May 10 2019 10:00 AM

GPS-based fleet management systems allow contractors to keep a close watch on their trucks and the people in them.

It used to be that once your fleet pulled out of the yard in the morning you, the landscape, maintenance or irrigation company owner, had to have a lot of trust. You had to trust that your drivers wouldn’t get lost, wouldn’t drive recklessly and wouldn’t dilly-dally too long at the gas station buying snacks. Because once they hit the road, you lost control over those trucks and the people inside them, at least temporarily.

Note that I said, “used to be.” Thanks to the global positioning system and the fleet management systems that use it, you can now stay as close to your trucks as if you’re sitting in their cabs, right next to the drivers. You can “trust but verify” that your employees and the vehicles under their care are going where they’re supposed to go and doing what they’re supposed to do.

More than GPS

Location tracking isn’t the only thing fleet management solutions provide. Many will help design the most efficient routes, create geofences, notify you about engine problems and even tell you if your drivers are speeding or braking hard.

Should you decide to go with a fleet management company, you’ll have many to choose among. The competition is fierce, which only helps you, as these companies keep adding more and more functions hoping to capture your business.

InfoHub, a division of Briggs and Stratton, Milwaukee, has been in the market just two years, having formally launched at the 2017 GIE+Expo after pilot-testing with landscapers in Milwaukee two years earlier. “Initially we were just monitoring engine behavior to help them avoid catastrophic failures — things like, ‘Is the engine running too hot or getting too low on oil?’” says Marketing Manager Andrew Ewig.

“The feedback from our pilot group was, ‘This is great information about my engine, but now I want to know where my guys are and what they’re up to.’ That was the lightbulb moment for us, and we turned the product into more of a multifaceted landscape business tool.”

These systems are indeed multifaceted, as Trevor Lively, CIC, CLIA, CIT, CCC, president of Blue Jay Irrigation in London, Ontario, discovered.

His father, who started the company in 1982, was what we now would describe as an “early adopter.” “Dad was always a person who would take the latest and greatest technology and see how he could incorporate it into the business,” he says, explaining how his father signed up with HindSite (from HindSite Software, St. Paul, Minnesota) when it was new. “Before that, he had to create work orders on paper. The software allowed him to start automating things.”

HindSite has since added GPS tracking capability, and Lively uses it to manage his fleet of 18 vehicles, a combination of pickups and vans that service his 3,500 commercial and residential clients.

Hermes Landscaping, Lenexa, Kansas, employs up to 200 people during the prime season and 125 in the winter for snow removal. In 2015, the company decided to start exploring a fleet management system for its 25 passenger automobiles and 40 trucks, a mix of one-ton pickups and semi tractor-trailer rigs. “We wanted to do this just to get ahead in the game — to get up to speed with everybody else that’s using this technology,” says Fleet Manager Brian Shannon.

Hermes went with Chesterfield, Missouri-based Linxup, mainly for its geofencing capability and its ability to monitor driver behavior. Administrative Supervisor Tracy Bebb says, “Our safety training says they’ve got to operate the vehicles within certain parameters — safe braking, safe speeds, and this is just a way of enforcing that.”

For Big Sky Landscaping Inc., Portland, Oregon, the spur was more dramatic: one of its 20 trucks was stolen. Management immediately started investigating GPS-based fleet management systems. “We also wanted to start tracking mileage and just know more about our trucks in general,” says Office Manager Nancy Payne.

The system her company chose, PureConnectGPS (also based in Portland), issues service and maintenance reminders along with driver behavior monitoring. “I can pull reports to see if my guys have been speeding or letting their trucks idle a long time,” says Payne.

You may be asking, “Why should I pay a fleet management company when I can buy cheap GPS tracking devices on the internet and attach them to my trucks?” According to Bryan Mitchell, director of marketing at fleet management company Synovia, Indianapolis, “Those devices will tell you where your vehicle is, but you won’t get the reporting. They won’t tell you the number of hours that the vehicle ran for the week or the season or that it left the geofence area for a number of hours.”

“Don't you trust me?”

Time is money, especially in the green industry, because every second your crews aren’t working, they aren’t making you money. Windshield time is profit killing enough without adding unauthorized stops for coffee or sodas. GPS tracking can help “bust” drivers and crews who are wasting company time.

But there can be pushback when employees realize — or are told — that their every move is being tracked. It’s not uncommon to hear comments like “Big Brother is watching” or “I’ve worked for you 10 years — don’t you trust me yet?” When the field employees at Big Sky were told they were going to be tracked “they didn’t like it at all,” says Payne.

Hermes started tracking its trucks without telling its staff, which did result in catching a couple of them taking long lunch breaks, something management had suspected they were doing. “That happened twice, then word got out,” Shannon says. “Once everybody figured out that the trackers were in place, they started behaving correctly. It made them say, ‘Oh, man, these guys are serious now!’” “There are always objections because nobody likes to be tracked,” says Vishal Singh, CEO of eight-year-old GoFleet, Mississauga, Ontario. “It depends on the personality of the individual

Equipment tracking

GPS technology can also be used to track equipment such as skid steers, mowers and more, and some of the fleet management companies offer this service. “InfoHub can track any piece of equipment operating within a landscape,” says Ewig. “Someone using the system is going to see three main colors on their screen: green, yellow or red. A green icon indicates every engine that’s on and moving; yellow icons show that a mower is in motion but the engine is off and red means off, not moving.”

Hermes Landscaping, Lenexa, Kansas, uses the same system to manage its trucks, cars, vans and large equipment, including its 25 commercial mowers.

This capability allows a contractor to locate stolen equipment as well as detect unauthorized use. This way, if you’re normally closed on Saturdays, but one of your mowers starts up at 7 a.m. one Saturday morning, you’ll know about it.

The author is senior editor of Irrigation & Green Industry magazine and can be reached at

Telematics vs. fleet management

Anyone buying a truck in the last year or so has heard the term “telematics.” A translation of the French word télématique, it simply refers to the transfer of information over telecommunications. GPS navigation, integrated hands-free cell phones, wireless safety communications and automatic driving assistance systems are all examples of telematics.

All the major truck manufacturers have rolled out or are in the process of rolling out their own telematics systems. But you don’t necessarily have to have an all-Ford fleet to use Ford’s telematics or an all-GMC/Chevrolet fleet to use GMC’s. Both companies’ systems can be used for any make of truck or vehicle.

How do telematics systems differ from third-party fleet management solutions? Functionally, they don’t. Both offer GPS tracking, diagnostics, driver behavior monitoring and historical tracking data. It just depends on whom you want to pay the monthly subscription fee to. You can use both; telematics systems can work in tandem with third-party fleet management solutions without an extra access fee.

The only major difference is in how they communicate. According to Brock Winger, marketing manager for Ford Commercial Services, Dearborn, Michigan, fleet management systems work via PIDs (plug-in devices that use a vehicle’s onboard diagnostics ports). Newer Ford vehicles have replaced PIDs with factory-installed modems.

“Installing, managing, buying and updating those PIDs is one of the No. 1 friction points for keeping a fleet connected,” says Winger. “Drivers take them out, they get knocked loose or mechanics forget to put them back in after doing diagnostics checks.” By the 2020 model year, the modem will be standard equipment on all Ford vehicles.

Right now, Ford Telematics doesn’t have the ability to track other pieces of equipment such as skid steers and mowers — but it might soon. “The possibilities are endless for all the things that could be added in the future,” says Winger. “Right now, we’re just scratching the surface.”