Picture this, delivery drivers: a dash-mounted computerized device that uses a Global Positioning Satellite system to give you street-by-street, turn-by-turn audible directions to a delivery destination. Late deliveries due to bad directions — eliminated.

And check this out, operators: In your store is a visual tracking system that shows you exactly where every one of your drivers is at all times. If they've delivered an order, you know it -- and when they're headed next, be that to another delivery or back to the store.

No more secret stops at Dairy Queen, no more side trips to see "Sweetie."

No, you're not adrift in a high-tech fantasy. This is real stuff for real pizza operators and it's ready to roll out now.

Seeing a need for fleet navigation management in the pizza industry, Pi Star Communications in Louisville, Ky., developed the PiMobile Pizza Delivery System. A successful test in 2004 with Domino's Pizza has the No. 2 chain interested (a call for comment from Domino's wasn't returned) and apparently pizza companies are interested.

The time for such devices has come, the company's officers believe.

"(Pizza) drivers are unmanaged and unmonitored, and we have a device that will manage employees in the field," said Kevin Daley, vice president of sales for Pi Star. "This creates an incentive for the driver not to deviate from the task at hand while he's at work."

The system also puts pizza customers at ease, he added, by using an automated pre-arrival call that lets the customer know the driver is minutes away. "This closes that window of anxiety when

The PiMobile in-car communications package. From left to right is the GPS receiver and recharger cables, the dash-mounted handheld unit, and the belt-mounted magnetic card reader-printer.

the customer is wondering where the pizza is. ... They can put the baby down, write the check and be ready when the driver arrives."

J.W. Callahan, president of the Association of Pizza Delivery Drivers, used a similar device while working for a multi-restaurant delivery service. The pizza industry has needed such devices for a long time, he said.

"I live in a city that is expanding so rapidly that cartographers can't keep up with all the changes," said Callahan, a resident of Warner Robbins, Ga. He has delivered pizzas for nearly two decades and also been a pizzeria manager. That group, he said, could benefit from fleet management tools. "If you can control productivity by keeping a driver from stopping somewhere and fooling around, that's really helpful from a management point of view."

How it works

PiMoble is essentially a three-component system that communicates between the pizza shop, GPS satellites and a handheld computer unit (PDAs essentially) mounted to the dash of a driver's car. When an order comes to the shop, it is entered into the POS system and sent to the kitchen and a driver dispatch station. When it's ready for delivery, the driver takes the order to his car and touches a button on the screen of the handheld device to signal the store that he's on the move. Immediately, the handheld begins giving him audible directions and distances to the destination. As the driver moves about, his progress can be tracked by store personnel via computer monitor.

Five minutes before he arrives, the system triggers an automated call which notifies the customer the pizza is coming and reminds them of the total due. When the driver arrives, he pushes another button on the touchscreen letting the manager know he's arrived. He removes the handheld from the dash and takes the order to the door, where the transaction is completed.

Should the customer want to pay by credit, debit or gift card, the driver swipes the card through a belt-mounted combination reader-printer, waits for approval and presents a receipt.

When the driver returns to his car, he places the handheld back into the cradle and pushes a button ending the transaction. If he has another delivery, the handheld will immediately provide directions to the next destination. If not, the operator will see that he's headed back and can put him in cue for the next delivery.

"With it that organized, you could meet the driver at his car with the next order — he wouldn't even have to get out — and he's on his way," said Patrick Moldt, Pi Star chief software architect. All new order information is updated instantly, and the "handheld starts giving him directions again. It's all automatic."

APDD's Callahan said he especially would like the dispatch feature, saying it would allow for improved operations at multiunit pizza companies.

"This would give the flexibility to take drivers from a slow store and send them immediately to a store that's at peak rush," he said. "I don't guess it would matter if those drivers didn't know the neighborhood, because the device would give them directions."

Should a driver be steered off course by a mistake, a traffic jam or road construction, Moldt said the system automatically recalibrates the driver's location to the destination and provides new directions.

Process of perfection

Pi Star executives said they are still working on some finishing touches, such as overcoming occasional signal interruptions to the handheld or the credit card reader; alas, the shortcomings of General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) communication, Moldt said.

"It's just like when you're driving and your cell phone loses its signal," he said. "But what the system does is store all the data for that delivery when the driver is in dead communication zone. When he gets back into a live zone, all that information is updated instantly.

"But with the credit card reader, you can really see where that can be a problem. We don't want the guy losing a signal on a customer's porch and then unable to get a verification."

The solution, he said, is a Wi-Fi network connection built on a series antennas rigged atop commercial buildings in a given trade area. The wide-area signal would allow real-time mobile communication and a much stronger signal.

As you might expect, the cost of that technology currently is higher than the company would like, but Moldt said he expects prices to come down.

Callahan, who has not seen the new device in action, said he'd like to see a safety feature added.

"I'd like it to have an alarm bell that goes off, or some kind of signal on the dispatch screen in case a driver has been at a location too long," he said. "If something has happened, then you could contact them by radio to say, 'Are you OK?'"

Callahan also said he wouldn't like the automated customer callback feature because he prefers to make those calls himself.

"Driver interaction with the customer is critical for tips and for safety," said Callahan, whose been robbed on multiple occasions. "You can tell a lot about a person from their voice on the phone.

A close-up look at the options menu on the PiMobile handheld unit.

They may sound shady ... they may sound nice. That gives you an idea of what to expect."

A personal call also gives the driver the opportunity to build a relationship with the customer, he added. "If the driver does it courteously and professionally, it can boost his income significantly. It's what separates the pros from the amateurs. Plus, how well you take care of the customers reflects on the business the employee works for."

Knowing some operators and drivers would prefer to make their own calls, Daley said the feature can be disabled at the store.

And though the auto-call is one part recorded human voice, and one part computer speech (since the total price of every order is always different, that part of the message must be computerized), anyone's pipes, such as a famous person's, can be used in the recording. PiMobile users get access to an 800 number that allows them to change the message as they like.

"We'd love to use Dale Earnhardt, Junior's voice for this and turn it into a marketing opportunity," he said. "The customer picks up the phone and he hears, 'This is Dale Earnhardt, Junior. One of my drivers is going to be at your house in 5 minutes. Don't forget to watch me in the Daytona 500 on February 20th.'"

What's it cost?

Moldt said the cost of the PiMoble service would be $85 a month per store for the use of their software. The cost of the equipment would range from $150 to $350 per automobile; the higher amount includes the combination card-reader-printer.

Not cheap, he admits, but he believes the benefits of increased productivity and customer satisfaction will, over time, offset the cost.

"If you look at the purchase of the hardware spread over a 36-month life cycle, you're looking at spending basically $13.80 per device per month," he said. (Daley crunched the numbers a step further, saying a shop making an average 2,500 delivers per month would pay about 19 cents per delivery for the service. With a Wi-Fi network, the cost would drop to 13 cents a run.) "But when you figure in the fact that the drivers will drive fewer miles, and you'll be able to schedule deliveries more effectively, it makes sense."

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