You may think you have no way of knowing what your employees are doing with their time unless you physically pay a visit to the job site, but thanks to the expanding world of GPS-based fleet vehicle management, this is not necessarily the case.

If you were the boss of any sort of non-roofing-related company like, say, the software-engineering firm in the movie Office Space, then you would be able to closely monitor your employees. You could see when they arrived, tell when they took extended coffee breaks and even track their Internet usage if you wanted to. Of course, we are sure you would be a better boss than the guy in the movie, who had some employees that ended up stealing from him and another who burned down his building.

At any rate, the point is: You may think you have no way of knowing what your employees are doing with their time unless you physically pay a visit to the job site, but thanks to the expanding world of GPS-based fleet vehicle management, this is not necessarily the case.

GPS has been around since the 70s, but was only recently commercialized and extended to fleet tracking — with cars, boats etc — in the 90s. The past five years have seen significant growth in the industry. “The concept (of fleet tracking) is becoming more mainstream,” says Julie Axelrod, marketing director for FleetBoss, Fern Park, Fla. “Now at trade shows, customers are more educated and want to know about us.”

All You Need is a Truck

Is this really something a roofing contractor would need or use? According to Axelrod, FleetBoss has a few different types of contractors, such as electrical, HVAC and pool and spa. “They all have drivers out servicing customers,” she explains. “They go out, come back, and some even take their vehicles home.” The bottom line is, owners can’t supervise or manage these activities. “We give them the flexibility to measure where the vehicle is going,” says Axelrod.

The FleetBoss system is a vehicle unit that tracks through GPS. It offers comprehensive vehicle data combined with easy-to-generate management reports. The company has a national network of dealers who provide local service. Benefits the company says its system can provide include lowering fuel costs, increasing fleet efficiency and productivity, controlling moonlighting, eliminating theft, monitoring speeding, reducing accidents, identifying unauthorized vehicle use and verifying billing time. “Our system can measure speed, direction of travel, etc.,” Axelrod explains. “There is a sensor on the vehicle to measure doors opening and closing, gate lifting, machine engaged (like in carpet cleaning), etc. You can see when a vehicle is in service, when it isn’t, and find out what the driver does when he is at a location.”

With the reports generated by the FleetBoss system, each trip is a line in the data, as is maximum speed, end location, etc. “It gives you the ability to measure how long it takes,” Axelrod adds. “So for example, if it takes a long time to get somewhere, are you doing effective routing? The system helps you to get maximum efficiency out of your fleet.” It can also measure idle time while on service calls. This is beneficial because idling uses up fuel and fuel costs money. Overall, the system allows you to eliminate wasted time. “The bulk of an increase in efficiency is from the productivity side,” says Axelrod.

What about smaller roofing contractors that don’t have very many trucks? “FleetBoss services fleets as small as three and as many as 6,000,” says Axelrod. “An increase in productivity is noticed on a per vehicle basis. Even for roofers who may be at a single job site all day, you can verify if they showed up, when they showed up, how long lunch was, billable hours, etc.”

Finding a Niche

“We have different types of competition. Everyone has a niche,” says Axelrod. “Some companies cater to businesses that need to know ‘Where is my truck right now?’ … Where we have gone is a step further. Not just ‘Where is the truck?’ but ‘What is going on?’ We track stops, routes, more substantive info. Then you can really manage your fleet and ask yourself, ‘How can we get more efficient?’ It’s more than just knowing where your vehicle is. In the end, you make more money and increase profitability.”

While FleetBoss is a national company, there are others that are regional or operational in only one city. One regional company is Minorplanet Systems USA, Richardson, Texas. Minorplanet began in the United Kingdom in 1996 and expanded to 13 countries in Europe and Australia. The company arrived in the United States in July 2001 and currently serves the Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, and Austin, Texas, markets, as well as Atlanta and Los Angeles, with plans for other metro markets in the future.

This company calls its product Vehicle Management Information™, which combines GPS technology with hardware and software to create systems that generate sophisticated applications of data. “Our system is a GPS-based fleet management system, providing minute-by-minute monitoring,” says Melissa Berg-Baker, public relations manager for Minorplanet. “VMI offers three things: First, productivity. Even if contractors go to one job per day, you can see what employees and vehicles are doing. Second, there is a decrease in fuel consumption. Third, overtime costs decrease. The system verifies manual time sheets.”

VMI uses the GSM cellular telephone network to access stored data. There are different ways to track and locate vehicles in real time, from constant live tracking to start-and-stop monitoring. There is also a map screen that enables as many, or as few vehicles to be viewed at one time. The system can be programmed to pinpoint vehicles at regular time intervals, ranging from daily or hourly snapshots to minute-by-minute updates.

Several reports can be generated. For example, the Trip Replay provides a visual representation of where vehicles have been, the routes they have taken, where they stopped and how long they stopped for. Detailed Reports can show a vehicle’s location, idling, standing time, speed and distance traveled. Recently added report options include: actual hours worked, distance traveled, driving habits, excessive breaks, fuel, idling, time at locations, vehicle and driver utilization.

“Any business with a fleet of vehicles — as few as three — can benefit from this system,” says Berg-Baker. “Our system provides immediate benefits,” she continues. “Time sheets, idling reports, route deviations — there are several different reports you can run.”

In addition, there is a direct benefit to drivers in terms of increased safety. “With a GPS-based fleet management system, business owners can quickly find employees if their vehicles break down or if there is some sort of threat to the employee,” says Berg-Baker. “Of course, after the events of 9/11, safety is a primary concern for vehicles that carry hazardous materials or other cargo that could be used for deviant purposes.”

Minorplanet also recently released a new version of its software. New features include:

Watch Box capability : When a vehicle leaves or enters a specified location, an alert is sent to the Control and Command Center;

Event Forwarding: The alert can also be forwarded to another device, such as a cell phone. Route deviation notifications can also be sent directly to a cell phone.

Sensor/switch notification and reporting: such as lift or pump operation

Multi-user capability: with individual user preferences

Big Brother?

And now for the question on everyone’s mind: Isn’t this like spying? Even if it’s not, technically, won’t employees feel that it is?

“We do not recommend covert installation,” says Axelrod. “Rather, it helps if you introduce the system from a trust standpoint and present it in a positive light. You can use it to create a bonus plan. Get drivers involved in the system by looking at ways to save money, then reward them. If you put it on as a big brother tool, that’s a problem. We have a manual about how to introduce the system.”

As Berg-Baker sees it, “I sit in an office with my boss 2 feet away. In an office, you can see what your employees are doing. We find that people who are doing what they are supposed to don’t mind. They feel it proves they are doing their job.” Berg-Baker has also noticed that many companies give bonuses to their drivers for saving fuel, thereby turning the system into a positive.

A third company, Aether Systems, Owings Mills, Md., prefers to look at its system as a means to provide “visibility” to management, as opposed to enabling them to snoop. “The system allows our customers to record starts, stops, where they drive, lunch breaks, etc. It’s not about managing a truck going across the nation; it’s about visibility with your mobile workforce,” says Michael Brown, vice president, Product Marketing for Aether Systems. “A common objection sees the system as a method of tracking employees, i.e. spying. But it is the same for an office employee. In this instance, you are just using technology to give visibility as in the office environment.”

Aether has been around since 1996, offering several different communications products. Recently acquiring a company that provides GPS vehicle-tracking technology, Aether currently has about 70,000 GPS customers. The rest of its 150,000 total clients use handheld blackberry-type devices. The company is the market leader for police vehicles as well.

Aether started offering its 20/20V fleet-tracking system about eight months ago and has more than 50 fleets using the system, as of press time. The system combines GPS technology with the Cellemetry network, and gives coverage across the United States, Canada and Mexico. The Internet-based host provides real-time information and control; authorized users can view the fleet online from virtually any computer. Aether contends that customers see benefits from “day one.” The system facilitates managing “by exception,” with filtering, user-define locations, street-level mapping, and alerts such as prohibited locations. Reporting capabilities include Trip Detail, Summary and Exception reports.

“We listen to our clients to fit their needs,” Brown explains. Though Aether offers a variety of different solutions, “For most small- to medium-sized contractors, the 20/20V system fits. It allows you to see where workers are and keep track of critical events. This type of system is most effective for industries that don’t need a lot of driver messaging. Rather, it is dynamic management of a mobile workforce and provides better efficiency.”

Unlike the other companies we spoke to, Brown feels comfortable recommending the system to companies with as few as one vehicle, though Aether’s average construction clients have eight to 10 vehicles. “You don’t need anything other than the hardware,” says Brown. “The system is Web-based. And it’s a nationwide solution in real time.”

Do you need such a high-tech system for your roofing business? It certainly doesn’t hurt to learn more, especially if you are experiencing efficiency problems. “Tools of the wireless world extend to anyone that’s a mobile employee,” says Brown. “You use a tool because it is cost effective. It’s a method of managing a mobile workforce.”