“It’s so accurate that I literally know when our driver is outside a particular building,” says Joshua Kowitt, VP of Boston-based Collegeboxes.
“The dispatcher can see a map showing all reservations in the next two hours and the location of the vehicles,” says Mike Hogan, CIO at SuperShuttle International in Scottsdale, Ariz. “As the vehicle reaches the pickup location, the reservation disappears from the map.”
They’re both talking about the same thing: Global Positioning Systems (GPS) allied with computer mapping (also called GIS, or Geographic Information Systems) used by the mobile units of a service organization. No longer requiring expensive equipment, GPS receivers are now built into all cell phones so that emergency services have some hope of finding a caller in distress. Cell phone GPS circuits typically gather raw GPS data, which is passed on to the network to be processed into a latitude/longitude location, explains GPS consultant Jim Hume of Greenfield Associates in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. The network can then pass the results to emergency services, as well as to third-party commercial services. (For privacy purposes, users must opt-in for such services, and GPS functions can be disabled on a phone.)
The benefits of GPS for the mobile enterprise are clear. Being able to know exactly where business assets are, be they vehicles, equipment or people, helps managers remain informed and better able to make time-sensitive—and often revenue-impacting—decisions. This is especially helpful for the mobile service organization that has a lot of service calls to complete. GPS systems permit the managers of those service fleets a view of their workers at a glance. If an emergency arises, a manager can respond by notifying the workers who are closest and rerouting them as needed.
Other plusses include theft prevention and recovery of stolen equipment. Imagine a tanker traveling with a highly explosive liquid. If that tanker is given a predetermined route to follow from point A to point B, an alert could be sent if the tanker deviated from that route, say, if it were stolen, and a notice would be sent to the appropriate person and the tanker found by authorities. Even if a route wasn’t set, an alert manager will know that his asset is not in the right place if it appears on a map where it isn’t supposed to. The homeland security angle here is obvious.
Another plus is cost control, and, whether we like to admit it or not, a little bit of Big Brother. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one GPS equipment manufacturer confided that one of its customers discovered that a few of its employees were going to strip clubs and running personal errands with company vans rather than going to another job. While no one wants to have to resort to spying, being able to account for worker whereabouts and control how many miles (and wear and tear) are put on company vehicles can lead to significant cost savings.
Putting It to Use
So far, Nextel has been the leader in the cellular-based GPS field, says Hume, but Sprint PCS (which is in the process of acquiring Nextel) is also entering the field, and other carriers are expected to follow. Both Collegeboxes and SuperShuttle use Nextel phones and services that make use of their phones’ GPS data.
Collegeboxes provides moving services to students at 35 colleges in 15 cities, explains Kowitt. On a given day during the busy season, it might be moving 200 students on each of 10 or 15 campuses using subcontractor moving firms.
“In the past, we would give customers a four-hour pickup window, and after the first hour, who wouldn’t call to ask where the truck is?” he recalls. “Previously, to get an answer, we had to call the warehouse manager in that city, who called the driver’s cell phone and get back to us—a 20-minute process.”
Today, the dispatcher can see that the truck is at Dorm A, for instance, and send text messages to the cell phones of customers in Dorm B that the truck will arrive in 20 minutes, and then to those in Dorm C that it will arrive in 40 minutes, explains Kowitt. Consequently, the students are on hand when the crew gets there, eliminating a source of delays. (He noted that text messaging among college students
is essentially universal.
E-mail, meanwhile, won’t work because the students have packed their computers.) The cost of the
GPS service (from Xora of Mountain View, Calif.) is about $25 per month over and above the basic subscription for the phones, which are mailed to the subcontractors in advance. The result: happier customers. There’s more repeat business, and demands for refunds on the firm’s money-back guarantee have fallen 80 percent, says Kowitt. As for the moving crews, “Once a crew uses the phone they don’t want to work without it.”
SuperShuttle dispatches owner-operated vans to take passengers to and from 23 airports around the country, explains Hogan. Previously, it used pagers to send routing information to the drivers. That worked to an extent, but no status information came back from the vehicles. So, it acquired a proprietary system designed for taxi systems. With a licensed radio frequency, an in-house antenna, the engineering work to get it set up, plus the terminal, GPS and wireless data connection, it cost about $2,500 per vehicle. SuperShuttle set it up in four larger cities and liked the results, Hogan recalls, but it was deemed too expensive for smaller markets.
The cost of the cell phone system, however, was about $200 per vehicle. “We get better coverage for a fraction of the price, and a tower going out of commission is not our problem,” says Hogan.
Now, vans can be dispatched automatically, and dispatchers can tell customers how far away their assigned van is at that moment. Curbside attendants can tell customers which van is theirs and how long they will probably have to wait for it. And using a Java applet on the phone, the drivers can process credit cards.
A big difference between the SuperShuttle and Collegeboxes applications is that the Collegeboxes dispatchers use the Web to access maps generated by Xora based on the GPS input. The dispatchers at Collegeboxes only have to log on to a Web site to watch the trucks in motion. The entire country is managed from a single office. At SuperShuttle, the GPS data is fed into an in-house system where it is overlaid on a map, along with the locations of the customers. Local dispatchers use terminal servers to access the data remotely.
But both manage to use a feature commonly found in GPS/GIS systems called “geo-fencing,” where the operator marks off an area on the map and the system automatically notes when a user enters or leaves it. For instance, contractors don’t need timecards since the system knows when they enter and leave a job site. With Collegeboxes, the system issues an alert when the trucks leave the warehouse and enter a campus. SuperShuttle uses it to note the arrival of vans at an airport waiting lot, so they know who is next in line without having them actually line up.
The two enterprises also share the two drawbacks often associated with mobile GPS systems: battery life and urban accuracy.
As for battery life, the GPS antenna and processor consume battery power each time the position is updated. Collegeboxes has its phones send updates every five minutes and has found that a normal battery will not last through a work day, according to Kowitt. Getting extended-life batteries for the phones solved most of the problem. At SuperShuttle, the phones send in updates every three minutes, which would consume even more battery power, but the phones are left continually plugged into re-chargers in the vans.
As for accuracy, GPS does not work well (or at all), inside buildings. In fact, it has problems with urban canyons, as encountered in Manhattan. “The units can triangulate from cell towers when they are inside, so you never lose
where someone is located,” says Collegeboxes’ Kowitt. “The accuracy goes down to the block level then, and the usefulness is less, but the minute they go outside—boom—it’s accurate again.”
At SuperShuttle, the units don’t go into buildings (except by accident), and Hogan says he’s never seen the system stay inaccurate for more than a few moments.
Not everyone is so upbeat about cell phone GPS. Rob Groot, managing director for the Americas at Teydo BV, a Dutch company offering GPS-based location and timesheet services, says his firm tried using cell phones 18 months ago but gave up. If the phone had any difficulty getting a GPS reading, the network would return the location of the cell tower. Using cell tower triangulation as backup could produce accuracy worse than a mile off. So Teydo BV based its service on a more expensive handheld GPS unit with a wireless connection (the TrimTrak from Trimble Navigation). The service costs $249 for the hardware, $99 per year for the wireless account and 10 to 16 cents per location fix.
“It’s been a raving success,” says Groot, but accuracy may still be a problem in urban canyons. Groot also notes that cell phone accuracy has been getting better. In fact, various sources mentioned that better antennas, the use of TV broadcast tower triangulation for additional backup and the additional use of dead reckoning should be enhancing cell phone GPS accuracy in the near future.
In terms of radio emissions, urban canyons have become thickets of stationary Wi-Fi antennas, and they, too, can be used for triangulation. Mexens Technology of New York City is selling a $19.95 software download for Mobile Windows platforms that will map Wi-Fi access points as the unit moves around and switch over to using them when the GPS signal is lost.
“In New York and San Francisco you have an average of 40 hotspots visible at any one time, and the accuracy you can get is similar to GPS,” says Cyril Houri, head of Mexens.
Like Nextel, Sprint has recently begun granting access to its network GPS data through a service called Business Mobility Framework. The system is accessed through a secure SSL Web connection, explains Barry Tishgart, director of mobility solutions for Sprint Business Solutions in Overland Park, Kan. The GPS readings are accurate to about 50 meters. If GPS is not available, the system falls back to cell tower triangulation, which is accurate to several hundred meters. If that doesn’t work, the system will return cell tower sectors. Towers usually have three sectors, so the method’s accuracy varies from several hundred meters to several kilometers, depending on the size of the cells, he explains. Pricing depends on how many fixes, and at what accuracy, the user wants per month, with less accurate fixes
costing a third to a half less.
As the above examples illustrate, GPS data lead directly to happier customers, decreased costs and increased revenues. What manager wouldn’t want to locate a few more dollars in the black?