Cleaner air through software

Southern California uses fleet management system to help reduce vehicle emissions

Fleet management software has been around for a while, but organizations are finding new uses for it. One emerging trend is to use onboard wireless appliances that can provide managers with continuous data on location and engine diagnostics for each vehicle in a fleet.

'It is becoming more popular' although not yet mainstream, said Matthew Wade, vice president of sales and marketing at Agile Access Control, which sells management software.

A clean-air organization in Southern California wants to see if this technology can help clean up some of the worst air pollution in the country.

'We are interested in onboard real-time monitoring of emissions controls and engine operations,' said Raymond Gorski, technical adviser at the Mobile Source Air Pollution Reduction Review Committee (MSRC). 'We are trying to expand that and get air quality benefits.'

Spend to save Through March 28, MSRC is offering to pay 50 percent of the cost of equipping municipal fleets in Orange, Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside counties with approved vehicle management systems. If the program works, the continuous emissions monitoring could help reduce air pollutants. The fleet owners could not only see savings from improved management but also receive exemptions from state smog testing requirements.

'So we see this as a win-win,' Gorski said.

Making vehicles more green is a value-added proposition for the companies selling onboard monitoring systems, said Chris Ransom, strategic alliance manager at Networkcar, whose Networkfleet is one of the systems approved for the MSRC program.

'Fleets want to reduce their fuel cost and they want to know where their vehicles are,' Ransom said. 'Some just want to do more efficient routing.'

Networkfleet is not cheap ' the onboard appliance costs from $300 to $500 per box in addition to monthly service fees of as much as $30 per vehicle. But, 'the return is there. Many of our customers see a return on their investment in six months, and most within a year,' Ransom said.

One customer with 200 trucks was able to save $350,000 a year by cutting the engine idling time on those trucks in half.

The onboard monitoring program was proposed by the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which wanted a pilot to demonstrate a quantifiable improvement in pollution controls. MSRC approved $500,000, and if the desired benefits are seen, the program could be expanded to include private-sector fleets, too.

'The initial indications are [that] this is going to be popular,' Gorski said. 'We anticipate there will be thousands of vehicles.'

The Bureau of Automotive Repairs, a part of the California Consumer Affairs Department, must certify systems. The bureau runs the state's smog monitoring program, and vehicles with approved onboard monitoring systems do not need biennial emissions testing.

'We essentially act as a smog-checking station,' Ransom said. 'It's an interesting partnership between our customers, Networkcar and MSRC.'

Although environmental improvement is a relatively new concept for the tool, government already is a major part of Networkcar's business.

The Marine Corps, with thousands of vehicles spread over an area of Southern California larger than some states, is the company's largest customer.

The Networkfleet appliance is a box that plugs into a vehicle's onboard diagnostic port. It can gather real-time data from any vehicle using the OBD-II diagnostics standard, which was adopted by the auto industry in 1996. This is the same port that service stations use to gather data when your Check Engine light goes on. Data can include speed and mileage, whether the vehicle is moving or idling, and engine and emissions control system condition and performance.

A Global Positioning System chip gathers location data, and a Subscriber Identity Module card lets the device connect like a cell phone to AT&T's national cellular network to relay data to a Networkcar data center in San Diego. The data center processes 6 million messages a day from 65,000 monitored vehicles.

Keeping tabs Fleet managers access this data and create reports through a Web portal. Alerts about driver behavior or vehicle condition also can be generated.

Location data typically is transmitted every two minutes, with some diagnostic data being transmitted every 40 minutes. The transmission schedules can be adjusted. 'We can keep the data packets small and the traffic predictable,' he said.

He said AT&T's national network coverage is good, but when a vehicle is out of a coverage area, data can be stored on the box for as long as 30 days until a connection is made.

About the Author

William Jackson is freelance writer and the author of the CyberEye blog.

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