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Sun 26 Jun 2005 04:00 AM

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Vehicle tracking finesse

Al Futtaim Technologies has launched a web-based fleet management system combining internet technology, GPS and wireless terrestrial networks to monitor vehicles.

Al Futtaim Technologies has introduced m-Trak, a web-based tracking system, which can check locations of vehicles. The IT arm of the Al Futtaim Goup of companies will supply and install the MobiApps hardware for enterprises in the Middle East. “The system will enhance operations through mapping and report generation,” says Vishesh Bhatia, group director (electronics) at Al Futtaim Group.

Although global positioning system (GPS) is not a new concept, its uptake in the Middle East has been slow. While the devices are not mandatory for commercial vehicles in this region, the satellite tracking of vehicles is a common practice in the logistics industry in Europe and the US. Mercedes, for example, already has a GPS system in place. “It gives the owner of the truck more transparency, monitoring the working time on the road and also the whereabouts of the truck at any given time, which is ideal for planning supplementary loads or deliveries,” says Joachim Heinke, commercial vehicle sales manager for DaimlerChrysler.

The non-availability of location information of mobile assets leads to ineffective planning for businesses and competition is driving the industry to provide value added services. In addition, the increase that majority of hauliers are experiencing in their operational costs means companies are keen to find a way of reducing financial outlay.

By tracking and managing vehicles, GPS delivers fleet information in real-time across the geographies, providing precise location information. “M-Trak combines internet technology, GPS and wireless terrestrial networks such as GSM/GPRS into an affordable fleet tracking and monitoring system, which will enhance the ability of fleet owners to track and manage their fleets,” says Bhatia.

MobiApps says the m-Trak application is easy to implement with virtually no infrastructure costs. Once deployed, managers are able to log in from any PC to access information on a specific vehicle or group of vehicles. The in-vehicle m-Trak transceiver device has a built-in GPS receiver for determining the vehicle’s location, travelling speed, direction and altitude. “Fleet managers can access the secure m-Trak web application to analyse data and replay vehicle routes for efficient fleet management, even in harsh environments,” explains R. Muralidharan, general manager of Al Futtaim Technologies.

Featuring real-time tracking of vehicle status based on location, speed and time and providing online critical alerts to factors such as speeding, acceleration and deceleration, unauthorised stoppages and emergency SOS signals via SMS, m-Trak simplifies asset management for logistics companies. “We have worked with [cartographers] to ensure the road maps of the GCC area used on the system are accurate and up-to-date,” says Al Futtaim’s Bhatia.

By combining the m-Trak 75 transceiver with the application software, managers are able to enhance their operations with map based tracking, remote device configuration and two-way voice and text communications. This information is then saved on a secure database via a web application.

The data can either be downloaded to the company’s own PC, or it can be downloaded to Al-Futtaim’s system and passed on to the customer. There is a monthly fee of US$16 per unit for Al-Futtaim’s exception-based reporting or customers can choose to pay an upfront fee and deal with the information in-house.

For one unit alone, the hardware costs US$650. The compact, robust and tamperproof system generates critical information through GPS/GSM/GPRS, and if no wireless coverage is present, the GPS data is stored and sent to the web application once coverage is resumed. “The satellite transceiver, GPS and terrestrial wireless chipset technologies provide low power, low cost, ubiquitous and reliable global connectivity for a variety of asset tracking applications”, says Sanjay Chakrabarty, the CEO of MobiApps.

It is hoped the device will prove beneficial to customers in the trucking services, commercial and public bus services, trailer and container tracking, as well as for companies concerned with the distribution of food and beverages or oil and gas. It also has applications for taxi operators and the emergency services. “Take rent-a-car companies as an example. They do not know if someone has been speeding, so when the fines arrive it is too late — the person has left the country or cannot be contacted. With this device the car can be tracked from start to finish,” says Muralidharan.

Furthermore, Al Futtaim hopes to witness the advantages of the new solution itself, as it will be installing the devices in its own fleet of vehicles. Al Futtaim Electronics, which has fifteen trucks, will test the technology in a pilot project. If the pilot is a success, the application will be rolled out to the Al Futtaim Logistics and Exel trucks. “The devices will only be installed on Al-Futtaim Electronics trucks in the beginning. The MobiApps design team will be visiting the Gulf on a regular basis to get feedback on the project, ” explains Muralidharan.

Al-Futtaim Technologies will be handling deployment not only for the company’s Electronics trucks, but also for other hauliers, with MobiApps taking responsibility for technical backup and support for the GCC and Indian subcontinent region. “I would not say there are absolutely no bugs in the system, but that is why the development team is in contact on a regular basis — to tackle any problems that arise and assist with customisation,” says Muralidharan.

Al Futtaim hopes its partnership with MobiApps will strengthen the deployment of fleet management systems and telematics in the GCC region. GPS reduces insurance premiums by enforcing proper use of vehicles and is able to ensure the safety of vehicles and goods.

In addition, it can also enhance customer service by allowing hauliers to have up-to-the-minute information regarding delivery times. “The partnership will build on Al-Futtaim’s expertise in delivering comprehensive solutions in the GCC area and MobiApps’ focused competencies in wireless and satellite communications,” Muralidharan adds.

In addition to deploying the devices in its own fleet, Al Futtaim has signed deals with two companies and is in talks with several others. One customer that is already contracted for a pilot deployment is the Dubai Al-Alia Transport Establishment. “What we do is let the company use the technology in a couple of trucks so they can see how it is used and decide whether it is going to be suitable before they place a larger order,” he adds. Al Futtaim has also secured a deal Bahraini company Eamco to install 135 units. To Eamco, which is a concrete mixer company, the need for timely delivery of its product provided motivation for the agreement.

General Motors is also looking at using the tracking technology in its cars. For the moment, however, the system will be used exclusively for commercial vehicles. “We see a great market potential for this kind of product. We have been looking for possible value added services and products to combine with our technology offerings and have wanted to get involved with this technology right from the beginning,” says Bhatia.

For companies shipping goods over long distances, or to areas of the Middle East considered to be high risk, communication is a must. Safety dictates that mobile units on such journeys are in contact with their company headquarters throughout the journey and GPS tracking provides a reliable means of keeping in touch in zones where other means of communication may be impossible.

As Muralidharan points out, “Vehicles often go from the UAE to Iraq and Jordan and in all likelihood are not going to be able to communicate via mobile telephone at all times. Now companies can track vehicles on this type of long haul route and if a problem should occur, the truck’s location is available from the GPS system so the company can reach the driver and provide assistance.”

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