Author: Sean M. Lyden

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The Rise of the 4×4 Service Truck

When it comes to service trucks in utility fleets, which is more popular: two-wheel-drive or four-wheel-drive?

According to a recent report by Utilimarc (, a Minneapolis-based fleet management software and benchmarking company, the clear winner is the 4×4.

But this hasn’t always been the case. In fact, in 2012 – just six years ago – the two-wheel-drive led the service truck market by nearly 20 percentage points.

That would appear to make sense. All things being equal, the two-wheel-drive comes with a lower price tag. And conventional wisdom is that operating costs on the 4×2 should be lower as well, because there are fewer components that need to be serviced or repaired.

Yet in a relatively short span, the 4×4 has surged to the lead. Why? What’s driving this change in utility fleets?

UFP spoke with Paul Milner, senior analyst and product developer at Utilimarc, to help us dig into the data.

But before we dive in, here’s some background on the report, titled “The Strength of the Light-Duty Service Truck,” which can be found at      

It surveys about 50 gas and electric utility companies across the United States and includes a sample of over 10,500 light-duty service trucks, which Utilimarc defines as Class 3 to 5 vehicles with a gross vehicle weight rating under 20,000 pounds, with the primary upfit being a service body with tool compartments.

Here are three takeaways from the report that help tell the story of how the 4×4 has emerged as the market share leader.

Takeaway #1: The 4×4 has closed the gap in operating costs.
One of the key advantages of the four-wheel-drive service truck is that it offers a broader range of uses because it can be deployed in off-road and hazardous road conditions – such as in storm response situations – that a two-wheel-drive might not be able to handle.

But the traditional thinking has been that if you’re spec’ing a service truck for a role that would rarely require the four-wheel-drive to be engaged, why spend the extra money for the 4×4 option that could be more expensive to operate as well?

Yet, according to the data, the operating cost gap between the 4×4 and 4×2 has narrowed, making it easier for utility fleet managers to justify the higher upfront investment in the four-wheel-drive.

In fact, if you compare the 10-year average cost per mile, the 4×4 actually provides a 2-cent advantage – $0.26 versus $0.28 for the 4×2.

“If I’m thinking about spec’ing a 4×4 but have held back because of higher operating costs, the data show that the difference really isn’t that substantial,” Milner said. “While we see the 4×4 maintenance cost is a bit higher in that sixth and seventh year, overall it looks like the two drive types are essentially tied in terms of the maintenance performance. And to a fleet manager, from a cost perspective, I think that says that [spec’ing a four-wheel-drive] is not going to kill you.” 

Takeaway #2: Utility fleets are replacing their 4x4s at a faster rate.
In the five-year period covered in the report, the average age for the two-wheel-drive increased by 0.90 years, while the four-wheel-drive’s average age increased at a slower rate – by 0.53 years.

What does this mean?

“From my perspective, that really means that fleets are not replacing the two-wheel-drive [with another two-wheel-drive truck] as quickly as the 4×4,” Milner said. “They’re either moving that truck to a different application or are prioritizing four-wheel-drive units over the 4×2 trucks. In other words, it seems like the 4×4 vehicles are more valuable to the organizations because the fleet managers are being more consistent with the replacement of those assets. So, depending on whether their budget is tight or whatever’s going on regarding the company’s capitalization plan, it doesn’t look like those fleets are skimping on 4×4 units. But the two-wheel-drive seems to be getting the short end of the stick in terms of that replacement factor.” 

Takeaway #3: The shift in market share has been dramatic.
In 2012, the two-wheel-drive held a significant market share advantage – 59 percent to 41 percent. But by 2016, that advantage essentially flipped in favor of the four-wheel-drive – 54 percent to 46 percent.

“What the data is showing us – and what we’ve learned in our discussions with fleet managers – is that the maintenance patterns between these two trucks don’t appear that different,” Milner said. “And there also appears to be greater demand from the organization to have the 4×4 versus the 4×2 trucks, so fleets have been more willing to pay a little extra up front to purchase the 4×4 asset.”

But if there were a substantial operating cost advantage for the 4×2, the story would have been different. As Milner put it, “I think that if the maintenance cost comparison showed that the 4×2 was 5 cents per mile cheaper than the 4×4 in every age, I think it would be a much harder call for a fleet manager to make that decision.”

Tesla’s Turmoil and the Future of Electrified Transportation

It has been a tumultuous 2018 for electric carmaker Tesla and its embattled CEO, Elon Musk.

Earlier this year, a handful of crashes involving Tesla vehicles increased scrutiny of the safety of their semi-autonomous Autopilot systems. Then there have been the ongoing manufacturing challenges causing lengthy and expensive delays in building the Model 3 – the mass-market electric car that Musk has banked Tesla’s future on. And Musk’s high-profile Twitter feuds with journalists, analysts and short-sellers have caused many in the industry to question his fitness to effectively lead a publicly traded company.

But whatever storm clouds may be hovering over the company today, Tesla has already made its mark, pushing the automotive industry toward what will likely be an all-electric future – no matter what happens to the company itself.

Think about it: Traditional automakers have been building electric vehicles for years, but Tesla has made EVs desirable. With the introduction of the Model S sedan in 2012, Tesla showed that EVs could be sleek, spacious and fast. And with hundreds of thousands of pre-orders for the lower-priced Model 3, Tesla demonstrated that it’s possible to create mass-market demand for EVs at a time of relatively low and stable fuel prices.

The major automakers are following suit with plans to introduce several new all-electric models in the next two to three years.

Tesla also has made electric vehicles practical with battery ranges that exceed 300 miles, pushing other automakers to do the same. After all, it was just a few years ago when the all-electric Nissan Leaf could travel only about 80 miles on a single charge. Today, Nissan has nearly doubled that range. And GM’s new Bolt offers a battery range of over 200 miles. But it took Tesla to show that there could be enough market demand for automakers to invest in the research and development of longer-range batteries.

So, what’s the future of Tesla? Will Musk remain at the helm? Will the company even exist five years from now? Who knows. But what I do know is that the state of electrified transportation would not be where it is today were it not for a relentless and visionary CEO who doesn’t hesitate to put all his chips on the table to change the industry – and the world.

Sean M. Lyden


CPS Energy Makes a Big Push into Truck Electrification

In recent years, the pickup truck market has been considered by many in the utility industry as the “holy grail” for fleet electrification.

That’s because pickups comprise the most significant percentage of many utility fleets. So, the more of those trucks you can switch to plug-in electric powertrains – whether all-electric or hybrid – the greater the impact you can make in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

But the challenge with electrifying pickup trucks has been cost, making it difficult for utility fleets to come up with a compelling business case to invest aggressively in the technology.

That is, until recently. As battery prices continue to plummet and the business case becomes more attractive, some utility fleets are taking a more aggressive stance with their fleet electrification efforts.

Take, for example, San Antonio-based CPS Energy, the nation’s largest municipally owned natural gas and electric company.

In April, CPS Energy announced the purchase of 34 plug-in hybrid electric Ford F-150 pickup trucks, which, according to XL ( – a provider of connected vehicle electrification systems for commercial and municipal fleets – represents the largest purchase of plug-in hybrid F-150s by any utility or private company to date and the first in Texas to use the vehicles.

The vehicles are equipped with plug-in hybrid technology by XL, which enables the trucks to run on both gasoline and electric power. In addition to plug-in charging capabilities, the XL technology also uses regenerative braking during deceleration to charge the battery pack and electric assist during acceleration to increase fuel economy.

“Aside from cutting emissions, these vehicles will improve fuel economy and reduce costs – a big win for our community,” said John Courage, San Antonio District 9 councilman, in the CPS Energy press release announcing the truck purchases. “Investing in cleaner vehicles and seeking new green technologies are critical to improving air quality in San Antonio.”

So, what expectations does CPS Energy have for these new vehicles? What fleet applications will they be used for? And how do the trucks fit within the utility’s overall green fleet initiatives?

UFP spoke with Fred Bonewell, chief safety and security officer for CPS Energy, to learn more.

Lower Costs, Cleaner Environment
The 34 new hybrid pickups bring the utility’s total electrified fleet to 50 vehicles; this number also includes sedans and bucket trucks. And although 50 vehicles are a small percentage of the fleet’s 2,000 assets to date, they represent the company’s increasing commitment to building a greener fleet, Bonewell said.

“We’ve adopted a mindset at CPS Energy that we want to be leaders in a lot of different areas, and fleet electrification is one of them,” he explained. “It’s not anything we take lightly, so we didn’t take a soft-shoe approach with this recent investment. This was a hard step in the right direction, and it’s going to be one of many steps we are going to take toward this initiative to get to a greener fleet.”

What fleet applications are the new hybrid pickup trucks being used for?

“Those trucks are spread out among our organization to include facilities, and our distribution and transmission engineering departments,” Bonewell said. “And some of the trucks will be driven by our safety and security team.”

Bonewell said the utility expects the new hybrid trucks to offer more than 50 percent better fuel economy and a comparable reduction in emissions over similar standard vehicles.

The impact?

CPS Energy estimates that the new trucks will yield a reduction of 7.75 tons in NOx emissions and 58.7 tons of CO2 emissions.

“And this is just the beginning,” Bonewell said. “One-third of our fleet is made up of bucket trucks. So, as we get more bucket trucks that operate with electric booms, the fleetwide cost savings and emissions reductions numbers will really become impressive.”

As of press time, CPS Energy owns three bucket trucks with electric-powered booms used for trouble truck applications.

“We have bucket trucks that are 17 years old, so we still need to do a lot more to bring to our fleet cleaner types of fuel options because our environment is doing nothing but deteriorating as we speak,” Bonewell said. “As a utility company – and fleet – we can help do something about that.”

And the fleet industry has taken notice of CPS Energy’s commitment to fleet sustainability, among the utility’s other fleet initiatives. At the NAFA Institute & Expo in April, for example, CPS Energy learned that it had made the list of The 100 Best Fleets in the Americas for 2018, ranking 24th out of 38,000 public fleets in North America.

Electrification to Drive Safety
Bonewell also said that there’s a safety component behind the business case for fleet electrification that is important to CPS Energy.

“Even if you take out the carbon emissions piece and the fuel-savings factor, you’ve still eliminated a significant element related to risk exposure – the potential for fire,” he said. “That’s because, especially with bucket trucks, when you take out having to run an engine to operate the boom, you’ve significantly reduced your risk factor from a flammability perspective. And that’s especially the case when you can remove the hydraulics from the boom. I’ve been in this industry for a long time and witnessed a couple of different accidents in my career – not here at CPS Energy – where the hydraulic fluid became electrified and resulted in a fire that was catastrophic. When you think about it, when a truck catches on fire, it doesn’t just expose the operator to risk, it can put the public at large in harm’s way, too.”

The Bottom Line
While the business case for truck electrification has become more compelling, the primary driver for CPS Energy’s recent hybrid truck purchases is to demonstrate to the San Antonio community that the utility is committed to a cleaner environment.

“We really wanted to show, at a leadership level in our community and in the utility industry, that we care about the environment,” Bonewell said. “That’s first and foremost – that we’ll do everything we can to help improve the climate in which we live in here in San Antonio.”


What’s New in Digging Machines for Utility Fleets?

Whether the job is to dig trenches to lay underground power lines, to drill holes to set poles, or to dig in tight spaces, such as next to buildings or in residential backyards, the objective remains the same: to enable crews to get the most work done in the least amount of time, with the least amount of effort, in the safest way possible.

That’s the goal that has driven the design of new products and upgrades released by heavy-equipment manufacturers in recent months.

So, what’s new in digging machines for 2018? How can they help utility companies and contractors improve worker productivity and safety? Here are six new developments to consider.

CASE Construction Equipment
What’s New: TV370 compact track loader

CASE Construction Equipment introduced the TV370 compact track loader (CTL) that offers utility contractors a smaller 74-horsepower option in a large-frame vertical CTL with a 3,700-pound operating capacity for earthmoving, load and lift applications, and heavy attachments.

The TV370 is suited for utility applications where operators value lift capacity and strength but may not require higher horsepower to run high-volume production attachments. The machine provides auxiliary hydraulics for traditional attachment use in standard and optional high-flow hydraulic setups.

Equipped with standard 17.7-inch-wide tracks, the TV370 also offers enhanced stability and low standard ground pressure for operation on varied terrain and sensitive ground.

Ditch Witch
What’s New: Low-profile HX vacuum excavators

Ditch Witch launched a new lineup of HX vacuum excavators designed for a wide range of utility applications – from compact, urban projects to large-scale excavation, potholing, slot-trenching and micro-trenching projects. The company says that the low-profile design allows for easy navigation on most job sites, without compromising ground clearance.

The HX series includes three models – the HX30, HX50 and HX75 – equipped with a Kubota Tier 4 Final engine, with horsepower levels ranging from 24.8 for the HX30 to 74 for the HX75. According to Ditch Witch, the three units provide more fuel capacity than each of their predecessors for longer job durations, with more advanced sound-reducing technology to minimize noise disturbance at the job site.

Tank options include either a 500- or 800-gallon debris tank, and each model is available in a light or heavy package with various freshwater tank sizes and trailer weights to best fit the application.

What’s New: DB41B track-mounted digger derrick

Altec introduced the new DB41B, a track-mounted digger derrick that provides easier access to confined work areas, such as residential backyards, with the ability to drive on front-to-back and side-to-side slopes of up to 15 degrees. The machine’s retractable tracks reduce the minimum width of the unit to fewer than 36 inches so that it can fit through most gates.

The DB41B is designed to set and service poles up to 55 feet and offers a 6,000-pound maximum lift capacity. Available options include a fiberglass jib with separate winch, 8-foot fiberglass jib, 5-foot fiberglass platform jib and radio remotes with hydraulic overload protection (HOP) indicator.

To enhance operator safety, the machine also includes Altec’s five-function HOP system that disables certain functions during lifting operations when the system detects a potential overload situation.

Bobcat Co.
What’s New: E85 compact excavator

Bobcat Co. expanded its R-Series excavator lineup with the new E85, the largest machine in the company’s compact excavator product line.

The 13 inches of tail overhang allow the E85 to work in compact environments. And the boom swing frame stays within the width of the machine’s tracks as it swings, making it easier to operate next to buildings or other obstructions where larger equipment can’t fit.

Bobcat redesigned the new E85 cab to improve operator comfort and productivity with a roomier cab and wider seats. The machine also features a standard, easy-to-reach control pattern selector that allows the operator to quickly switch from ISO controls to standard controls. And with the repositioned second auxiliary hydraulic selector switch, operators can toggle between the second auxiliary and the boom offset without removing their hands from the left joystick.

Terex Utilities
What’s New: Optional Load Display on Commander Digger Derricks

Terex Utilities now offers Load Display as an option for its Commander Digger Derricks to reduce the risk of overload and support safer work practices. The Load Display system includes a load cell, attached between the winch line and hook, that measures the actual winch line pull and then wirelessly transmits that value to a display at the control station to assist operators as they follow the load chart.

This system was one of several concept technologies Terex Utilities featured at the International Construction & Utility Equipment Exposition last fall, and fleets can now request Digger Derrick Load Display on new Commander Digger Derricks or have it retrofitted onto existing models.

Ditch Witch
What’s New: AT40 All-Terrain horizontal directional drill

Ditch Witch’s new AT40 All-Terrain horizontal directional drill is powered by a 160-gross-horsepower Tier 4 Cummins diesel engine that, according to the company, gives operators 20 more horsepower over competitive 15-foot drill-pipe models in its class.

With the capacity to hold up to 600 feet of drill pipe onboard, the AT40 allows for longer bores with improved drilling efficiency with a two-speed rotational drive system that produces 5,500 foot-pounds of torque. The drill also is equipped with a 70-gpm, 1,100-psi mud pump to increase fluid flow from the pump to the swivel.

The AT40 features enhanced RockMaster housing with a modular design that makes it adaptable to two different drill-bit sizes for 2.875-inch and 3.5-inch regular API connections. The new housing design includes a double-layer seal with high-capacity bearings, increasing downhole life and doubling the service time interval compared to previous models.


The Latest Developments in Drones for the North American Utility Sector

Although drone sales in the North American utility market will reach only about $850,000 in 2018, that number is expected to grow by more than 20 times – to $25 million – by 2026, as U.S. regulations ease and drone technology improves.

That’s the outlook from Michael Hartnack, a research analyst covering drones and robotics for transmission and distribution operations worldwide for Navigant Research. (For Navigant’s full market report, visit

While those numbers might appear underwhelming, they represent hardware sales only, and not revenue from ancillary drone services – such as piloting, training, software development, data management, cybersecurity and other support offerings – which will make the overall U.S. utility drone market significantly larger, Hartnack said.

So, what exactly is the state of drones in the North American utility sector today? What pieces need to fall into place to accelerate growth? And what are some of the most interesting future possibilities?

UFP recently spoke with Hartnack to get his perspective. Here is an edited version of our conversation.

UFP: With all the buzz surrounding the potential for drones in utility applications, the market size you’re quoting is much smaller than one might expect. Why is that?

Michael Hartnack: Right now, there aren’t many utilities that own drones. And the ones that do may buy three, 10, 15 or, at most, 20 units. So, when you consider that the price of a drone is anywhere from $8,000 to $50,000, that doesn’t equate to a tremendous dollar amount for the overall market.

Today, the utilities that are using drones are doing so as part of a limited pilot program – and that’s where things are going to stay until regulations are eased. So, there’s a ton of potential for drones, but everything is kind of stalled right now.

That’s why, in our research, you see an exponential growth curve. There’s minimal growth until the middle of the forecast. And then the market takes off.

What assumptions are you making to explain such a steep growth curve?

One assumption is that the FAA will ease regulations, specifically the rule that requires the drone to always be in the line of sight of the operator. This would enable utilities to inspect much longer segments of power lines per flight, making drones more efficient, productive and practical.

So far, Xcel Energy [based in Minneapolis] is the only utility company that has been granted an exception by the FAA to fly drones beyond the operator’s line of sight.

So, is your assumption that the FAA will ease line-of-sight restrictions across the board for utilities?

Yes. It’s hard for me to put a precise timeline on it, but for most people I have spoken to in the industry, one to three years is about when they expect the FAA to start granting more exceptions like they have done for Xcel Energy on a much bigger scale.

Beyond regulations, what’s holding back wider-spread adoption of drones by utilities?

Once you take the regulations out of it, you still have a technology barrier. For the most part, the technology required to do a lot of the work utilities want them to do is already here. For example, the ability to put a camera on a drone and fly it over and inspect transmission lines – that’s here.

The issue now becomes, how far can the drone fly without having to be recharged? How can it be controlled without somebody piloting near it?

There are a lot of technological questions that need to be answered, but none of those questions is really being addressed right now because of the line-of-sight issue.

As this market grows, will you see utilities own their drones or outsource that function of their operations?

Right now, utilities, for the most part, own their drones. But I think there will be a shift toward a more hybrid approach where utilities may own the drone itself but outsource other aspects of drone operations. They’ll say, “OK, I’m going to own the drone, but I want to use your pilots and software platform where all I need to do is plug into an app and see the data.”

What are some exciting possibilities for drones that could create game-changing breakthroughs for utility operations?

One possibility is being able to install a drone in a box under a transmission line or a substation, and program it along the lines of, “OK, once a month, I want this drone to fly over a preset area of this transmission line.” And it would have a long enough battery life to do the job. Or, in some cases, the drones could return to home base and get a new battery all by themselves, and then get back to work, flying over the line, doing this whole thing autonomously. The end game here is total autonomy; you’re removing the human, as much as possible, from having to be involved with the process.

Another cool application is using drones for light repairs on transmission lines. Right now, if you have a fault that’s caused by a tree branch, you have to roll a truck out there, get everyone all geared up in their safety equipment, cut the power and perform the repair.

But what if you could sit there in the truck and send a drone up with two little robotic arms that grab the tree branch and throw it to the side? And maybe it can do some minor line repair with tape and insulators and things like that. You can save a lot of money and time, minimize power disruption to customers and, most importantly, improve worker safety.

You talk to any utility and the first thing they’ll say is, “Well, this needs to be safe.” Putting a drone up there in these situations is safer than putting a person up there.

Tap into the Power of Stories to Expand Your Influence

For a fleet manager, stories can be more than just entertaining anecdotes – they can be a powerful tool to motivate technicians, change employee behavior and garner senior management’s support.

But what exactly is storytelling in a utility fleet environment? How do you tell a good story, especially if you’ve never thought of yourself as a great communicator?

In an interview I conducted with Paul Smith, leadership trainer and author of the best-selling book “Lead with a Story,” Smith said that storytelling is “a way of getting your message across without making your audience feel defensive, so they will be more open to what you have to say.”

How do stories make the audience more open to your message?

“A story activates a different part of the brain, where instead of being critical and analyzing, they’re just listening to the story,” Smith said. “It creates that open frame of mind in people in a way that data alone cannot do.”

The idea is that you can use stories to influence people without wagging your finger at them or telling them what to do. Stories allow the listener to arrive at conclusions themselves, making them more receptive to you and more motivated to follow through on your message.

So, what does storytelling look like when you’re managing people in a utility fleet environment?

Suppose you’re rolling out an initiative that could bring significant changes to your organization – whether it’s rightsizing the fleet, deploying telematics or switching maintenance software systems. You’ll inevitably encounter employees who don’t want those changes to happen, doing everything they can to undermine your efforts.

That’s where stories come in.

For example, you could tell employees a story about another fleet that deployed telematics. At first, employees resisted the idea of Big Brother watching them. Then one of their drivers was involved in a vehicle crash and considered at fault for the incident. But the vehicle’s telematics data told a different story – what actually happened – that proved the employee’s actions didn’t cause the collision. And he was exonerated.

The story’s lesson: It’s natural to be wary of change. But the telematics rollout wasn’t about the company trying to be Big Brother. It was about building a safer and more efficient fleet. And telematics can be a powerful tool to help good drivers protect their safety – and their driving record.

Too often, managers bypass storytelling altogether, taking a heavy-handed approach. But if you really want to influence people, try telling a good story instead.

Sean M. Lyden


5 Smart Ways to Use Telematics to Drive Fleet Safety

What does a litigator want to know after a commercial vehicle crash?

Here’s how Jeff Burns, an attorney with the Kansas City, Missouri-based law firm Dollar, Burns & Becker LC, put it in his presentation to fleet managers at the NTEA Work Truck Show in March: “How did the company try to prevent this crash?”

After all, the plaintiff’s attorney is looking for a defendant that offers the highest potential settlement award – and a company is a much more lucrative target than the individual driver who may be at fault in an incident.

One of the things Burns said that companies could do to demonstrate a commitment to preventing incidents is to deploy vehicle tracking technology, like telematics, and make sure it’s being used in ways that support safer driving and equipment operation practices throughout the organization.

So, how can utility fleet leaders use telematics to drive greater safety – and reduce risk exposure for their employers?

1. Keep Score
A starting point is to use telematics to monitor driver behavior so that management can provide objective feedback and coach drivers on any behaviors they need to improve, such as hard braking, aggressive acceleration, hard cornering or speeding events. You also can organize that data into scorecards that show drivers their own trends and how they stack up with their peers.

“When you start to identify for a driver directly what their score is compared to their peers or how they’re trending as far as their overall driving habits, I think the drivers take notice – especially if the scorecard shows that they aren’t the top driver they thought they were,” said Kimberly Clark, telematics product leader with Element Fleet Management (

2. Integrate Video
Ryan Driscoll, marketing director at telematics provider GPS Insight (, said that his company is developing a system that integrates forward- and driver-facing cameras with telematics.

“It won’t be livestream video at all times, where you can just check in as Big Brother,” Driscoll said. Instead, the video would be made available based on exception – that is, a driving event that falls outside specific parameters set by management.

How does it work?

“Suppose the driver slams on the brakes,” Driscoll said. “When an exception like that happens, the system records the 10 to 15 seconds before the incident and 10 to 15 seconds after the incident so that you get a full picture of what happened that caused that event to take place.”

What can you learn from that video?

“Perhaps the driver bent over to grab his soda on the ground and took his eyes off the road for two seconds, and when he came back up, he realized he was too close to the vehicle in front of him and slammed the brakes,” Driscoll said. “This insight enables you to more effectively coach the driver on how to avoid doing something like that in the future and decrease his chances of getting into an accident.”

3. Provide Real-Time Feedback
It’s one thing to have data to help you coach drivers a day, week or month after a risky driving event has been recorded. But what if your drivers could get immediate feedback inside the vehicle to discourage high-risk behaviors?

This level of telematics capability is becoming more prominent and useful, Clark said.

“It could be an instance where the driver is speeding, say, more than 10 miles per hour over the speed limit, and that goes against fleet policy,” she said. “The system would issue an alert to that driver in that moment – whether it be a buzz or a vocal command – that they’ve broken the policy. What often happens is that drivers aren’t even aware that they are engaging in certain behaviors. So, it’s helpful to provide an immediate interaction with the driver to say, ‘This behavior is not acceptable.'”

4. Call for Help
A few years ago, Rural Electric Cooperative (REC), a power company serving south central Oklahoma, went to GPS Insight looking for a system that would enable a lineworker to call for help in an emergency.

GPS Insight developed a panic button that REC’s lineworker would wear on their belt loop or somewhere else on their person.

“It’s basically a key fob with a button on it,” Driscoll said. “And when the [lineworker] hits that button, the system notifies dispatch of an emergency to send help to that location.”

The timing couldn’t have been better for REC. About five months after deploying the panic button system, a lineman had to use it.

“It was in an area that had been plagued by wildfires, and the lineman pulled up to a location to change a transformer,” Driscoll said. “He didn’t take notice of the tall grass around the truck and went up into the [aerial] bucket to start working. But shortly after, while in the bucket, he looked down and noticed the grass was on fire next to his truck. By the time he got down from the bucket, the truck had caught fire, with his cellphone and radio inside the cab.”

But the lineman had the panic button on his belt, which he pushed. And the telematics system pinpointed his exact location and alerted dispatch to send help immediately.

5. Collaborate on Safety
When initiating a large-scale telematics deployment, it’s important to garner support from stakeholders in various departments across the organization to ensure the rollout goes as smoothly as possible, Clark said.

“Changing driver behavior also requires changing the culture, especially if you have a significantly high accident rate or recently had an unfortunate incident, such as a death or serious injury of one of your drivers,” she said. “In that case, you’re really changing a culture. And that means you need the whole team – the drivers, their managers, HR, legal and so forth – all there working together to build a strong safety culture.”

The Bottom Line
While telematics can’t prevent all incidents, you can use it in smart ways that help you significantly improve driver safety and your company’s bottom line.


Pioneering a Utility Drone Program

In 2015, Chicago-based Commonwealth Edison Co. (ComEd) became the first utility to be approved by the Federal Aviation Administration for operational use of unmanned aircraft systems – also referred to as UAS or drones – under certain conditions for line inspection and emergency response applications.

So, three years and 250 flights later, how has it been going? Where does ComEd’s program stand today? What types of applications are they using drones for? And what are some of the lessons the utility has learned?

UFP recently spoke with Brian Cramer, UAS program manager at ComEd, to get the behind-the-scenes story of a utility company pioneering new drone technology that could have enormous implications for worker safety and operational efficiencies throughout the industry.

UFP: How are you currently using drones?

Brian Cramer: If there’s a problem that crews haven’t been able to identify using normal means – whether it’s ground patrols, helicopters and so forth – we’ll use drones to provide imaging for inspections to find out what’s happening. That’s because the drone can get closer to the problem area, and we can see it from every angle, including from above.

In a helicopter, you can get up close to the issue from above, but often only from one side – you can’t see both sides. So, if the problem is literally in the wrong place, you won’t find it.

And where we can’t get up close, some of our drones have 30x zoom cameras, where we can zoom right in to see things in detail. That’s our most frequent type of flight.

We also use drones for access, to get to hard-to-reach areas. Sometimes it isn’t safe for someone to go through the high grass or debris to try to climb around in there and see what’s happening. We can get up above and capture imaging to get better information without any risk to anyone.

I can imagine that level of visibility from drones is especially important when you’re talking about emergency preparedness.

Yes. Actually, when we first started talking with our [emergency preparedness] people three years ago, they said there were three things they were really interested in.

First was to find the scope of the area of damage – to get the big picture, so they knew what they were looking at.

The second thing was to go through the analysis. There’s a pole with a transformer, so we’ve got to replace that. The wire’s down; we need to get the detailed scope of repair.

The third thing was safe access – to be able to figure out how your crews can safely get to where they need to be to get the work done.

And these three things remain significant in our thinking.

What’s a unique application that you didn’t initially consider for drones but have since discovered to be an interesting use-case?

An application that comes to mind is the simplest one – a crew who does foot patrols, whether for planning new construction or inspecting lines. Every so often, they get to a point where it’s tough to get themselves physically closer to where they want to be.

So, it’s useful to have a drone in the truck where crews could take it out, set it up, go through the checklist and processes, and fly the drone the last hundred yards or whatever they need to see the thing that they wanted to see, instead of climbing down a ravine, which introduces risks.

If you ask most of these people, “Do you need a drone?” they would likely say no. But if you gave them one and asked them six months later, “Do you need this drone?” they would say, “Wow, absolutely – this is fantastic!”

ComEd owns eight drones but also outsources on occasion. In what scenarios do you contract with drone services companies?

There are three ways we use outside drone companies.

First is if we have a major storm. We’re prepared to bring in a number of crews from these organizations who would team up with our people who patrol for damage. So, you would have a drone operator or operator team with one of our patrollers. They would provide eyes that can see beyond the debris and the floodwater so that our patrollers can be much more effective in getting accurate information faster.

A second way is if we have a major project where we want to do a lot of inspections of certain areas or something for critical lines and we don’t have enough resources to do that. So, we will bring in a contractor to handle that.

The third is expensive technologies that we don’t use all the time, like lidar. If we needed to do lidar work, we would probably hire one of these contractors to do that for us because that equipment is costly. It takes knowledge to use it properly, and the technology is changing so rapidly. Right now, it doesn’t make sense for us to invest in that technology.

As your drone program expands, do you envision that your drones will eventually be managed by the fleet department?

At this point, that doesn’t happen to be the way that we’re organized at ComEd. I know of at least one utility where their drone operation is operated out of their fleet system. We have three different groups of air assets at Exelon [parent company of ComEd] – helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft and drones. At this point, none of our aviation assets are under fleet. But is the idea of managing drones as a fleet asset a logical way to do it? Yes, it certainly can be.

What advice do you have to give to other utilities that are looking to launch or expand their drone programs?

I would say do your homework. Learn the rules. Learn how to do it right. As a utility company, you’re in an extreme safety culture. So, make sure that safety translates appropriately into your drone operations. And one of the things to remember and focus on is this: If you put together your internal rules for how you are going to operate your drones – and how you’re going to allow contractors to operate drones for you – make sure you set up the rules in a way that facilitates those safe and effective operations. It’s too easy to put rules in place that inadvertently obstruct the ability to do that work. You have to look hard at what you’re doing and make sure you find ways to facilitate safe and effective operations.

If you were to make the case as to why utility companies should commit to launching a drone program, what would you say?

Everywhere we look, we keep finding new places where having the detailed level of visibility [from drones] is useful, or where it could enhance the safety of our people and the reliability of our system.

We have poles that are 200 feet tall in our transmission system that have FAA lights on top. To check those lights, a [lineworker] has to climb up 200 feet. But I can use a drone, fly it up there, look at the lights, bring it back and land in five minutes. Nobody had to leave the ground. Now, [lineworkers] know what they’re doing. They’re as safe as it’s possible to be. But there’s always a risk, and to the extent that we can reduce those risks, I’m all over that one. So, when you’re trying to find your way through the high brush on a right-of-way or you’re climbing up in the air to do your job, if you can do less of that, we are all better off.


What Will It Take for Autonomous Vehicles to be Ready for Prime Time?

When it comes to fully autonomous vehicles becoming commercially available, industry consensus is that it’s not a question of if but when. And that time frame appears to be within the next two to three years.

For example, industry research firm Navigant Research ( expects that highly automated light-duty vehicles will begin to be introduced in 2020, with steady growth anticipated starting in 2025.

Then there’s Waymo ( – formerly the Google self-driving car project – pushing the pace, saying that it will roll out fully self-driving taxi rides to the public by the end of this year, with a plan to operate 1 million self-driving miles by 2020.

And at the NTEA Work Truck Show in March, Ed Peper, vice president of fleet at GM (, said that the automaker expects to launch fully self-driving vehicles “safely and at scale” in ridesharing applications in 2019.

But fatal crashes in recent weeks – involving an Uber vehicle in fully autonomous mode and a Tesla Model X with Autopilot engaged – also have caused many in the industry and government to pump the brakes on vehicle testing, creating some uncertainty around when robots will actually rule the roads.

So, what needs to happen for fully autonomous vehicles to be ready for prime time?

UFP spoke with Sam Abuelsamid, senior analyst for Navigant Research, to get his perspective.

Innovation vs. Regulation: Striking the Right Balance
Abuelsamid said that the industry and regulators need to develop standards that achieve a delicate balance between innovation and regulation.

“We don’t want to stifle innovation or development of technology,” he said. “At the same time, I think that if we’re going to put these vehicles on public roads – either for testing purposes or commercial deployment – we need to take a look at some basic standards and make sure that the vehicles that we’re putting on the road achieve at least a minimum level of safety.”

What might those standards involve?

“We can begin by taking a look at developing standards for the sensing systems on these vehicles – to make sure that they can reliably ‘see’ in a wide range of driving conditions,” Abuelsamid said. “And then we need to make sure that the systems can react and do the right thing under those conditions. We should have confidence that when the autonomous systems detect something, that they’re going to make the right decision. As human drivers, we have to take a basic driving test to get a license to drive. We should have the same expectation when it comes to licensing a car to drive itself.”

The Machine-to-Human Handoff Hassle
In both the Uber and Tesla crash incidents, the human driver in the vehicle was required to be fully aware and ready to take over control when necessary. But it’s precisely this machine-to-human handoff situation that can be dangerous, according to Abuelsamid.

“I get to drive a lot of different vehicles and try out these different technologies,” he said. “And unfortunately, I’m increasingly coming to the opinion that the partially automated systems like [Tesla] Autopilot and others that require a handoff to a human being are actually a bad idea. I think that having a human as a supervisor for these systems is fundamentally not going to be safe or workable because as soon as you start getting reasonably comfortable with the technology, people quickly become complacent.”

What’s the solution?

“What we should do is move away from these partially automated systems to fully automated systems, even if they’re limited in their scope in terms of where they can operate,” Abuelsamid said. “I have no problem with testing the systems and using them in limited conditions. But I think that is a better approach than relying on a human to oversee the system because that’s what we had in the recent Uber [crash] case.”

Remote Control
Last year, Nissan ( introduced a remote control system for autonomous vehicles called Seamless Autonomous Mobility, or SAM. The way it works is that when the car encounters an unpredictable situation – such as a new road-construction area – it brings itself to a safe stop and requests help from the command center. The request is routed to the first available mobility manager – a person who uses vehicle images and sensor data, streamed over a wireless network, to assess the situation, decide on the correct action and create a safe path around the obstruction. Once the vehicle has cleared the area, it resumes fully autonomous operations, and the mobility manager is free to help other vehicles calling for assistance.

So, is a remote control system like this a viable solution to give human passengers greater confidence in an autonomous vehicle?

“I think that some degree of remote control is going to be a necessity for autonomous vehicles,” Abuelsamid said. “There are going to be certain situations where the vehicle gets stuck and is unable to figure out what to do. So, having a remote operator who can see what the vehicle sees and guide it through certain scenarios or to a safe place if there’s some sort of system failure is a good thing. But that’s not something that’s ever going to be scalable to all the vehicles on the road. It would be used as an emergency-only backup.”

What about cybersecurity? How much of a challenge is that right now?

“It’s a huge issue that all the OEMs are going to have to deal with to make sure that autonomous vehicles are both secure and resilient,” Abuelsamid said. “When you have complex systems like these, you can never guarantee absolute security. It’s not possible. No one can say that a system is 100 percent secure with as much code as these systems are running. The technology must be resilient so that when there is a security breach, it can be detected and the vehicle brought to a safe stop.”

How optimistic is Abuelsamid that automakers are making cybersecurity a top priority?

“The good news is that manufacturers have recognized that cybersecurity is a real issue,” he said. “Four years ago, I could not say that was true; they weren’t taking it very seriously. But now they are.”

The Bottom Line
What needs to happen for fully autonomous vehicles to expand beyond niche robo-taxi applications to achieve significant scale?

Here’s how Abuelsamid put it: “People have to trust that these vehicles are going to behave properly – that they’re going to be reliable. The public needs the confidence that the autonomous vehicle is safer than a human driver.”

And that timeline is not so certain.

The Need for Greater Collaboration Between Fleet and Safety

In April, our team at Utility Fleet Professional magazine launched the first-ever fleet track at the iP Utility Safety Conference & Expo in Loveland, Colorado. The conference is the industry’s largest safety education event, produced by our sister publication, Incident Prevention magazine.

We covered a wide range of topics, from the imminent safety challenges of automated vehicle technologies, to fleet ergonomics that can reduce worker injury risks, to spec’ing aerial platforms with maximum safety in mind.

But my biggest takeaway from the conference?

It’s that there’s a growing need for fleet and safety professionals to communicate and collaborate with each other on a deeper level – to spec the safest vehicles possible within the real-world budget constraints that fleet departments must navigate.

Think about it. We’ve seen automated driver-assist systems deployed in cars over the past few years. But now we’re starting to see them being introduced in the commercial truck market as well, which could have significant implications for both the fleet and safety departments at utility companies.

For example, the 2018 Ford F-150 features an available Pre-Collision Assist with Pedestrian Detection system and advanced adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go functionality that uses radars and cameras to maintain a set distance behind a vehicle – and even follow that vehicle down to a complete stop.

This is cool safety technology, but it also makes the truck more expensive. And when fleet managers are given a mandate from senior management to do more with less money, how do they strike that delicate balance between vehicle safety and cost?

If a fleet decides to spec their trucks with driver-assist systems, what is the company’s policy regarding operation of that equipment? Now, that’s a question for the safety department. After all, if a driver gets annoyed with the beeps or vibration alerts on the truck’s lane-keeping system, for example, and decides to disable it, how is that issue addressed? If a crash occurs after the system was disabled, what does that mean for the company’s risk exposure?

And if there are specific driver policies governing the use of driver-assist systems, how can fleet assist the safety department to help ensure driver compliance with those policies? Perhaps fleet could place labels inside the cabs that clearly communicate the safety policy. And in some cases, fleet could install technology on the vehicle that would alert the company when a driver ignores a warning or disables the system.

Both safety and fleet professionals want to see lineworkers and equipment operators get home safe to their families. So, it makes sense that they should work closely together to build the safest fleet possible in a way that doesn’t break the budget.

Sean M. Lyden

Utility Fleet Professional

360 Memorial Drive, Suite 10, Crystal Lake, IL 60014 | 815.459.1796


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