Geotab success “blows me away”, says CEO Neil Cawse
In 2020, when I spoke with Geotab CEO Neil Cawse at the previous Geotab Connect in San Diego, he proudly announced that his company had 2 million cars connected. We met up again at Geotab Connect 2023 in Orlando (that’s him on the left, me on the right), where he revealed that figure had jumped to 3.2 million. “That blows me away”, he says in an exclusive conversation with Global Fleet. But while Geotab is all about data, it’s about a lot more than numbers.
Interview by Steven Schoefs, Editor in Chief of Global Fleet.
From 2 to 3.2 million, that’s a 60% increase in just two years. Surprised?
“It actually blows me away. I knew Geotab was growing well, but then Covid hit. So to see this increase, largely during the pandemic, is a surprise. What it shows, I think, is that telematics really matters, and is growing in importance.”
Even so, I still see a lot of executives and fleet managers who don’t ‘get’ connected technology. They don’t see the value it can add, not just in terms of safety and sustainability, but also overall corporate success.
“You’re not wrong, but let me benchmark that impression a little bit: telematics has a 70% penetration rate in North American fleets, but just 40% in Europe. So that’s a very different landscape. And even though Europe is starting to catch up, many European fleets still think: I don’t need telematics. I can just as well run my fleet manually.”
“As a Geotabber, of course I disagree. But you have to believe me when I say you can’t efficiently run a fleet today without telematics. Why? Because the numbers confirm it. As we say: You can’t manage what you don’t measure. Telematics is about understanding your business and your fleet, about understanding where you’re spending your money and where you can save it. It’s about increasing the efficiency, safety and sustainability of your fleet.”
“So, a fleet manager needs telematics. But indeed, that requires an educational process. You with Global Fleet are contributing to that process by keeping fleet managers informed. I would love to do more myself. Maybe we need more Geotab Connects (the events at which the company connects with its partners, resellers and customers – Ed.) in Europe to get everybody excited about telematics.”
Don’t you think the incoming generation of employees – digital natives who are also more aware of issues like climate change and sustainability – will drive up the acceptance and uptake of connected vehicle technology?
“You nailed it. Of course, we at Geotab think telematics is important for any fleet. But no matter what we think, telematics is becoming really indispensable for fleet electrification. It helps you manager your EV fleet, how you charge it, what its range is. And as Europe leads the world in terms of sustainability and EVs, there’s a natural fit for it. If you have EVs, you must have telematics. The two are in perfect alignment.”
“As for attitudes of the younger generation: I think they expect to be able to access their data from anywhere. Remote working has accelerated that evolution. Why would you need to go down to the depot to ask a driver what’s going on? You should be able to get that info by picking up the phone, or pushing a few keys on your keyboard.”
“Modern fleet managers will prioritize efficiency, but will also be aware of privacy. They need a partner that looks after their data, that provides this data where they need it, and that also managers their privacy issues.”
Our world is digital and data-driven. But isn’t that also a risk, and a weakness? What if the technology fails?
“I think there are two elements here. The first is the reliability. Telematics has gone from being a nice-to-have to something that is mission-critical. The largest and most impressive fleets in the world – Pepsi, Amazon, UPS and the like – run on telematics. And if their telematics is down, they simply don’t run. So the technology must absolutely be robust and reliable.”
“The second element is privacy. In terms of telematics, you must understand the various legislations on privacy around the world. What you can and can’t do with data is complex. And it evolves. So you need to know how to leverage the advantages of collective data – traffic flow rates, dangerous intersections, etcetera – without disclosing private information. That’s why you need to work with a company you can trust to take the power of data seriously. In other words: reputation matters.”
This year, Geotab is going to spend $80 million on R&D. Is that enough to remain market leader and keep your competitive advantage?
“Our R&D budget is larger than that of any competitor I know. So I definitely do. I’m an engineer, so I see the value to technology and product. We offer Software-as-a-Service. If it’s not good or not relevant, we lose out. That’s why it’s very important that we continue to invest in the future. Our R&D team is massive: 700 very smart people, all engineers, PhD computer scientists, product people. All focused on growing Geotab by leveraging new functionalities for our customers.”
What else will you be focusing on in 2023?
“We have a bunch of important focus areas. Obviously there’s sustainability, where we need to help companies get started on that journey. As a product team, we focus on making it easy for fleet managers: which vehicles should they change to EVs, which EVs should that be, what charging infrastructure do they need and how to they run all that smoothly? Even including telling them when it’s the right time to sell those EVs. So it’s really an end-to-end offer.”
“The other thing is AI. With ChatGTP, we’ve seen the power of a system that understands things like humans do. Bringing that capability to telematics will open up a whole new world. You won’t need to know how to use a particular user interface. You just have a conversation with the system and ask: What do I need to do today? And the system will tell you, in a conversational way.”
“We’re excited about AI, but it’s early days. You need a strong foundation in data and analytics before you can start on this journey. But taking best practices for fleet management and distilling it into an assistant that can unlock your fleet data: that is going to be game-changing.”
Talking about AI reminds me a bit of corporate mobility: we’ve been talking about it for years now, but we’re still waiting for a big breakthrough. Can you give me a concrete example of what AI can do for drivers, and fleet managers?
“You’re right. When it comes to the power of innovation, we humans tend to be overambitious in the short term, but we underestimate the consequences in the longer term. Take cars, or tv, or the internet. We get impatient and we move on to the next big thing before we’ve explored its full capabilities.”
“With AI, we struggled in the beginning. It took us years to figure it out. But now it is already being used in fleets. I will give two specific examples. One is ESR, short for Electrical System Rating. Large fleets told us 80% of fleet failure in the field is due to the electrical system: starter motor, alternator or battery. Our system now has AI watching all sorts of data coming out of those three things. It will tell you when either is about to fail. So instead of getting stuck in the middle of nowhere, which is a nightmare, you can now go and get those systems fixed before a problem occurs.”
“That’s a real-world example that benefits the driver and is used by the biggest fleets in the world today. There are plenty of examples of how AI helps fleets become more efficient: by categorizing where your customers are, how you spend time, how to optimize where you place your fleets. And more. We release a couple of new functionalities every single month, adding new AI insights to our product. I think it’s amazing what this produces in terms of actionable insights.”
Geotab advocates collaborations and partnerships. You have your Marketplace and you work with all sorts of fleet management and automotive partners. Including OEMs with their own connected tech solutions. How long before your GO device is obsolete?
“Good question. The good news is that our GO device does a lot. It’s not just about collecting vehicle data. For example: it has an IOX port that allows you to connect to a whole bunch of data sets. The GO device is almost like an IoT hub. You can have extra sensors and extra switches. In Europe, you can keep your tax logbook up to date by switching between personal and business drive time. You can use the GO device as a wifi hotspot. So all in all, the GO device won’t go away so soon.”
“That said, in the next five years we will start to see a slow and purposeful migration towards us integrating with the OEM for data collection – sooner for some use cases than others. For instance, lease vehicles, for which location is relatively more important than accident reconstruction or safety. For OEMs right now, that’s a better use case. Not all OEMs are up to speed with getting data in or out of telematics systems, so we’re waiting for them to catch up. I think five years is the magic number.”
Climate change, supply chain crisis, surging inflation, political instability: there are plenty of big socio-economic challenges for fleets. Can connected technology help?
“The biggest of those issues, where Geotab can add some real value, is climate change. We can help you speed away from guzzling fuel towards energy-efficient mobility. That is our existential obligation as Geotab. With our data, we’re uniquely placed to help companies start their sustainability journey. And it’s not just about converting to EVs, it’s also about running your existing ICE fleet as sustainably as possible. It’s about know and reducing emissions and carbon footprints.”
“Then of course there is safety. We’re able to make the roads safer, which is an enormous benefit – to companies, and to the wider world. Next to that, telematics is fantastic at managing any kind of supply chain and logistics operation. Honestly, the world is pretty immature when it comes to managing logistics. We’re brilliant in small parts: getting the vaccines on trucks and to hospitals. But then we don’t know where they were before. Creating complete supply chain visibility is another existential duty for us at Geotab, and an exciting one.”
You’re the founder and CEO of Geotab, a company with now 2,100 employees. How do you keep them motivated?
“We came from humble beginnings – we literally started working out of a basement. We grew into the company you know today, but we still operate a bit like a family business. The people that own the company also work in the company. As such, they care deeply about the people that work here, and about the success of the company.”
“We work with a lot of very smart people – people who could choose to work at many other places. So we look after them well. Not just in terms of remuneration, but also by offering a friendly and accommodating environment. But what’s crucial, is that they know we’re doing our part to make the world a better place. That may sound corny, but I know it’s part of the reason why we show up at work every day. Because we are having an impact: helping to reduce road deaths, helping to make the world greener and more sustainable. We want to make a difference in the world. That’s what excites us and makes us good leaders.”
Technology gets newer, but we get older. Don’t you fear the moment when you will become too old to lead?
“I do actually think about that: At which point will I be the one who stands in the way of new product? Part of being a good leader is to know how to delegate, and when to stand aside. I’m 54 years old now, and I’m having a great time. I’m still very much in touch with the technology. When the moment comes that I realise that’s becoming a bit difficult, I’ll happily step aside. That will be a sad and important day for me, but we have to let others grow too.”
What would you like to see next year at Geotab Connect 2024?
“At the next Connect, I hope to see a great collaboration between the OEMs, significant EV adoption and use of telematics by EVs, and an even greater ecosystem. It’s not just about Geotab. I want to see a whole suite of companies and an entire industry grow and flourish!”
As your fellow Canadian Neil Young sings: Long may you run!
Want to know more about what connectivity can do for your fleet? Come join Fleet Europe’s Connected Fleets Conference 2023, on 27 and 28 March in Brussels. Click here for more info and to register.