3 reasons to add GPS technology to campus fleets

The technology’s payoff centers around performance, support and service

When the van used by Carleton College students conducting environmental research became bogged down in mud, GPS came to the rescue. Transportation staff were able to quickly pinpoint their location—over 10 miles from campus—and dispatch a tow truck.

“Knowing the location of vehicles is a real plus,” says Jana Lelm, campus scheduling coordinator at the Minnesota institution, where GPS units have been installed in 14 cars and vans available for use by prequalified faculty, staff and student organizations. Comprising about a third of the college’s overall fleet, the shared vehicles are rented to departments sponsoring travel for attending conferences, student field trips or other educational events.

Across the country, institutions are investing in GPS fleet tracking units. Along with basic mapping and location functions, features available through robust telematics include speed alerts, ignition status, idle times, maintenance alerts and other types of monitoring. Following are the biggest ways institutions are seeing a return on investment with GPS for their campus fleets.

Performance monitoring

GPS has become integral to the operation of vans used at College of the Holy Cross to transport students to community service sites, to pick up commuters and to make mail runs, says Jerome Maday III, associate director of parking and transportation at the Massachusetts institution.

Along with pinpointing the location of any of the college’s 18 vans and its three trucks (which are used for dining services and athletics), GPS monitors both driver and vehicle performance. The fleet telematics system, in place since 2017, also provides remote vehicle diagnostic monitoring.

“We run daily reports specifically designed to highlight speeding,” Maday says. The technology also tracks hard braking, quick starts and distracted driving. Maintenance issues, such as an activated check engine light, are part of another module. “This helps greatly as we can plan van utilization better, knowing in advance that a van may be out of †¨service the next day,” he says.

LOCATION DETECTION—With the LehighU Live app, Lehigh University community members can find the closest shuttle bus and track it in real time. Lehigh Transportation Services runs three bus routes and promotes the app on its shuttles and bus shelters.
LOCATION DETECTION—With the LehighU Live app, Lehigh University community members can find the closest shuttle bus and track it in real time. Lehigh Transportation Services runs three bus routes and promotes the app on its shuttles and bus shelters.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has GPS on more than 40 vehicles, including pickup trucks, †¨refuse collection trucks, dump trucks and backhoes.

“A significant percentage of our daily operations consists of shuttling equipment and personnel around campus,” says Dan Hiser, Illinois’ automotive subforeman for transportation facilities and services. “GPS allows us to identify the most efficient vehicle to dispatch based on location.”

Results have included reductions in overall fuel consumption, idle time and vehicle wear and tear. GPS is used to track snowplowing and refuse collecting as well. Facilities staff can log in to determine where trucks or plows have been, and whether any routes or snow zones have been missed.

Vehicle tracking has also proven advantageous at Colgate University in New York, which invested in GPS units for all facilities department vehicles and buses in 2017.

“On one occasion, a minor bus accident investigation showed that a driver had diverted from his planned route and struck a low overpass,” says Simon Fritz, director of purchasing. “This is very valuable information when collecting facts surrounding incidents.”

Administrative support

At Carleton, information generated by GPS units is used in assigning travel costs charged back to the college’s respective departments, Lelm says. Until the technology was installed in 2016, drivers were asked to record mileage in log books placed in each vehicle. Records were often inaccurate or missing, making billing difficult.

The automatic production of trip records has eliminated such problems. “Now we know what actually happened,” Lelm says. “It’s a timesaver, and it’s so much more accurate.”

GPS may also help managers respond to complaints. At Illinois, Hiser says, staff have been able to employ system data to refute accusations that university vehicles had caused property damage.

“We were able to review location history and provide concrete evidence that we had no vehicle at the area in question,” he says.

Similarly, during winter storms when his department has been blamed for missing snowy streets, he has confirmed that the areas were in fact plowed, but due to winds and new accumulation, trucks would have to revisit them.

Questions to ask before buying GPS technology

Mike Wilson, fleet services manager at The University of Iowa, suggests that if you or other campus leaders are interested in GPS, called Automatic Vehicle Location Systems at his school, consider their goals, which can be prioritized based on your needs. Before making an investment, ask:

– Do we want to monitor employee location, behavior or other metrics?

– Do we want to know about vehicle idle time?

– How will we use geofences †¨(virtual geographic boundaries)?

– How important is speed monitoring?

After answering the questions, create a scorecard and evaluate each vendor on the criteria selected, he says. Remember to rank each criterion from most to least important, then weight each one. Finally, evaluate each system (using the scorecard) and then base your decision on the results.

Enhanced customer service

At Portland Community College, GPS is used to track and manage shuttle buses. The 15-vehicle fleet transports students among the Oregon college’s four campuses, says Michael Kuehn, transportation supervisor. Riders take advantage of live tracking via on-campus video screens, the system’s website or a mobile app.

“With GPS, I can adjust the shuttle schedule accordingly, which enables us to have higher on-time marks,” he says. “Where’s the bus?” calls to his office have dropped by 80% since GPS units were installed in 2011.

When a vehicle breaks down, staff can direct one or more other buses to the location to transfer passengers, as well as send a maintenance team to the disabled vehicle.

Lehigh University in Pennsylvania uses GPS in a similar way. Its 17-bus fleet, which includes vehicles ranging from 15-passenger vans to 96-passenger transit buses, is equipped with the technology. Riders use apps on their phones or other devices to locate buses along their daily routes.

“By seeing where our buses are running, we can provide excellent customer service when folks call in to our office asking for information,” says Mark Ironside, executive director for university business services.

Costs for GPS

These typically include the initial equipment purchase followed by monthly or annual fees. While prices vary among vendors and optional services, expect to pay in the low hundreds of dollars per device, plus monthly fees of up to $50 each.

The University of Iowa, for example, currently pays about $275 per unit and $19 per month for access, according to Mike Wilson, fleet services manager.

He recalls a rainy day when a student called to ask when a bus would be coming by her location. “With the GPS, we saw the bus was about three blocks away, and we were able to provide her with the information,” he says. Staff also informed the bus driver to be on the lookout for the student, who was waiting in a car due to the weather.

At The University of Iowa, several applications of fleet telematics focus †¨on student and staff safety, says Mike Wilson, fleet services manager. At a glance, staff can see the location of shuttle †¨vehicles that transport hospital workers to commuter parking lots in the late evening. And through an on-demand service dubbed “Night Ride,” a dispatcher can route the closest vehicle †¨to a student’s pick-up location during late hours.

Also read: Fleet feats on college campuses

Another service benefit, says Tia †¨Hysell, director of transportation and parking services at Ohio University, involves public transit. The university’s campus vehicles got equipped with GPS technology in 2014 and telematic software in 2015. Allowing riders to easily view interconnectivity between service routes has resulted in improved navigation between campus and city transit connections.

And in today’s connected world, the enhanced service achieved by GPS and telematics technology is not just appreciated but expected.

Mark Rowh, a Virginia-based writer, is a frequent contributor to UB.

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