Opinion and Return on Technology and Manufacturing & Technology

ALTOM: Is it worth tracking employees and their vehicles?

October 10, 2009

A long, long time ago, my employer decided I needed to wear a pager. Cell phones weren’t cheap and commonplace then, and he didn’t want to spend much money, so he opted for the pager.

The problem was that I was driving all over the state, often in areas notably lacking in pay phones. The pager would go off, then it would be 15 minutes before I could pull into a small town, grab the phone and punch in the long, incomprehensible code for our long-distance service, whereupon my boss would thunder, “What took you so long?”

Today’s road warrior has it a lot easier than I did, thanks to an adaptation of the “telemetry” devices you see in intensive care units, where patients’ vitals are radio-beamed to central monitoring stations. The technology for monitoring work instead of physiology is called “telematics.” But the principle is the same.

Assuming my old boss would give up some lucre to make it happen, I could not only have a phone in my car, but a full suite of functions, like GPS location and driving instructions, emergency assistance and monitoring of the vehicle’s functions so maintenance can be planned. It can even pop open the door remotely for me if I lose my keys, and update my visitation schedule.

In general, you either track vehicles or you track people. You may already be familiar with vehicular tracking if you own a newer GM car, because it may well have the OnStar system installed (www.onstar.com). It has the ubiquitous GPS tracking device in its electronic belly, so the OnStar mother ship knows where you are, and can guide you to wherever you’re going. It can also helpfully unlock your car by remote control and watch over your car’s operations, sending you an e-mail note when it detects something awry. Full OnStar is about $30 a month, but it has to be factory-installed. The dealership can’t retrofit it for you. As GM notes on its OnStar Web site, you can either buy a GM car with OnStar or already have one, but those are the only paths to full OnStardom. Lexus, BMW and Ford all have versions of a telematics product.

There are companies that offer retrofits for any vehicle. Advanced Tracking Technologies (www.advantrack.com) has a fairly representative product line. Its base unit, the Shadow Tracker j2, uses the GPS system to track where the vehicle has been, but doesn’t send data at all. Instead, it collects the data for download the next time you plug your laptop into it. The next unit up in the line doesn’t send in real time, either, but downloads when the vehicle is within range of your office WiFi. The top of the line communicates in real time and can even do things on the vehicle, like open the door remotely or shut down the starter.

Tracking people works much the same way, except it uses “smart” phones. Telenav’s Track product (www.telenavtrack.com), for example, works with either AT&T or Sprint/Nextel, but only with particular phones. It’s a Web application (also known as an SAS, or software as a service), which means monitoring is handled online, with no software to install at the home office.

Track is essentially a way of extending the office outward into field employees’ hip pockets. It does time-tracking, positioning and scheduling, and allows you to collect data into forms for processing back at the office. Laptop software has had these capabilities for years. One difference between telematics and using a laptop is that, with the tracking products, you don’t have to take the employee’s word for where he is, or at least where the smart phone is currently positioned. Another difference is that telematics can operate in real time, not when the employee has a moment to open the laptop in a WiFi environment.

There are big questions about using telematics, of course. Only a few phones support the full functionality, and rural users of vehicle trackers are often offline for extended periods. But perhaps the biggest question is whether you find such sleuthing to be both practical and in line with company values. Employees often react badly to, as they see it, being followed around. There are even privacy laws to consider.

As with all technology, my instinct is to proceed slowly before adopting any telematics solution, and definitely involve the work force in the introduction, because resistant employees can easily ruin any ROI if they really want to. Emphasize the benefits to them, not just to the company. You should evaluate the product’s reliability by doing a test run, and check on the ROI at the same time. Consider maintenance and training costs, too.

Make sure telematics fits into your strategy. It does little good to know where everyone or everything is, and not know where it’s taking you.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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