By Giles Margerison, TomTom Business Solutions’ Director UK & Ireland

It’s accepted wisdom in marketing circles that you’re only as good as your data.

‘Big data’ has become an important buzz phrase as marketers chase ever greater insight into behavioural patterns and market trends but a similar approach can reap rich rewards in the management of company cars.

In order to keep a lid on costs while petrol prices remain sky-high, straightforward analysis of mileage or fuel consumption is no longer sufficient. Instead, businesses set on optimising the efficiency of company vehicles are using bespoke tools to drill deeper into driver behaviour, vehicle performance and employee safety.

Future-proofing your fleet

Traditionally, the use of such data — and the application of fleet management technology in order to better understand it — has been seen as the preserve of large haulage and logistics firms.

For businesses operating company cars, this approach might have been viewed as using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. However, the stifling cost pressures associated with a challenging economic climate have transformed fleet technology from a ‘nice-to-have’ to a indispensible business tool for forward-thinking companies operating a vehicle fleet of any size.

A recent study predicted 40 per cent of the global workforce will be mobile by 2016 so, unless managers get a handle on the many variables, it is easy to see business costs spiralling out of control, especially if fuel prices rise further.

For starters, the ability to keep tabs on the location of company cars, including information on departure and arrival times, chosen routes, trip durations and mileage, can help managers to fulfil a number of essential obligations.

Knowledge about where each vehicle is at any given time enhances the safety of both employee and asset, helping to fulfil Duty of Care obligations and reduce a company’s risk profile.

BIK need not be taxing

Mileage figures should be a key concern for businesses, particularly against the backdrop of an HRMC crackdown on SME business records, which will see mileage claims come under scrutiny.

Worryingly, recent research conducted by TomTom discovered 60 per cent of business car drivers admitted to over-estimating mileage claims, with 37 per cent doing it regularly.

The onus is on companies to ensure relevant checks are in place to guarantee the accuracy of claims and to distinguish between business and private mileage for benefit-in-kind purposes. If this isn’t achieved, they are left open to significant fines and could be handed a sizeable bill for unpaid tax.

By automating the process, risk is removed from the picture. Journeys can be remotely designated as either business or private by the driver before mileage figures are enriched by further relevant details to generate accurate claims forms.

Pay less at the pump

As it is not a fixed business overhead, fluctuating depending upon vehicle type, mileage and driving style behind the wheel, companies can take a number of steps to reduce fuel consumption.

Ensuring vehicles are properly and regularly maintained can be crucial, while fitting the right tyres, inflated to the correct pressure, can cut mpg by up to 15 per cent. Perhaps one of the largest contributing factors is driving style, yet this is often overlooked because it is difficult to measure or quantify without access to the relevant data.

Fleet technology can be used to tap into a vehicle’s diagnostics and provide in-depth analysis into each employee’s driving style based on key elements of safe and efficient driving, such as speeding, idling, fuel consumption and even harsh steering or braking.

Profiling tools use these key metrics to reveal trends across a car fleet and highlight problem areas which may need attention, allowing efficient driving to be rewarded and training time and budget to be allocated more precisely.

Drivers can even gain real-time feedback via their in-car navigation devices, receiving audible alerts whenever they are guilty of inefficient driving practice, enabling behaviour to be corrected at source. The implications for both efficiency and safety – particularly fulfilment of Duty of Care obligations – are clear.

A quicker route to cost savings

Even further efficiency gains can be realised through improved routing and scheduling, making use of a vast database of real-time and historic travel data. Instead of putting a finger in the air, businesses can use historic road use data and live traffic data to generate accurate timings for journeys and develop work schedules which minimise time spent on the road.

Drivers too can benefit, utilising live traffic information through their in-cab satellite navigation devices to select the quickest, most fuel-efficient route for every journey and avoid potential hold-ups caused by traffic — making best use of their time. Up to 10 per cent can be slashed from fuel bills simply by empowering drivers to choose better routes and cut idling time, one of the biggest factors affecting mpg.

All considered, the available data offers businesses an unprecedented level of insight and technology provides the mechanism for realising this. However, genuine results come primarily through using these elements to affect a fundamental change in policy.

Rather than focusing on individuals, the emphasis should be on bringing about a shift in behaviour from the ground up, helping the entire organisation to work towards a greater degree of efficiency, safety and legislative compliance.

Incentivised schemes for the improvement of driver behaviour and the establishment of KPIs or performance benchmarks will ensure employees are involved in the process, encouraging an evolution in attitude towards the use of company vehicles.

Equally, by implementing change in a transparent, even-handed manner, management can make organisational goals an integral part of daily practice, forcing issues such as safety and efficiency firmly front of mind.