August 2005 | Case Studies | I.T. Toolkit

Redi-to-Go Vehicle Tracking

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A fleet-tracking system gives Brookshire Brothers tighter control over fuel costs, driver payments, and store deliveries.

With rapidly increasing energy costs, you can't afford to operate a fleet if you're not tracking your mileage," says Edgar Burton, vice president of distribution and transportation, Brookshire Brothers, Lufkin, Texas. That's why the retail chain implemented a vehicle location system, and recently expanded its use of that technology.

After starting with 30 units in 2002, this year Brookshire Brothers installed the REDIView tracking system from Remote Dynamics, Richardson, Texas, on all 155 of its vehicles.

Brookshire Brothers operates 70 supermarkets in Texas and Louisiana. Most of its properties also include gas stations, some offer pharmacies, and several provide freestanding outlets for beer and tobacco. A private fleet of 18-wheelers—including 40 tractors and 100 trailers—delivers product to the stores from the company's warehouse in Lufkin, covering 70,000 miles per week.

Brookshire Brothers uses software from Manugistics, Rockville, Md., to generate daily routes for these trucks. The company pays its delivery drivers based on the miles they travel.

The fleet also includes company-owned pickup trucks driven by mechanics who service refrigeration equipment in the stores. Supervisors, trainers and merchandisers who travel from store to store drive their own vehicles and are reimbursed for mileage.

In the past, employees receiving mileage-based pay or reimbursements logged their miles manually—a process that leaves room for error. "We wanted a verifiable, accurate way to track mileage and properly compensate our people," Burton explains.

Security and Efficiency

Company officials also wanted to monitor vehicle locations. For the delivery fleet, for instance, vehicle tracking is a security issue."We haul a lot of cigarettes on our trucks; these are high-dollar volumes," Burton says. "We want to know where the vehicles are, and at what time they're there."

Three years ago, Burton purchased a vehicle-tracking system for its maintenance fleet from Remote Dynamics, which at the time was owned by U.K.-based Minorplanet. That solution used GPS technology to record a vehicle's location throughout the day, storing the data in an onboard device. At the end of a shift, the system uploaded the data to a server at the fleet owner's headquarters.

Following a recent "friendly divorce" from Minorplanet, this year Remote Dynamics introduced REDIView, which takes a different approach from the earlier system, says Joe Gordon, the technology firm's director of product management. The older system was suitable for customers with 10 or 20 vehicles in their fleet; the new one is aimed at fleets of 50 vehicles or more.

Remote Dynamics replaced the old client-server architecture with a web-based system, hosting the service at its network operations center. It also added wireless communications, so onboard units can transmit vehicle locations and other data throughout the day.

"If customers need to know where a vehicle is, we can tell them," Gordon says. "We can also tell them what the vehicle is doing—is it speeding? Is it somewhere it's not supposed to be?"

With optional sensor interfaces, REDIView also monitors events—such as trailer and cab doors opening and closing—and transmits inventory data from RFID readers.

"Our job is to make the vehicle another node on the corporate network," Gordon says. "That can be as simple as giving basic information such as where a vehicle is, when it's there, and what it's doing. For more complete visibility—of the vehicle, as well as what happens on it—companies can connect laptops, PDAs, and other devices such as RFID sensors to inventory systems in their back office."

Brookshire Brothers replaced the older vehicle-tracking units on its maintenance trucks with Remote Dynamics' new REDI 2000 onboard units. It also added REDIView to its delivery and management vehicles. But for the management vehicles, Burton had a special request: he wanted portable units that drivers could move from car to car.

Plug In And Go

Typically, Remote Dynamics hard-wires the REDI 2000 units to a vehicle's ignition system and battery, and installs an external antenna. But for employees who drive personal vehicles on the job, that type of installation isn't appropriate.

"We needed the ability to take the unit, put it in a bag, provide a cigarette lighter plug and a stopper stick-on antenna," Burton says. Remote Dynamics turned the idea into REDITote, a vehicle-tracking system-in-a-bag, which it has since introduced to the general market.

A cell phone with built-in GPS tracking capabilities could also provide a portable solution, but REDITote does a better job, Gordon says. For one thing, when drivers take a cell phone into a vehicle, they're likely to toss it onto the front seat next to them, where it doesn't get a clear view of the sky. That means the built-in GPS antenna can't receive signals from enough GPS satellites to calculate a location.

REDITote users plug the device into a vehicle's cigarette lighter, fix the antenna to a window, start the engine, and flip a switch to start the tracking system. "Companies should not be able to tell the difference between a vehicle using REDITote, and a vehicle that has the REDI 2000," Gordon says.

REDIView transmits data from the onboard unit and any auxiliary sensors over the Cingular Wireless network, using the General Packet Radio Service, a wireless standard for transmitting data. Remote Dynamics makes this information available to any authorized user at a subscribing company via a web browser.

Operating in Real Time

Users can see vehicle positions on a map, find the truck closest to a given address, and get real-time information about a vehicle's operation, such as whether it's idling or how fast it's moving.

Managers can view reports that provide travel histories and analyze factors such as travel costs and driver performance. Drivers can also set up a "geofence" around a vehicle, prompting the system to send an alarm if a vehicle strays outside a prescribed boundary. It can also send alarms in other situations, such as when a vehicle is moving too fast.

Brookshire Brothers requires delivery drivers to keep their speed at less than 65 miles per hour, even on roads where the legal limit is 70. If drivers break that rule, "an alarm comes into the transportation department. When drivers come back in, we have one-on-one conversations with them," Burton says.

When companies implement REDIView, they pay an initial fee for the hardware, installation, and activation, then a flat monthly fee. That fee includes the wireless air time; customers do not receive a separate bill from Cingular.

The biggest benefit Brookshire Brothers has gained from REDIView is "more efficient mileage utilization," Burton says. Those efficiencies started when the company put the first units on its maintenance trucks, giving managers greater control over where drivers went and the routes they took to get there.

"We saw a 25-percent reduction in miles," he says.

By promoting better coordination, the tracking system also boosts distribution efficiency. "If a store is scheduling crews to unload trucks and stock groceries, it needs an accurate delivery time," Burton says. The Manugistics routing system tells the company when trucks are due to arrive; now REDIView shows how closely they're sticking to that schedule.

"Workers know that everything is being watched, so our on-time deliveries have improved," says Burton.

Though Brookshire Brothers hasn't integrated the REDIView routing and tracking systems to automatically compare projected and actual routes, that option does exist. At the request of some customers, Remote Dynamics created interfaces between REDIView and other applications.

The company also is working on a standard interface that will allow its software to talk to a broader range of solutions, including transportation and inventory management systems.

In the future, Brookshire Brothers would like a REDIView feature that sends an alert when vehicles deviate from a prescribed route, Burton says. It also hopes for a version of the onboard system that drivers and dispatchers can use to exchange text messages over the mobile data network.

Although REDIView helps Brookshire Brothers keep tabs on its mobile employees and encourages efficient performance, the company does not wish to become Big Brother.

"This is not a spy device," Burton says. "This is strictly a management tool." Its main goal is to control fleet miles in an era of escalating fuel costs.

"In today's marketplace, if you can reduce your cost increases, you've done a good job," says Burton.

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