Personal privacy went out the window when credit cards became a dime a dozen. Personal information was traded like baseball cards between major lending institutions, department stores, mailing list companies, etc. We all knew it was happening and felt helpless to stem the tide of privacy intrusion, short of keeping all of our cash stuffed in the mattress.

Now comes the advent of Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) systems, which can track the movement of people via their vehicles and help them to find their next destination, unlock the car when the keys are stuck inside, and talk to other cars or buildings with the touch of a button.

If you want an idea of how crazy this whole thing has become, go to your local video store and rent “Enemy of the State” with Will Smith and Gene Hackman. Not only does it show how easy it can be to track a person’s every move — it’s a pretty darn good movie, too.

Which brings me to my point. GPS systems are available to service trades such as hvacr contractors, and some are already signing on the dotted line. Business owners are seeing the upside of the ability to track their fleet of vehicles.

Eye in the sky

For one thing, vehicles can be tracked to find out where they are at all times, how long they are parked in one location, and how many miles they are logged in for. Field employees who are responsible for the vehicles are subsequently tracked for how long they take to complete a call, how long they take to commute between calls, and how long the vehicles sit during meal breaks and/or breaks for “personal business.”

In other words, employers can track their employees’ every move. For those employees who take their company-owned vehicles home at night, the company can track the vehicles after hours as well.

Is this a high-tech version of “Big Brother” watching over the flock? Sure it is. Is that a bad thing? I’m not going to get backed into a corner over that. I have to plead the Fifth. I don’t run a business with a fleet of vehicles, but I do know that it creates some interesting scenarios.

For example, how do you convince a service tech that you are watching his vehicle to determine if you need to do a better job of routing service calls? Or that by keeping track of miles driven, you can adequately schedule routine service and maintenance checks for the vehicle?

And if you decide to install GPS in order to monitor an employee who appears to be “slacking off,” do you ignore the installation of GPS on every vehicle? How would your 20-year veteran feel now that he is going to be monitored? Would you have less resistance from a new hire because he feels it is just company policy to track its vehicles?

Maybe you have already had to answer these questions. If you feel that watching your fleet will help cut down on inefficiencies and thus reduce overhead, you probably can deal with questions from your workers.

If I can offer any advice, it would be this: Look at the whole picture. If you are contemplating a GPS system, plan a meeting with your workers to explain the logic behind your reasons. The worst thing you can do for morale is to suddenly announce that field personnel would henceforth have their vehicles tracked during working hours — or worse, non-working hours.

It might stave off distrust and hard feelings, which can be just as damaging as a service tech who takes an extra fifteen minutes for lunch or is stuck in line at the bank.

Hall is business management editor. He can be reached at 734-542-6214; 734-542-6215 (fax); (e-mail).

Publication date: 07/02/2001