"The cost of gas is of increasing importance all the time, but it's only one constraint," said Craig Mathias, principal and founder of the Farpoint Group. "It always comes down to the bottom line: How do we move the least? How do we optimize what a truck does when it's out? It's a complicated problem."
But the rewards can be great: Using GPS and a persistent wireless connection to help route and track a fleet of vehicles -- service or delivery -- is estimated to save vehicles more than 230 miles of driving per week, according to a recent survey by Motorola.
That means many fewer gallons of fuel are burned, and it also means longer life-spans for each vehicle, less employee downtime (driving from location to location), and happier customers who receive quicker service.
"We suspected there would be a benefit [to GPS], but the survey results showed that the benefit was larger than we anticipated going into this," said Gerald McNerney, senior director of transportation, distribution and logistics for Motorola.
And despite its headline-grabbing price hikes, gas isn't necessarily the most important saving.
"It's funny that the cost-containment side is really coming to the forefront today because of rising gas prices," said JiYoung Kim, vice president of marketing for Vettro, which provides mobility solutions. "The cost savings you get from saving gas pale in comparison to the cost savings you get from optimizing your schedule and your people."
Kim said moving from a traditional dispatcher model to a digitally driven system typically boosts productivity at least 20% because of smarter dispatch that can track the exact locations in real time as opposed to radioing several drivers who may or may not be in the optimal location for a given delivery.
Installing GPS and linking it to an intelligent system can also find optimizations a radio dispatcher could never dream of: Telling drivers in real time to slow down on the highway, for example, can drastically increase fuel efficiency, while cutting out left turns helped UPS save 3 million gallons of gas.
"Every single thing you can imagine about the way a vehicle moves can be a variable," Mathias said. "Each individual truck may still have error associated with it, but you're minimizing overall error in the system."
The same basic principles apply to any fleet of vehicles, and when approaching optimization tasks, the first thing that should be done is to set priorities and parameters, Mathias said. Is timeliness the most important factor, as is the case with many delivery services? How many packages or passengers can each vehicle hold?
The next step, he said, generally includes automating as much of the control as possible, replacing human elements with systems designed to optimally assign and route vehicles, although maintaining human oversight of these systems can be critical.
Some factors just don't compute as well, Mathias said, such as a sudden snarl-up in downtown traffic that a human can quickly see and warn drivers about.
In general, though, a light human touch is all that is needed.