GPS/AVL now within reach for public works departments

Brian Boychuk
Vice President Sales and Marketing
Grey Island Systems, Inc.
Toronto, Ontario

Public works operations have used GPS (global positioning systems) for more than a decade. Most applications in the public works sector in particular have been passive in nature for asset management and mapping purposes. This is because few have had the budget and staff resources to apply GPS/AVL (automated vehicle location) capabilities for tracking vehicle activities on the road in real time.

Previously, public works applications have tended to lag in GPS/AVL integration due to the scale of investment and resources required to set up and maintain in-house systems. While it is acknowledged that there is considerable value in knowing where any vehicle within a fleet is, as well as in maintaining historical records of all activities, the individual vehicle cost of deployment once far outweighed the benefits.

Those enjoying advanced GPS/AVL functionality—such as large-scale trucking operations and public transit systems—have both the volumes and the economies of scale to justify the expense of in-house applications, servers, databases and integration. In the trucking industry, for example, the cost of equipping a single vehicle with the required GPS locator alone could easily run over $5,000. But even at that, the end justifies the means. Having access to location information on vehicles traveling over long distances, for example, has proven effective in mitigating rising voice communication costs.

GPS/AVL tracking solutions for the transit industry have been considerably more complex depending on the size of the fleet and reporting requirements. As little as four years ago, basic GPS system costs were over $25,000 per vehicle taking into account the software, hardware and engineering requirements to set up and keep the system running.

While GPS/AVL systems may have been too rich for a public works budget's blood, there have been a number of applications where GPS on its own has made good sense. In particular, they have been invaluable for locating cables, sewer grates, road signs, etc. for asset management applications.

Some public works departments have leveraged GPS applications by integrating locators with on-board data loggers on vehicles such as sand and salt spreaders. While useful, this type of tracking has limitations. For one, a staff member has had to initiate the downloading of information to a device and then individually uploaded to a computer—a job that must be executed regularly since memory is limited to only a certain number of events. This is a major drawback during major events such as snowstorms, since data logs accumulate rapidly and downloading is not always performed in a timely manner. As a result, portions of data are sometimes deleted before they can be used.

The emergence of the web-based AVL solutions
All this is changing with the emergence and acceptance of web-based AVL solutions. These have been a major catalyst in bringing the outlay for tracking systems to a more cost-effective level to support the needs of a broader range of organizations, especially those with limited resources. As an alternative option to more traditional applications, web-based GPS/AVL systems are simpler and more cost effective to deploy, offer 24/7 access to data in real time from any PC-based system, and can deliver information to a far wider and varied base of authorized users.

In fact, web-based GPS/AVL applications have been deployed for emergency service and public works since 1998. Since these early applications, the technology has rapidly evolved in terms of functionality and scope. Usage has transitioned from simple vehicle tracking for dispatch and audit purposes, to interdepartmental and even public access to improve customer service and efficiencies within the system.

An important driver for public works—and one that is well served by GPS/AVL capabilities—is the issue of risk management. Many municipal entities are finding that the reporting requirements in the event of disputes or accidents can be challenging to manage. By automating the collection of fleet activity, these systems can reduce the burden for driver documentation of activity and reduce the reliance on memory. GPS/AVL services can be an invaluable tool when documenting evidence for claims and demonstrating adherence to policies and standards.

As usage grows, the administrative, economic and productivity advantages of web-based GPS/AVL are becoming more apparent. Some of these advantages include:

  • A web-based GPS/AVL application can leverage existing IT investments to allow deployment without incurring capital costs for purchasing and maintaining additional servers and workstations;
  • They can often be deployed within a month—desktops need only up-to-date web browser software (e.g., Internet Explorer) and a connection to the Internet; the installation of units in vehicles is the longest piece;
  • Costs for ruggedized wireless GPS/AVL modems are much lower than traditional GPS locators (less than $1,500 per vehicle installed in most cases);
  • Typical solutions are "network agnostic," allowing users to select their wireless data communications carrier of choice;
  • Reporting frequencies can be tailored to applications and address wireless data budgets;
  • Universal access means information can be available to more authorized users in a variety of locations from any web-enabled devices;
    Information can be shared within and between agencies;
  • Stripped down information can be made available to the public for improved customer service (e.g., whereismysnowplow.com).

A case in point
The Public Works Department of Miami Township near Cincinnati has been deploying web-based GPS/AVL services for managing its fleet of salt trucks/snowplows, mowers and other service vehicles. A longtime user of GIS mapping and GPS locators to track infrastructure inventory, the Township added a web-based AVL layer two years ago to complement the existing technology.

Walt Fischer, Service Director for Miami Township, Clermont County, Ohio, is shown here holding an AVL sending unit (black box). In the background is the Township AVL website.

With AVL capabilities, the department has access to all relevant vehicle information in real time—from speed, direction and location to amount of salt used and progress of each truck—to better manage fleet operations. The need for real-time data was especially critical during winter storms, where accountability and demands on services are extremely high.

Since deploying web-based AVL, Miami Township has expanded its functionality by offering selected information to school transportation officials and the public sector in multiple ways. Vehicle location and fleet progress information is available through their website, as well as via video feeds to the local cable station for public viewing. This accessibility has improved public perception as well as dramatically reduced customer complaints.

More recently the Township has expanded AVL to include salt brine trucks for its anti-icing program. Through an interface with the ground sensing systems, it was able to reduce overall equipment costs.

Most importantly, the Township reports that since AVL allows for historical tracking of information, it can be much more responsive in handling customer complaints. History on any vehicle's activity on any date at any time of day is stored on the database for easy retrieval. This means any inquiries can be performed faster and more thoroughly, and liability on contentious issues more easily and accurately resolved.

The bottom line
Since the concept of web-based GPS/AVL tracking first appeared in 1998, numerous public works organizations have embraced the concept for managing their fleets. The ease of implementation, reduced costs, expanded functionality, and extensive reporting capabilities provide compelling arguments for organizations that function on tight budgets and limited resources. Over time, municipalities and other government organizations will continue to find additional ways to leverage the value of the information that is available to them.

Brian Boychuk can be reached at (877) 701-9284 or at brianb@interfleet.com.