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Big Brother may be watching -- but in this case it’s a good thing.

Simplot Grower Solutions, an agricultural retailer and wholesaler, has a fleet of some 300 trucks delivering fertilizer and pesticides to farmers throughout California’s San Joaquin Valley. By using Verizon’s Networkfleet GPS tracking solution, the company has improved routing, reduced idling time and cut fuel costs – all while making sure products get to customers on time.

“This system is the biggest tattletale in the world,” says Tim Stone, unit supervisor for Simplot and a 20-year supply logistics veteran. “I can tell where a truck is within a couple of minutes of its destination, how fast it’s going and if the driver is off course from where he’s supposed to be.”

Simplot picks up “a lot of product at the Port of Stockton for direct delivery to growers,” he says. “A lot of trips are local. But we still cover a huge area, so it was difficult to locate vehicles and direct them to customers or trailers in remote locations. We also didn’t know how the equipment was being used” in terms of non-business usage or idling time.

These are major economic factors in a business whose entire fleet is on the road at any given time. For example, in a recent 24-hour period, Stone notes that the fleet traveled 17,968 miles making 1,700 stops. This number, while seemingly high, is “a little shy” of normal, he says, since business is just starting its upswing for the peak growing season.

In the past, the company had a number of issues with its fleet and drivers.

“There were a lot of personal liability issues ... For example, if you have a wreck and a lot of fertilizer spills out, you can have major environmental concerns,” Stone says. “People were speeding at 50 miles per hour down dirt roads and sliding into ditches, which are common in rural areas. Now, we can make sure they’re doing reasonable speeds and making the delivery safely.”

Tracking and reports
The Networkfleet system has been in place since 2006, when the company did an exhaustive analysis of tracking systems.

Installation “was simple,” Stone says. “It took about 30 minutes per unit and it was up and running across our entire fleet in a matter of weeks. Since then, all our dispatchers and unit supervisors have not only been able to track the fleet at all times, but also get key daily reports.”

Stone says these reports solved the problem of idling time. When picking up fertilizer, trucks were sometimes idling for 30 minutes while running air conditioning. But the local Air Pollution Control District requires that diesel-powered vehicles should not idle for more than five minutes at any location. “Just yesterday we recorded an idle time of .06 hours per unit. Fuel bills are also a lot lower,” he says, adding that there’s been a corresponding reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

The system has also enabled Simplot to put a “geofence” around locations where trucks pick up pesticides. By quickly pinpointing vehicles that go in and out of these areas, the company has consolidated pickups and reduced waiting times by pre-ordering pesticides for delivery.

“Right now, we’re looking at maintenance, such as how many times trucks are going in for an oil change, who’s using a truck the hardest and fuel mileage,” Stone says. “You can have two identical trucks that rolled off the assembly line at the same time and the reports can tell us how one gets seven miles per gallon and the other six, even though both are doing the same speed.”

The system also provides what Stone calls “odd-hour” reports. “Some of our guys take their vehicles home and could have a perfectly legitimate reason for being out at midnight. For instance, a grower might call and need help or the driver might have to check on something.

“However, we also have to find out why they were out driving when they shouldn’t have been. It’s another way we’ve saved fuel,” says Stone, noting that overall fuel costs are down 8 to 9 percent.