so, reduce them. It means that we have got a handle on trends and how the end user is managing and operating our vehicles. Such an all-round, all-encompassing maintenance system means that we can help the customer get the best out of our vehicles, and maximise their working life as well as efficiency.'

Gulliver's is a prime example of how a fleet management concept, based on a solid foundation, can grow and develop. The company started life in Bristol providing local authority with fleets, such as road and pavement sweepers, RCVs, and the plethora of applications based on vans and trucks. The successful module in the South West quickly began to create customer interest elsewhere. Gulliver's now operates the tried and proven methodology of the South-West in depots nationwide for customers in Scotland, London, the Midlands and North-West.

'Expansion was the trigger behind us developing Genesis,' Jeremiah says. 'It was about nine years ago when we realised we needed a system that handled customer requirements wherever they were based and remotely. With a team of local technology experts we built Genesis on what we knew was needed by our people as well as our customers.

'From handling the rental and workshop operations we now link every aspect of the business, including accounts, and each one of the 4,000 vehicles we have on the road,' he adds.

The bedrock on which maintenance systems are built is communication. Amassing reams of data is very clever, but that only becomes useful if it is accessible to those who need it in a way in which they can easily read and understand it. It is here that the worldwide web has provided a solution. The web is, as the name implies, a massive network that allows vast amounts of data to be processed and delivered to the right people in the right form.

Gulliver's Genesis captures data on the vehicles themselves, but it also handles the facts and figures on which the business operates, from boardroom strategy through to individual accounts people whose role is to match outgoings with incoming money. However, it goes a stage further and also provides the data to demonstrate that the minutiae of compliance are being adhered to at all times.

Fleet maintenance has transcended the concept of keeping vehicles on the road doing the job for which they were purchased. This is an important role, but to maximise productivity maintenance systems must start with the initial selection and purchase of the vehicle, assessing its capabilities with the company's or customers' requirements, and it keeps operating right through the vehicle's life to disposal, assessing whether that is done by selling on, auction, export or the graveyard.

'Genesis allows us to monitor individual vehicles and plant so that when it gets to the inevitable stage of costing us money to run, we can make a considered, fact-based judgement on what to do. If the customer rents a vehicle from us to do a job, and the vehicle cannot do that job, then the customer will not be happy. 'We can prevent that happening,' Jeremiah adds.

Where plant and vehicle manufacturers have their own management systems, some systems, such as Gulliver's Genesis, are able to download this data and work alongside it.

Jason Airey, Managing Director at vehicle telematics, mobile working and driver behaviour management solutions specialists CMS SupaTrak, said: 'When it comes to managing a local authority vehicle fleet, telematics systems can deliver a number of benefits. The technology can report on a wide range of data regarding a vehicle including its location, how it is being driven and how much fuel is being used.

'CMS SupaTrak offers a portfolio of telematics solutions. Of these, the EcoTrak system provides the most comprehensive amount of data about a vehicle. EcoTrak establishes driver behaviour and characteristics that are in need of improvement, including over revving, harsh braking, speeding and idling. All of these can use fuel unnecessarily, increase wear on the vehicle and be the cause of accidents.

'With this in mind, one of the biggest benefits is clear ' the ability to identify where fuel is being wasted and what needs to be addressed in order to reduce this. In order to achieve this, CMS SupaTrak work alongside fleet managers and use the information obtained from EcoTrak to deliver driver EcoCoaching. CMS SupaTrak's specialist team train drivers in fuel efficient driving techniques, as well as working with them to ensure they understand why this is important.

'If fleet managers are keen to have 24/7 fleet visibility, telematics can also offer this. The SupaTrak system by CMS SupaTrak is a live GPS vehicle tracking solution that uses a secure online application, allowing users to access data about vehicles on their computer or mobile device. SupaTrak providers updated vehicle data every 60 seconds, recording information such as location, speed and acceleration rates. As well as providing current data, the system records historic journeys, allowing users to see a history of where a vehicle has been.

'By using this data, fleet managers can establish if current use of the vehicle ' for example waste collection routes ' deliver the most efficient use of fuel and time and if not, adjust these to deliver better levels. It also allows managers to identify if any vehicles are diverting from the set route, using the vehicle in unauthorised circumstances or spending too long in one location ' again, offering the opportunity for this to be addressed.

'As local authorities increasingly need to reduce budgets and manage costs, the ability to reduce fuel and maintenance costs of vehicles will no doubt become more important. Telematics systems therefore offer tangible benefits to fleet managers, as well as a strong return on investment.'

For the future, fleet maintenance systems will undoubtedly expand and explore new communications opportunities. The watchword of working with major customers, such as a local authority or its contractor, is partnership. By sharing data at all levels, both the supplier and the customer will maximise their investment, not just in financial terms, but for long term business based on service and trust.

At Gulliver's Jeremiah sees that the future will see much more 'live hire' where detailed reports on individual vehicles can be accessed by the customer to assess how it, or they, are working. This is similar to a, for example, mobile phone bill, where the supplier notes every call made, or a monthly or online bank statement.

'Customers and end users want to know details by vehicle and by location so that they can make judgements on the best utilisation. It is, after all, their money,' he adds.

The future for fleet maintenance systems therefore lies in the hands of the customer. The technology is available to provide data in the tiniest detail. It's down to the end user and customer to ask for it from their fleet provider.