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Remote Control

July 27, 2005 By

When that ominous "check engine" light appears on a vehicle's dashboard, not everyone rushes to a mechanic.

Police officers, for instance, are likely to keep driving, said John Menke, street and equipment maintenance superintendent for Glendora, Calif. "The cops never want to give up their favorite cars."

But that can spell trouble -- neglecting the problem that sets off the light today may lead to a breakdown and expensive repair tomorrow. Hoping to catch problems while they're small, some government agencies are embracing technology that remotely monitors engine performance.

Eyes on Performance

In 2004, Glendora installed Networkcar's Networkfleet monitoring system in 47 vehicles -- about one-third of the city's fleet. Elsewhere, officials at the Metro St. Louis transit system, previously the Bi-State Development Agency, are working with developers at Accenture to detect trouble in bus engines and prevent problems before expensive repairs sideline buses.

Glendora uses the software to diagnose engine performance, fulfill state emissions testing requirements and track vehicles operated by several city departments. The system's onboard equipment includes a small device that plugs into the vehicle's computer to obtain data from engine sensors, and the company also provides GPS technology to track vehicles.

The system uses a mobile data network to transmit vehicle data to the company's operations center. Fleet managers access a Web site to view information about their vehicles.

Users can view data about engine performance, monitor driver activities, such as travel speeds and time spent idling, determine when the car was running or stopped, and trace the travel path of any vehicle in the fleet. Managers receive e-mail alerts in certain cases -- for example, to tell them the check engine light has come on or the manufacturer has issued a vehicle recall.

Menke said he's surprised at how many automotive problems the system uncovers.

"On a daily basis, I get at least one e-mail from Networkcar saying, 'There's something wrong on this car,'" he elaborated. "Most of the time these things go completely unreported."

Continuous Smog Checks

The software also allows Glendora to participate in California's Continuous Testing Pilot program -- it continuously measures each vehicle's emissions and sends an alarm if the emissions rise above allowable levels. As a result, Glendora officials don't need to take vehicles equipped with the software to a service station every two years for a state-mandated smog check.

That saves the city money, Menke said.

"Your typical smog check is around $70, then you've got the employee time to take it to the smog check, plus all the paperwork that goes along with that," he explained. "When all is said and done, you probably spend a couple hundred dollars."

The system's vehicle-tracking function makes it easier for dispatchers to locate police officers and helps keep better control over other mobile workers. Because employees know managers are watching their activities, they will more likely put in a full day's work, Menke said. "It's helping to keep an honest person honest."

It cost the city about $500 and 45 minutes in installation time to equip each vehicle for the service, Menke said, and the service currently costs $20 per vehicle per month.

Because the city hasn't done a lot of cost tracking, it's hard to compute how much Glendora has saved by using the software, but the system is paying for itself, Menke said.

"We're saving money not having to take vehicles in for smog checks, and we save money if we bring in something for repair when we've detected that a vehicle needs service, rather than waiting."

The city also realizes soft benefits in the form of better employee performance, and Glendora plans to add more units as money becomes available, until the city

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