‘Truck 54, where are you?’

It’s the middle of the day. Where are your employees? How about your vehicles? Are they on the move? From where to where? Are they parked at the job site or at a doughnut shop?

If knowing this would be useful, you need a Global Positioning System (GPS). We covered the basics in the May 2008 column, but feedback from readers such as rural builder Dale Gay in Chunchula, Ala., indicates a need for details.

Basic GPS works by radio signals exchanged with satellites in orbit over the Earth to pinpoint a user’s location to an accuracy of about 10 yards. It tells where you are and how to get where you want to go. With extensions, it also can communicate with a central office to report locations of off-site GPS devices and to relay instructions to them. Taxis and delivery services such as UPS were early adopters.

As the number of GPS users grows, prices are dropping and functionality is improving. The technology has became practical and affordable for rural builders with as few as one vehicle.

Fleet managers typically use GPS devices in two ways:
• Hard-wired into each vehicle. The advantage is simplicity. Example: Beacon Wireless, Toronto, Canada.
• Integrated with cellular telephones. The advantage is flexibility. Example: Xora, Mountain View, Calif.

Both Beacon and Xora can function as stand-alone systems, but for full functionality, including dispatching, in-vehicle navigation and messaging, they should be paired with a generic GPS device such as one of the Nuvi models by Garmin of Olathe, Kan.

Keep in mind the huge range of products and capabilities. If options seem bewildering, it might be helpful to start with Garmin product support at (800) 800-1020 or at www.garmin.com. Beacon and Xora are among the partners that Garmin recommends.

Beacon offers two options: the stand-alone Fleet Master, which includes basic fleet tracking, and Fleet Master Zoom, which incorporates a Garmin Nuvi for turn-by-turn directions both visually and aurally.

Fleet Master’s neatest feature is its ability to report the path of a vehicle to a central office. Beacon calls it the “bread crumb trail.” Fleet Master also reports the vehicle’s direction, speed, whether the engine is stopped or running and six other data points, such as amount of charge left on the battery and the charge of the battery of another device associated with the vehicle, such as a compressor or generator. The office can pinpoint a specific vehicle or view the entire fleet.

All this is reported to the central office over the Internet. There is no hardware or software to install or update. Fleet Master costs $600 for a single installation plus $40 a month for Internet reporting. Installation requires connecting three wires to the vehicle battery and ignition. It can be done by the user or by technicians at Best Buy, according to David Lash, Beacon’s president.

Zoom adds a Garmin navigation device for $250 to $800 more, depending on features, plus $5 a month.

For a demonstration, call 866-867-7770 or visit www.beaconwireless.net.

Xora takes a different approach. It uses a cellular phone for personnel reporting and vehicle tracking. The cellular phone becomes an off-site time clock. An employee clicks a phone button to notify the office upon starting and finishing work, reaching and leaving a job site, starting and ending breaks and starting and ending work for a specific client or job. Notification is stamped automatically with time location from which it was transmitted, making it tamper-proof, according to Xora director of marketing Michael Berger.

The cell phone typically is assigned to an individual, but it also can be checked out when a vehicle is dispatched. Berger said the system automates job costing, makes estimating more accurate and improves employee productivity. Data generated by
Xora integrates with popular accounting systems.

Xora assumes the cell phone has an integrated GPS chip. If not, the phone must be upgraded. The phone also must be among the 60 or so that Xora supports. To set it up, just select applications from the phone’s menu system and download the Xora software.

The system is carrier-billed through Sprint or AT&T, which means the cost,  about $15 a month for basic service, is added to the monthly phone statement. You’ll also need to buy a data plan.

More information about Xora is available from 866-627-9672 or www.xora.com.

Some new cellular phones offer GPS navigation, but their screens are too small to see properly while driving, audio directions are hard to hear and the units might require a mount to attach them to the dashboard or windshield. If those disadvantages don’t seem daunting, Xora can be purchased without a Garmin device.

If all you want is directions between Point A and Point B or to have the system show you on a map where you are, a Garmin Nuvi can be purchased by itself. Garmin makes several models in the $250 to $800 range. You might want to update the device’s internal map occasionally to show changes, but otherwise it does not require a monthly fee when used alone.

For most efficient fleet management, a Garmin Nuvi should be paired with either the Beacon or the Xora.

For generic information about GPS devices, see the June 2008 issue of Consumer Reports. n

Oliver Witte teaches journalism at Southern Illinois University.
Contact him at owitte@siu.edu.

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