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Businesses Keep Eye on Employees with GPS Tracking

Yvette Armendariz, The Arizona Republic, Aug. 6, 2004

Last year, Jay Eaton knew little about what was happening with his 35 trucks and his plastering and repair crews. Today, using his computer, he can track their locations, driver speeds, and truck idling times. The fact that the drivers know that they are being monitored encourages them to watch their driving habits and not run too many personal errands.

Eaton, president of Cal Plastering Inc., uses global positioning system technology to stay on top of his business. Vehicles have a receive box installed that collects data on location via satellite signal. The data is downloaded and interpreted by software, which then issues reports on vehicle movements.

The system has helped Eaton’s company cut down on labor costs by more than $1,500 a month and improve customer service, he said. "It was amazing how much productivity we didn't have (before)," he said.

GPS technology, which the military, large trucking firms and airlines have been using for years, is seeping into other, smaller businesses, from towing companies to carpet cleaners. The driving factors are falling technology costs and the push to cut expenses by trimming labor and fuel costs and managing fleets more efficiently. Sales of GPS equipment are expected to hit $22 billion by 2008, up from an estimated 13 billion in 2003, according to data compiled by Allied Business Intelligence Inc, a N.Y.-based technology market research company.

"Prices have come down to a point where small business can utilize it.” Said Myron Hammes, owner of GPS Fleet Management, LLC, a best of breed solution provider based in Arizona. He sells systems that cost from under $500 to $1,500 per vehicle.

Systems can run a few thousand dollars, depending on the sophistication of the GPS receiver and the monitoring software, said Glenn Gibbons, founding editor of GPS World. But prices have generally been cut in half in the past few years, he said.

For many drivers, GPS is equated to with General Motor’s OnStar navigation system, which helps locate restaurants and gives driving directions.

The technology has made its way into law enforcement, too. Phoenix police Sgt. Randy Force said GPS is used for surveillance. But similar to when it uses wiretaps, the Police Department must get permission for such monitoring.

Force also said a consumer market is emerging that uses an under-the-hood GPS to track the whereabouts of spouses and teenagers. Also, recreational use by hikers and campers is growing as costs and products sizes diminish, said Scott Miller, a buyer for Popular Outdoor Outfitters. Handheld systems by Garmin, a popular manufacturer, will run from $90 to $300.

GPS has its roots in military applications in the 1970s. Commercial use began in the 1980’s but did not take off until the mid-1990s, when a presidential directive was issued that a satellite signal would be open and free for commercial use, Gibbons said.

In the trucking industry, cargo theft and safety concerns led to implementing GPS technology on trucks. However, placing GPS devices on cargo items is still not widely used because of cost, said Larry Woolson, regional manager for Systems Transport, Inc. and treasurer of the Arizona Trucking Association. The system's value to trucking companies comes from pressuring drivers to reduce speeds, which improves safety and profitability because of lower insurance and repair costs.

The recent war in Iraq as spurring interest in GPS outside of the trucking industry. Media coverage showed how GPS could help track troops and cargo. Later, corporations began investing in technology to track employees in areas where there was a high hostage risk.

Hertz Rent A Car uses a GPS on all vehicles to provide customers directions or to track lost or stolen vehicles, said Richard Broome, vice president of public affairs. The tracking system is capable of monitoring driving activity by renters, but Hertz does not do so because of privacy issues, he said.

A few smaller regional rental-car companies, such as Acme Rent-a-Car and Payless Car Rent have used the technology to track speeding or crossing state lines and have charged fees for such behavior.

Both Bashas' and Safeway grocery operations in Arizona said they are not using the system. They point to the cost to fit their huge fleets.

But the trend continues to grow, as companies find inventive new uses for GPS. One Valley carpet cleaner, for example, attaches them to its vacuums to help prevent unauthorized use of them by moonlighting employees, Hammes said.

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