The coronavirus brought a seismic shift in the way all kinds of fleets are managed after many workers and their vehicles were moved away from company depots and public yards to private residences.
It fundamentally altered the way fleets operate. And it increased reliance on telematics tools to bolster productivity and efficiency.
Fleet management has been upended.
Severely budget-constrained public fleets must continue to deliver essential services such as refuse, utilities, and emergency response with fewer resources. Trucking fleets are faced with rising demand for goods and services driven by a spike in online shopping while dealing with a shortage of qualified drivers.
Sales fleets are being replaced by mobility services and vehicle sharing. Service fleet managers must contend with overseeing drivers who now deploy from their homes and may need to use a personal vehicle.
Changes in the landscape have brought new priorities to the doorstep of telematics service providers that are now being asked to enhance existing tools and provide greater visibility into fleet operations, such as personal use, preventive maintenance, and compliance with electronic logging devices.
Mismanaging any one of these areas can lead to a sharp increase in operating costs, regulatory enforcement, or waste.
Let’s take a closer look at how the pandemic has altered these aspects of fleet management and what tools are available to stem the tide of rising costs. These trends are expected to continue well into 2021, and may outlast the pandemic that spurred them.
In June, a stunning 42% of the American workforce was working full-time from their homes, according to a Stanford study. Another 33% were not working due to unemployment or lockdowns, and the remaining 26% were essential workers who reported to their business premises.
How Remote Working Changed Utilization Patterns
To keep Covid-19 from spreading through their workforces, many U.S. companies shifted associates, including fleet drivers, to their homes in April and May.
The “working from home” economy is expected to continue after the pandemic ends. Workers will be expected to work one to three days per week from their home, according to the Stanford study. As a result, pre-pandemic vehicle utilization trends have been rendered obsolete.
Telematics systems help fleet managers identify low-utilization vehicles that are parked up to 80% of the time. Many of these lower-utilization vehicles have been parked or pulled out of service during the pandemic. Commercial fleets took connected vehicles off the grid to secure cost savings from telematics providers early in the pandemic, but that approach proved fruitless during the subsequent eCommerce spike.
Many sales fleets scaled back the number of vehicles in service, and carsharing services have shifted their focus to assisting essential workers in healthcare, food service, and deliveries, according to B2B publication Fleet Forward.
Other considerations that have emerged:
• Government fleet vehicles continue to age, as agencies that have had their budgets drastically reduced have paused deliveries of new units. As one high-profile example, the U.S. Postal Service delayed its wide-ranging vehicle replacement plan until 2021, reported Trucks.com.
• In the realm of personal use, drivers operating from home need more proactive management to prevent inappropriate uses such as personal errands on company time or moonlighting. But there’s more to consider. The pandemic also created tax headaches for companies who set a personal use charge, according to Automotive Fleet. The tax burden for personal use mileage could be shifted to workers. Any miles driven will likely be considered non-business miles, especially in light of government stay-at-home orders.
Telematics Tools Become Even More Crucial
In its most fundamental form, telematics can increase a fleet’s efficiency but providing a ray of clarity.
In a pandemic, this function becomes even more important. With companies being forced to do more with less, vehicles that remain in service may see heavier use, especially in the government sector.
Vehicle tracking helps companies identify vehicles and other assets that can be repurposed to higher-utilization assignments. When resources are scare, this shift can pay huge dividends.
While the pandemic has accelerated a driver-based rather than asset-based management approach, fleet managers especially in the trucking sector are being asked for more data about the cargo that’s moving through the supply chain.
Carriers and other logistics companies are pushing their telematics service providers for greater visibility into a package’s location, temperature, door lock/unlock, and other events with the increased importance of deliveries of food, medicine, and other high-value, timely cargo.
As one example, Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine needs to be stored at minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit during transportation, which will require temperature checks as part of the cold-chain management process. Driver management solutions have also been helpful in an era of social distancing. Real-time messaging features have helped fleet managers provide coaching without being in the same room. Of course, route optimization and navigation tools have needed to meet the needs of fleet managers who once used depots to dispatch vehicles, but now need to set up pre-determined routes from each driver’s home address. Messaging apps have helped drivers contact dispatchers without in-person interactions and have lessened paperwork burdens.
Complications with Preventive Maintenance
The spike in downtime of fleet units that were parked during the pandemic has created an array of challenges for fleet managers seeking to continue preventive maintenance schedules for oil drains, fluid refills, and other regular service intervals. PM costs fell in 2020 compared to 2019, because of the high number of idled non-essential units, according to Automotive Fleet. Essential businesses saw a sharp uptick, especially in last-mile delivery, medical supply, food delivery, and utility fleets. While many fleets saw a decline in overall fleet maintenance costs in 2020 mostly due to the idled units, per-vehicle costs increased due to “labor rate increases, increased utilization of mobile repair services, and Covid-related cleaning,” Merchants Fleet told the trade publication.
Vehicles typically have had less regular service due to the pandemic, because of the drop-off in miles traveled, which is typically used to set service intervals. Many fleets saw a dip in miles driven in March and April. Over-the-road trucking operators saw less of a dip as the nation’s supply chain returned to pre-pandemic levels by the summer months. Other operating costs remained flat to lower with the decline in business activity. Fuel consumption fell, and tires needed to be replaced less frequently as fewer mileage kept treads lasting longer.
Remote Management of Over-the-Road Truckers
In March, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) issued an emergency order that exempted carriers and drivers from certain hours-of-service regulations. The order was extended for the sixth time in September through the end of 2020. The move was intended to help trucking companies deliver essential and emergency supplies, including livestock, medical supplies and equipment, food and paper products, and safety equipment such as masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, and disinfectant. The emergency order, in some ways, complicated the monitoring of driver hours, because it required suppliers of electronic logging devices (ELDs) to present electronic logs with greater clarity. ELD suppliers and their resellers have been working to simplify data presentation for their customers. The pandemic has also pushed the industry further away from its paperwork-based past, as more shippers have implemented a paperless bill-of-lading system.
Truck Driver Health Moves to the Foreground
Covid-19 exposed the health risks of truck drivers. The median age of an over-the-road truck driver is 46 compared with 42 for the average U.S. worker. Drivers for private fleets have a median age of 57, according to the American Trucking Associations’ 2019 analysis of the driver shortage. These drivers have been more susceptible to the pandemic, especially because they often have other health problems such as heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, sleep apnea, and other issues related to a lack of physical activity. They are also more likely to smoke and be overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As a result, some fleets and organizations such as Protective Insurance (via the ATA) have been providing hand sanitizer and other resources to their drivers. Fleets have implemented heightened cleaning procedures and other measures, reported Transport Topics. Drivers have been minimizing stops by bringing food from home so they may be able to take one less trip to a truck stop.
Covid-19 Will Have a Lasting Impact
The disruption brought by the pandemic is likely to have a lasting impact well into 2021 and beyond. Even once the country achieves “herd immunity,” likely by summer following a rollout of several vaccines, companies are expected to retain remote workers at a much higher clip than they did prior to Covid-19. With remote workers come remote vehicles. The challenges of managing off-site personnel and assets will remain, but the tools offered by telematics and ELD providers will continue to evolve. Managing vehicles and, even more crucially, data will become easier as next-generation telematics solutions meet this rising tide.