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Big Brother on the road?

KEEPING in touch with employees ‘on the road’ is not always easy.

Mobile phones can be out of range, inadvertently switched off, or insufficiently loud to conquer ambient noise. Two of these problems also bedevil the use of SMS messaging for instant contact.

Then there’s the cost of keeping in contact with a fleet of drivers, whether it be by voice or data communications – contrary to what might be believed, mobile calls and SMS messages are not getting cheaper.

Perth company Smarttrack claims to have solved this problem, having developed a product that combines the Internet with the General Packet Radio Service (GPRS), Global Positioning System (GPS) and the Inmarsat D+ satellite tracking and telemetry system.

In essence, the technology allows a business to track and/or send text messages to any vehicles fitted with the appropriate devices, no matter where those vehicles are. Further, the equipment can be programmed to send position reports at regular intervals – for example, when a vehicle’s ignition is switched on, when the vehicle’s speed hits a certain level, every five minutes or perhaps every five kilometres the vehicle travels.

Even if this information is not monitored ‘live’, it can be saved and retrieved at any later time.

Smarttrack managing director Simon Illingworth said the GPRS system was substantially cheaper and more convenient than using mobile phones. It allows uninterrupted access to the network – there is no need to dial in and hang up – and the messaging service allows a text message of any length to be sent to a driver, he said. As a comparison, SMS messages are limited to 160 characters.

Smarttrack established itself in Perth to introduce the technology to Australia, having seen its successful deployment in Europe, Mr Illingworth said.

“The vehicle tracking and telemetry industry is very green here in Australia. Although there’s been a massive rollout in Europe in the trucking industry, the Australian trucking industry hasn’t embraced it quite so quickly,” he said.

The Smarttrack system can help courier companies, for example, monitor a single computer screen to see where all their vehicles are at one time. The system also can be used to track the movements of a stolen vehicle.

But there are some in the industry who say capabilities of technology like this should be of concern.

Dave Robinson, the assistant secretary of Unions WA, said the deployment of such technology could put every worker under immediate and direct super-vision, which would be undesirable.

“The morale of a group of employees is not well-served by an instrument or even a person who’s constantly supervising them to that extent that they feel they have absolutely no autonomy and no control,” he said.

“There’s plenty of evidence that workers need to have at least a belief there is some degree of autonomy and control in their employment, so I think that absolutely intrusive and invasive technology is a very dangerous path to go down.

Mr Robinson said the union movement understood businesses needed to know in general where vehicles were, but some of the technology’s ability to monitor exactly what a car’s movement and status were was incredibly invasive.

Peter Weygers, president of the WA Council for Civil Liberties, said the potential existed for disputes to develop over something as simple as a driver stopping at a hotel for a toilet break. If businesses were to employ the tracking devices, they needed to notify their employees and also take account of employees’ personal needs.

But Mr Illingworth said his company’s system was not another step towards an Orwellian society.

“It’s not necessarily about companies watching their driver, but using their fleet more efficiently, especially as margins become tighter and tighter in the transport industry,” he said.

“And they need to extract as much efficiency out of their fleet as they can.”

Mr Robinson said the tracking technology might well be beneficial, but rather by showing up how transport drivers often work excessive hours.

”There could be a double-edged sword in that sort of information being available,” he said.

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