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Convergence comes to tracking

Technological developments in vehicle tracking, telematics and fleet management are an indispensable part of managing costs, productivity and risk. JOHN EDMESTON shares his views on where vehicle tracking and telematics is headed.

Technological developments in vehicle tracking, telematics and fleet management are an indispensable part of managing costs, productivity and risk. JOHN EDMESTON shares his views on where vehicle tracking and telematics is headed.

Remember the rush home to get dinner sorted and the family in front of the TV to watch ‚ÄòKnight Rider” back in the 1980s? For many families missing their weekly fix of the Hoff with his talking, thinking, self-driving and intelligent crime-fighting super car was unthinkable. And let’s not forget the equally sleek, black pantechnicon truck brimful of computer gadgetry that was somehow always close by for a ‚ÄòKnight Rider’ drive-in while cruising at 120km down the freeway.

Back then we probably did not realise it, but telematics and tracking technology development was already well underway. Now some thirty years later, the technological developments in vehicle tracking, telematics and fleet management are an indispensable part of managing costs, productivity and risk. If there is one thing that technological innovation has taught us, is that if you can think of it, someone will develop it.

Vehicle tracking and telematics technology has been around for years, but the real innovation in its application and use in the broader fleet management and vehicle tracking space has happened in the last few years. The industry has grown fast and substantially on the back of the development of our GSM networks, cellular/mobile data technology and GPS navigation. From the initial Radio Frequency (RF) platforms, vehicle tracking evolved to incorporate the use of Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) and Global Positioning System (GPS) technology, which enabled many enhancements and services not previously possible on an RF platform.

The accessibility of GPS on a commercial basis effectively heralded the start of telematics that currently defines the tracking industry and its fleet management capabilities. With the introduction of an accelerometer to a tracking device, the means to determine driver behaviour commenced, enabling fleet managers to become truly scientific in their analysis of driver performance and risk management.

With telematics emerging as an incredibly powerful fleet management tool, insurers also soon picked up on its application as a means to manage driver behaviour for the better, and in turn, dramatically reduce the loss ratios on the book of clients as a result of accidents.

Insurers now have an added sales tool in that they can now offer their clients personalised insurance premiums based on their actual individual risk, rather than the broad dictates of an average risk pool. It essentially allows insurers to be far more granular in the analysis of their insurance book – through the analysis of telematics feedback: insurers can now reward good driving behaviour with reduced premiums, as well as address bad driving behaviour.

The Race for Africa

Africa has been heralded as the next frontier of business development, and multinationals are eyeing the continent’s prospects with a view to setting up shop in new territories. With expansion come the need for tracking and fleet management suppliers with large global footprints, solid reputations and an affinity for doing business in Africa, with all its unique challenges, quirks and opportunities. Having a single solutions provider for all their asset tracking needs will be imperative for businesses expanding on the continent.

Two fundamental issues will drive the development of the technology and its capabilities in an African context – battery power sources and the cost of cellular connectivity. Designing long-life powerful batteries that are small and effective has to be an industry priority. Large batteries with long lifespans are available, but that defies the whole point of miniaturisation which enables a far more intricate and reliable installation, and in turn makes the units difficult to locate in the vehicle and disable. This means that recovery teams have a far greater chance of locating the vehicle and returning it to the owner if stolen or hijacked. Finding a solution to power supply in the form of a small, long-life battery unit will be a significant game changer for the industry.

Secondly, standardisation of cellular costs across Africa is a key challenge. Until we see some measure of network access and roaming charges standardisation, the industry will lag in being able to provide the depth of services on a cross border basis, at an affordable rate. Once this is addressed, I believe the race for Africa will be well and truly on among the key industry players.

Where to next?

Worldwide predictions are that we’re only just touching the tip of the iceberg in terms of the capabilities and application of telematics. In South Africa for example, we estimate that only around 25% of fleet and private vehicles on the road have telematics capability installed, so there is room for growth.

While the hardware is mature and well developed, the real innovation lies in the development of the firmware – essentially the instructions for how the device communicates – as well as the customisation thereof to respond to unique customer needs. The prospects around data mining are still untapped and new opportunities for its application are emerging all the time.

For example, one growing area is that of prisoner tracking and Cartrack is already actively involved in this regard. Paroled inmates are tagged with a tracking device, enabling information from field-monitoring devices to be relayed back to a control centre regarding the parolee’s presence in their residence in the event of a house arrest or any other specified location, in addition to tracking their movements.

On the technology side, there is the ongoing demand for better management systems which is largely driven by data, as well as customisation of the technology for specific industries and client requirements. In the same way that the mobile industry has evolved, telematics is likely to follow suit with new application developments for fleet owners as well as the man on the street, keeping them in touch with their fixed and moveable assets. Quick and easy access to the technology is of prime importance, and telematics and tracking providers will need to ensure accessibility to and mobility of their applications 24/7/365.

I believe that the future will see the integration of telematics information into cars on the production line as part of a drive towards total communications convergence. In this regard cloud based connectivity is going to play a huge role. In fact, Ford gave the market some insights into this with the launch of its ‚ÄòEvos’ car in late 2011. The Evos has the ability to learn its driver’s habits, adapting the engine characteristics and driving controls to suit, learning your work schedule and adapting to local traffic and weather conditions to get you there on time. All made possible by an incredibly intelligent telematics interface with the data transmitted and saved to the cloud via 3G or 4G connectivity which is built into the vehicle. Location-based services may also be included to monitor not only the driver, but also the environment – for example automatic switching to electric from gas when moving from the highway to city areas.

The convergence of technology and the automotive industries brings with it exciting new developments and possibilities – especially on the communications and data fronts. As real-time tracking data becomes more readily available, we will see governments, insurance companies and regulators keen to interrogate and adopt technology that ultimately will deliver safer roads, less accidents, reduced crime and possibly one of the best tools for addressing the carnage on South African roads.

Developments in digital technology will without a doubt trigger the next big leap in vehicle safety, efficiency and productivity. Whichever way you look at it, the entire driving experience is set for a radical overhaul over the next five to ten years.

* John Edmeston, CEO of Cartrack

* Follow Gadget on Twitter on @GadgetZA

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