Comment: Supporting fleets, emerging stronger
Beverley Wise, sales director UK and Ireland for Webfleet Solutions, examines how telematics has helped fleets during the Covid pandemic, and considers its role in helping businesses recover.
As the world continues its fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, there is now a light at the end of the tunnel – the biggest vaccine programme in NHS history is set to be a game-changer for UK businesses.
Although there will be logistical hurdles to overcome, the vaccine roll-out should ultimately lead to the lifting of those tough restrictions that have put a monumental squeeze on thousands of fleet operations, along with the wider UK economy.
Fleet businesses under pressure
The dampening of demand in the last 12 months has been reflected in SMMT’s recent figures, which reveal a 20% fall in UK new light commercial vehicle registrations during 2020.
Some fleet operators have of course fared better than others. Those providing essential services, including many firms operating deliveries, have continued apace. Countless businesses, however, have been forced to scale back, or put their commercial activities on hold during the lockdowns – as evidenced by Webfleet Solutions’ and Geotab’s Commercial Mobility Recovery Dashboard.
Commercial vehicle activity across the business services sector, for example, dropped to 45% of pre-Covid-19 levels during the second week of our national lockdown last spring. Similarly, this figure dropped to 60% in the wake of the lockdown restrictions imposed in November.
As fleets have strived to remain profitable, they have had to balance their commercial targets with keeping their employees safe and helping to prevent the spread of the virus. Resilience and innovation have held the key to overcoming the abundance of financial and logistical challenges, and to keeping the cogs of commerce turning.
From a technological perspective, telematics has offered an invaluable solution to keeping information flowing, while minimising the number of person-to-person interactions – helping to keep job sites open and enabling the remote working of management teams.
With businesses finding some journeys being cancelled at short notice, on the spot requests increasing, and customers changing delivery preferences on the fly, the need for flexibility and the capacity for rapid response to meet customer needs has been brought into sharper focus.
Fleet visibility, along with dynamic scheduling and job dispatch systems, have proved crucial.
Businesses with telematics systems in situ have consequently been better placed to cope from the get-go. For these operations, here has been little requirement for verbal, or person-to-person, communications with field workers to inform them of schedule revisions. Instead, it has been possible to notify them of changes, in response to volatile, real time business events, automatically via their in-vehicle devices, with navigation instructions revised accordingly.
From the all-important customer perspective, it has been possible to keep them automatically updated of ETAs via email or text notifications, with telematics platforms taking the strain off resource-stretched fleet departments.
Where businesses have had to contend with staffing shortages and vehicles have being laid up, systems that have helped optimise workflow efficiencies and enabled more effective vehicle utilisation have also proved paramount. Telematics data has underpinned insights into routing and job completions, and has continued to play a particularly important role in this challenging environment.
For those businesses that have seen the daily demands on their fleets intensify, digitised maintenance processes that help keep vehicles roadworthy and maximise reliability have been important in reducing downtime and maximising the fulfilment of orders. Helpful telematics tools here included diagnostic systems that immediately relay engine fault codes to fleet managers and connected apps on mobile devices that enable and simplify remote vehicle safety checks.
All the while, real world safety briefings have given way to more digital interactions and driver training has increasingly moved to virtual environments. As part of these safety processes, telematics data that provides remote insights into the factors that influence driver safety has remained integral to fleet risk management programmes.
The road to recovery
Despite the much needed economic recovery now being eyed on the 2021 horizon, budgets are still likely to remain tight across the world of business for some time to come. While we can afford ourselves optimism, we can ill-afford complacency with the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) not expecting the UK economy to return to its pre-coronavirus levels until the end of next year.
Road transport was already on a journey to smarter, connected mobility before the pandemic struck, and fleet organisations should review their business strategies to ensure their operations are future-proof if they are to emerge stronger in the post-Covid landscape.
Operational flexibility, smart customer interactions, risk management and cost control will remain fundamental building blocks to their competitive futures post-Covid. And telematics systems will continue to play a critical role in providing managers with the connected data insights needs to drive improvements across all of these areas.