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Above: Bill Vanden Brook, the city of Madison's motor equipment superintendent, points to the automated fuel management system, which is connected to the city's gasoline and diesel pumps. Left: E.J. Ward Inc.'s automated fuel management system includes a vehicle module that surrounds the fuel filler neck. It is wired to the engine control computer. Photos: Paul Abelson

Other than personnel, fuel is the single greatest cost in operating any fleet. Then come tires, major non-warranty repairs, and preventive maintenance. These costs must be managed if any fleet is to operate within budget.

Fuel dispensing is the heart of most fleet measurement systems. All sorts of things get recorded when tanks are filled. Recording mileage allows miles-per-gallon to be calculated. Mileage also prompts when to schedule maintenance, the next vehicle inspection, oil and filter changes, and periodic service, all of which are designed to prevent breakdowns and ensure productive uptime. Some systems can even download tire pressures and tire temperature/pressure history.

The city of Madison, Wis.'s fleet consumes more than a million gallons of fuel each year. Yet up until this year, the city was using an outdated fuel dispensing system that relied on significant operator input. Adual key-card system identified the vehicle being fueled and the operator doing the fueling, but the operator was responsible for entering odometer or hour meter readings on a keypad at the pump.

One control on the 20-year-old system was that mileage had to be greater than previous readings for the pump to operate. Often, a dyslexic mileage entry (i.e., transposed numbers) that was manually input at one fueling would prevent the next fueling because accurate readings were lower than earlier, inaccurate readings.

Not only did these errors shut down fueling, they necessitated management intervention to override the system. Errors affected maintenance scheduling and the evaluation of vehicle condition. The old system was also open to fuel theft which, while rare, did occasionally happen.

Bill Vanden Brook, Madison's motor equipment superintendent, and Bruce Nelson, the city's fleet services program supervisor, realized that even after upgrades, a modern replacement for the aging system was needed. Nelson was given the task of finding one that could eliminate human error.

After examining several alternatives displayed at meetings of the Technology and Maintenance Council and the Association of Equipment Management Professionals, Nelson recommended the Automated Fuel Management System from San Antonio-based E.J. Ward Inc.

The automated system requires little or no input from operators. It draws mileage or hours of operation data from vehicle “black boxes,” and can be customized to allow extensive reporting options. It also prevents mis-fueling of vehicles, since each vehicle's fuel is programmed into the computer.

The system consists of a vehicle module and a pump module. The vehicle module is wired to the engine computer, where it can obtain data on miles and/or hours operated. The interface is a ring around the filler neck.

The pump module includes a “CAN-ceiver,” which is a device on the pump handle that queries the vehicle module and collects data. The data is transmitted by the CANceiver to the system's fuel control terminal. Each time the vehicle is fueled, transaction data is sent to the fuel control terminal and then downloaded to the fleet computer system.

Nelson worked with the manufacturer to ensure that the city's reporting and control needs were met. The system went online May 1.

“Since then, entry errors have been eliminated and we haven't had a single incident of theft,” says Vanden Brook. “That allowed us to better evaluate our equipment, meet maintenance schedules, and control fuel usage.”

Madison operates more then 1100 vehicles, from fire apparatus and refuse collection trucks to police and executive cars. The automated fuel management system is connected to the city's gasoline and diesel pumps, which are used by Madison's flex-fuel vehicles. Forklifts run on liquid petroleum gas and the fleet is evaluating compressed-natural-gas pickup trucks bought through a state contract. Fuels for these vehicles are, so far, not included in the system.

Madison's endeavors to be cutting edge are reflected in this automated approach to fleet management—and the city's efforts have not gone unnoticed. When the Digital Cities Survey for 2006 was announced by the Digital Government Center—a national research and advisory institute on IT policy and best practices for local and state governments—Madison tied with Alexandria, Va., as the most technically advanced city in its size grouping (populations from 125,000 to 249,999).

— Paul Abelson is a former director of the Technology and Maintenance Council of the American Trucking Associations, a board member of Truck Writers of North America, and active in the Society of Automotive Engineers.