Staying connected

From the December 2022 print edition

Buying a commercial van is simply the first step towards building a trade-specific tool for your business.

An obvious statement, right? And while I’m thinking of “obvious” I should state that, when it comes to upfitting that new van, there really is nothing new on the market – simply better versions of what’s always been out there.

In fact, each year, upfitters look at what they’ve always provided (storage bins, containers, sliders, ladders, racks, organizers, tool drawers and external racking) and apply new designs and materials to make them even better. For that reason alone, its good business to keep abreast of what’s new from these builders.

However, when the van is upfitted and ready to work it’s these age-old items that get the job done and keep all the bits organized. So, is there really anything “new” for the commercial van buyer?

Yes. In a word – electronics. You may think of this as info screens in the van, but its what’s on the screens that is really what’s new. That and the data that is produced.

A key change to the market in the past few years is the availability of these electronics right from the factory. So, to start with your new purchase from Ford, Ram, GM or MB can be outfitted with WiFi. WiFi is the backbone of every system that we’ll have a look at here. Once this WiFi connection is made in your new van you have a wealth of information available to you. In addition, these factory WiFi hotspots will run as many as 10 devices up to 50-feet outside the van.

For instance, Ford offers its Ford Pass system, while Ram has its Uconnect. These software packages will work with your Apple or Android devices to provide navigation, Bluetooth, and entertainment. But, for business, they also unlock a wealth of vehicle data that will aid in tracking maintenance, expenses and produce reports (for tax purposes – for instance).

Most of this data is available on your phone with the right apps. However, I did note while scanning upfitters’ websites that many are now offering driver accessible laptop tables. These lock the laptop in place and are said to be no-drill additions. They use existing seat bolts in each brand of van. Now, having a laptop at the constant ready opens up another level of speed and efficiency – from inventory to billing. Best of all, you don’t have to have a fleet of trucks to utilize these electronics – all this works fine for the single proprietor.

Vans have screens and many have at least a backup camera. This is a mandated safety system that can prevent accident damage. However, if one camera is a good upgrade then a 360-degree camera view is an even better one. That’s what the aftermarket is now offering for commercial vehicles – camera systems that provide a complete 360-degree view around your van. So, while safe, tight-space maneuvering of your vehicle is one benefit of these installs (the screens can be split and the driver can toggle between various views while moving), there are at least two more.

First, there’s security. Your van has contents that thieves want. These camera’s that cover every angle of approach run all the time and record to a video recorder.

In the event of a theft, you’ll have video evidence to provide to the police and your insurance company. Secondly, these videos are a tool to combat false accident claims. Who hit who? This is no longer a concern when you can show the authorities a video record of an accident. And unlike a simple dashcam – this system can record damage to your van while its parked and unattended. In fact, some insurance companies may offer discounts for having this type of system on your van.

If you are a fleet manager, these 360-degree camera systems can be equipped with a 4G LTE cellular connection. This lets you view their vehicle’s live video broadcast from anywhere in real time. In addition, fleets will have the ability to remotely request-to-download recorded clips directly from the vehicle’s DVRs.
GPS – for fleets, knowing where their equipment is, in real time, matters. This is the one obvious benefit of GPS tracking.

However, the aftermarket is awash in GPS related software that is now aimed at providing fleet managers with a larger wealth of information about their trucks. As the GPS can also upload from the vehicles own running CPU – it can collect a dizzying amount of data. From a planning point of view, this information can be used to maximize fuel efficiency, reduce idling time, and optimize routes. These are the immediate benefits of data collection.

However, when we add in a software package that also tracks and breaks out maintenance using GPS data you can combine two functions into a single platform. This allows not only tracking, but scheduling of downtime, shop-time and digitizing of checklists and reports.

This information can be simultaneously sent to several people involved with specific aspects of the overall vehicle program management. These systems then also track completed work and calculate overall efficiency results. Best of all, most software companies can scale these systems to accommodate five trucks or 500.

Keep things moving
Predictable workflow is another benefit of WiFi and GPS for dispatchers and managers. Drivers/technicians can tap a screen to indicate arrival and departure from a job site. This information is relayed to the office where the jobs are lined up and assigned. This GPS-related function really helps with customer service call anticipation. It does away with the “we’ll be out between 9am and 5pm” scenario. Nobody likes that.

Much of what has been discussed here works for one truck, as well as fleets, because new software will accommodate both. That fact alone boils down to cost management and analytics that will make any size of business more efficient and profitable.

It’s all about connectivity. So, when you are in the market for a new work van, make sure that you spend as much time researching the available WiFi and on-board electronic systems as you do on the available powertrains.