The Brave New World of In-Vehicle Technology

Posted on February 1, 2004 by LCT Staff - Also by this author

A slew of new in-vehicle technologies are introduced to operators each year, promising everything from greater productivity and profitability to increased client satisfaction. The most useful devices improve customer service, streamline communication between chauffeur and dispatcher, and assist chauffeurs in finding their destinations.

Whether new technologies excite or intimidate you, many operators feel some pressure to keep up.

Deciding what makes economic sense and what is a frill that won’t improve your bottom line is no easy task. As with any major purchase, it’s important to shop around and talk to others who are already using the products.

Patience can be an important virtue. As each new generation of technology goes on sale, prices often drop and the devices become more reliable and user friendly.

The New Chauffeur Tool: Handheld Computers

Technology that improves communication between chauffeurs and dispatchers has evolved from phone booths to beepers to cell phones all the way to PDAs (personal digital assistants) that feed information directly into a company’s back-office software via an Internet connection.

Nextel’s combination cell phone/two-way radios have been an industry staple for years, but a growing number of operators are moving to the next level of hand-held devices – PDAs and next-generation Nextel phones that offer everything from text-messaging and email to vehicle tracking and credit card swiping.

“Much of corporate America already uses [Blackberry PDAs],” says Ken Thomas of XpidX Technologies in Bedminster, NJ. “It really is like a miniature PC that’s attached to your hip, allowing you to e-mail using all the properties of [Microsoft] Outlook on your desktop.”

Most operators may be hesitant to spend thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars to equip all of their chauffeurs with PDAs, but Tim Rose, president of Flyte Tyme Transportation in Mahwah, N.J., is convinced it’s worth the investment.

“We run a paperless office,” says Rose. “By using the Blackberries for data and our Nextels for voice, we can give our drivers all the information they need to complete their trips.”

The new technology also offers a redundant communication network for the occasional service interruptions that occur with the phones, notes Rose.

Flyte Tyme expects to purchase 300 Nextel I55 PDAs at $300 each in early 2004, running Blackberry software to back up the company’s I30 model Nextels. The additional monthly service charge for the I55s – which open the communication pipeline between the PDAs and Rose’s Aleph limousine management software – will be $40 each.

Empire International President David Seelinger agrees that PDAs are worth the investment – even with such a hefty up-front cost.

With the volume of work his 300-vehicle fleet handles, the added efficiency and reduction in service problems allow the units to quickly pay for themselves, notes Seelinger.

He acknowledges that all but larger limousine operators may find it hard to swallow the up-front and on-going costs of PDA systems.

Seelinger purchased 450 RIM 950 PDAs for his chauffeurs four years ago at $395 each. He pays $29 a month service fee for each unit.

The devices, built by Canadian-based Research in Motion, run software designed by an Empire subsidiary, Paragon Technology.

Empire’s chauffeurs are able to receive trips, keep dispatchers informed of their location, close out trips and send them directly to Empire’s billing department.

In the second quarter of 2004, Seelinger plans to purchase new Nextels that combine cell phone, two-way radio and PDA technology.

Nextel’s Next Generation

The latest offerings from Nextel integrate digital cellular voice communications, two-way radios, and text/numeric messaging. The devices also feature add-on GPS technology and a credit card swiping device.

TeleNav track is an add-on that turns select Nextel phones into GPS devices, allowing dispatchers to track vehicles and send information to phones. Chauffeurs can use installed GPS navigation software to get directions to their destinations.

The monthly charge starts at $9.99 for a basic package, and includes tracking and reporting functions. The premium package includes technology that allows operators to punch in a starting point and destination and receive spoken directions. The cost is $21.99 a month. There is also a one-time activation fee of $19.99 a phone, although this is often waved for those who buy in bulk.

Creditel allows chauffeurs to accept credit card payments on a Nextel handset. The PowerSwipe Hardware retails for $249. The Total Connect plans range from $9.99 a unit a month for 1MB of data to $99 per month for 100MB.

Power Swipe activation fees can range $49 a unit for up to nine units, plus a monthly service and per-transaction fee, to $19 for 25 to 99 units. For more phones, fees are customized.

GPS and Much More: Bring on the Bells and Whistles

Global Positioning System technology, which uses satellites to track vehicle locations in real time and provides directions to travelers, has been slow to catch on in the industry.

Most operators see the benefits of the technology, particularly when it comes to dispatching and keeping track of drivers and cars, but few have forked over what can amount to $1,000 per vehicle or more, plus $15 to $25 per-vehicle monthly service fees.

To make the cost more palatable, technology companies have begun to bundle GPS with other useful features. For example, Corporate Transportation Group – an operator with bases in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut – uses portable units that feature a mag-strip card reader for credit cards, a touch screen for signature capture, a GPS receiver for vehicle tracking, mapping and navigation capabilities, and a laser barcode scanner for package tracking.

The GDT 890 Mobile Data terminals are produced by Digital Dispatch Systems in Vancouver, B.C. The unit cost per-terminal is about $3800.

“This technology takes dispatch to driver communication to the highest level,” says David Popeck, director of marketing for CTG. “We closely examined the cost versus the increase in productivity and made the decision to go ahead with it.”

Trevor Franklin, president of Metropolitan Transportation Co. in Bedford Hills N.Y., is phasing out his current GPS system, only to phase it back with Nextel’s latest offering in early 2004 – which combines the phone, two-way pager and GPS capabilities.

“We’re looking forward to upgrading to the Nextels, but we want to see if the cost will drop a little,” explains Franklin. “We also want to see if the new units have any bugs. We’ll let someone else test them out.”

In the meantime, Metropolitan’s online software system allows the company’s drivers to remain in constant communication with dispatchers. This leaves Franklin confident that he can survive without the GPS technology, at least temporarily.

Wi-Fi Brings the Internet to the Back Seat

The newest in-vehicle technology to hit the market, Wi-Fi, allows passengers to surf the Internet on their laptops while enroute to their destinations.

Thousands of airports, hotels, coffee houses, train stations, truck stops and marinas already use Wi-Fi or wireless fidelity. And now, with technology patented by a Canadian company called In Motion Technology, operators can offer the service to their passengers.

Wi-Fi transmitters send a signal that is picked up by Intel’s Centrino chip, which is now being installed in most laptops at the factory. Connections speeds are comparable to DSL or cable, and there are no more clunky cables connecting computers to the wall.

“We’ve seen speeds of 139 to 140 Kbps (kilobytes per second) in major cities, but 144 Kbps is as fast as it will go, theoretically, at the moment,” says Terry Allen, In Motion’s vice president of global business development.

Some technology experts are convinced that Wi-Fi will be more common than hard-wired Internet within three years. Zagat, the publication that rates restaurants and hotels, is offering a mini-guide of venues that offer Wi-Fi access in a few cities.

In Motion is still working on a pricing model for livery operators, but company president and CEO Kirk Moir notes that there will be three components to the cost structure for his in-vehicle Wi-Fi device: * The initial cost of the unit that is installed in the vehicle; * Airtime from a third party wireless service provider, such as Verizon or T-Mobile; * The ongoing cost to manage the service.

Wi-Fi is more a customer service add-on than an efficiency-building technology and operators will need to figure out how to earn sufficient additional income to pay for the units.

“Absorbing the costs is a matter of marketing,” notes Moir. “Passenger fees and content charges can quickly compensate for the initial outlay and ongoing charges.”

A handful of operators in the U.S. and Canada are testing In Motion’s product, including Carey International and Tran-Star Executive Transportation in New York, and Rosedale Livery in Ontario. Devin Murphy, President and COO of Carey, describes the technology as fast and reliable.

“Customers like being able to climb in back, turn on their laptops and connect directly to the Internet,” says Murphy, whose company is conducting extensive customer surveys to see whether Carey will provide the service as an added benefit or if there will be fees attached. “They’re often surprised at how fast it downloads.”

The Wi-Fi signal piggy-backs on the same network used by cellular phones, so the same drop-outs in service do occur. However, the technology compensates by storing data in the vehicle-mounted units.

“We have noticed drop-outs, but we’ve never actually lost data,” says Craig McCutcheon, president of Rosedale. “When you pick up the signal again, it continues downloading, so you don’t even realize it happened.”

“We haven’t found any dead areas on Long Island at all,” adds Justin Paul, sales director of Tran-Star Executive in Deer Park, N.Y. “Our clients have been very pleased with the service.”

Tran-Star is testing the units in one vehicle. Paul has not yet decided if he will add more units, and continues to examine how his company will pay for the added cost.

Clear TV Reception in Vehicles

You can actually get reception on your in-vehicle television – allowing it to be used for more than just playing videotapes and DVDs – with a new low profile antenna from KVH Industries called TracVision A5.

A single TracVision A5 phased-array antenna can support multiple video screens and receivers, allowing each passenger to watch his or her favorite programming at the same time.

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