Truckstop operators have always used technology to meet customer needs and remain competitive. From relatively low-tech devices such as pay phones and fax machines to high-tech services such as wireless Internet access, shore power connections and smart phone apps, truckstops remain places drivers can connect — with both the office and home.

While these services are important, technology at the fuel pump is one area where fleet managers are particularly focused as they work to control fuel costs. For 30 years or more, fuel card providers have helped fleet managers keep better track of their fuel usage and purchasing by providing a centralized source for where, when and how much fuel their fleet is buying. Technology, however, is changing the way fleets buy and track fuel.

Using telematics

Fuel card data is only one part of a truly effective fuel management program, according to Mike Scarbrough, NexTraq's CEO.

Looking at data from a fuel card provider, “we know that fuel was purchased, but we don't know, without using a telematics system, what really happened to the fuel and if that fueling made sense relative to other factors.”

Using a telematics solution, a fleet manager can get a report that combines the fuel card data with data from the telematics system, so you can see where your drivers were driving and where the vehicle actually was when fuel was purchased using a fuel card. Combining the data also allows for better fuel tax reporting.

“Our half of it is knowing where the miles were driven,” Scarbrough says. “You can get a more complete view of where the miles were driven and where the fuel was purchased.”

“It's an extension of driver management in some ways,” he adds. Fleet managers can look at reports showing fuel purchase history, a fuel location audit, fuel efficiency and other information regarding driver behavior. Plus, many navigation and routing systems allow plotting fueling location and price data into route plans. This way, drivers know which stops are on the fleet's fuel network or can get directions to the nearest network location that is offering the lowest price.

For instance, Wright Express offers fleet fueling cards and also provides supply chain software for petroleum distributors and retailers. The company's fuel card network can capture real-time transaction data fleets can use either in their own analysis programs or in Wright Express's suite of applications that include analytical tools and purchasing control capabilities. Wright Express also offers a telematics solution for monitoring fuel use and driver behavior. Managers can access the telematics systems from their office or home computers or mobile devices.

Telogis, a provider of fleet management, routing and tracking applications, recently announced a partnership with FleetCor to offer a Telogis-branded fuel card to their customers. “But we integrate with all of fuel cards,” says Newth Morris, co-founder and president of the routing, navigation division. As with other fleet management providers, Telogis offers a fuel compliance module that can identify suspect fueling or over-fueling.

“Fleet managers already have information from their fuel cards, but that's just one data point,” Morris says. “We can show them how much mileage that truck has run and whether or not that the truck was actually on the site where the fueling occurred.”

Next Page: Truckstop Technolog Varies

[PAGEBREAK]Truckstop technology varies

While most fleet management and telematics vendors can integrate fuel card data into their applications, the data may vary based upon the technology a particular truckstop is using on the fueling island.

“If they have older pumps that can only transmit limited data, such as how much fuel and the price, that's all we get,” Scarbrough says. “If they have a more integrated system with their fuel card provider, they can collect all kinds of information such as driver number, odometer and other data.”

Combining these data streams gives fleet managers a much clearer picture: This much fuel was purchased at this date and time at this location at this odometer reading. You can know right away if it was purchased at the right time of day or at the right place.

And fleet managers can have close to real-time information when their drivers stop for fuel. “Our goal is the real-time information,” says Randy Morgan, Comdata executive vice president, fleets. “You are talking about a $350 transaction when a truck fuels,” he notes. “I don't think you want to wait a week to see where people are spending that money.”

Fleets hungry for more

Of course, fleets have been using fuel card information for a long time.

“We've been exposing fleets to fueling information for 32 years — where they buy fuel, what they are paying for it — it's a mature market as far as that goes,” Morgan says. “But fleets are hungrier and hungrier for more information.”

In larger fleets, the fueling activity is “one of the most sophisticated things you can envision,” he says, with fleets making fueling decisions based on where a truck is dispatched and fuel prices along that route. “They have the card set so drivers can only use it at certain locations and only buy certain quantities at that location. They are managing it that closely.”

Technology makes that management possible.

“It's not just a fueling transaction, it's about how you manage it at the front end — at the time the fueling is occurring — and it's about what is happening at the back end, what can be learned from all of this data through analytics,” Morgan says.

It's worth noting that the data is vendor-specific. Some provide actual real-time data, while there may be a 24-hour lag with others. For most operations, checking reports weekly should be sufficient. As Scarbrough notes, “If you run a fuel efficiency report weekly and find a truck that is way off its mpg target, you know something is off there.”

All the data in the world is of little help if it is not managed. According to Glen Sokolis of the Sokolis Group, many trucking companies lack the time or staff to manage their fuel programs. “Most companies don'thave enough time in the day to look at fuel,” he says. That's where firms such as his come in.

Fleets may not have time to fully audit their programs, Sokolis says, to find out if they should be buying bulk fuel or buying it at fueling locations or whether their discount programs are actually getting them good discounts, for instance.

In some cases, fleets may be getting a really good discount from a truck- stop chain, but only fuel there 10% or 12% of the time. Those are the kinds of things a fuel program audit can uncover, Sokolis says. “If a company doesn't watch their fueling program, they can lose money fast.”.

Fuel cards: The next generation

Some truckstops are now offering a new take on the fuel card, with technology that not only allows wireless transaction initiation but also helps identify fuel theft. Comdata, using technology developed by QuikQ, is offering the SmartQ cardless fueling program, which uses RFID technology to initiate transactions at the fuel island.

Drivers won't have to use a card to get fuel. An RFID reader at the pump will read the card information from an RFID tag on the truck. The program is currently being introduced at Love's and Pilot Flying J truckstops.

“We are seeing some good penetration in the mid majors and with the early adopters among the independents as well, “says Randy Morgan, Comdata executive vice president, fleets. He explains that transaction management has been” a chicken and an egg thing. Who's using the payment method and who's accepting the payment method.”

Another system is being used by TCH at Pilot Flying J truckstops. Developed by Zonar, the Z-Con technology uses a Zonar telematics device on each truck. A series of sensors, radios and computers have been designed to consistently and accurately identify a truck when it enters and exits a diesel fuel lane.

As a vehicle approaches a Z-Con-equipped fueling island, an ultrasonic sensor detects the presence of the truck, activating the radio in the fuel canopy and an infrared transmitter. Once the infrared transmitter and the receiver in the truck are aligned, an LED on the windshield of the truck indicates to the driver authorization is in progress. After the VIN has been validated, the LED indicates that the driver is authorized to begin fueling. This entire,secure process takes seconds to complete.

Z-Con also terminates fueling when the vehicle leaves the pump area, ensuring that only the correct truck is fueled.