What RFID Can Do for Fleets Today

Audio version
Posted / Last update: 01-05-1999
Publication: Petroleum Equipment & Technology Archive
Issued: May 1999
Author: Stewart Gregory M.

A look at five top RFID improvements

Radio Frequency expert Gregory M. Stewart explains his nominees for the top five new RFID advancements available for fleets today.


At last, after nearly a decade of promise, many traditional fixed-base fueling facilities can tap into the efficiency of radio frequency identification (RFID). Over the last two years, breakthroughs in RFID technology have provided new options to fleet facilities, with their underground storage tanks (USTs) or in-yard mobile fueling operations.

New RFID transponder designs and operating software allow for powerful solutions that were not previously possible. The new generation of RFID devices have increased their range, which, in turn, allows for broader application and significant advantages. These advantages include: greater control and convenience; more efficient and prolific information; and, therefore, cost savings.

Top five list
Over the last several years, there have been many advancements in RFID technology. In this article, I will describe and discuss what I consider to be the top five improvements that, when combined, make for technological breakthrough in RFID for the fleet industry. These improvements are:

1. reading multiple transponders in the same read zone;

2. linkage and overlap of multiple read zones to create larger unified read areas;

3. ability to communicate in both read/write modes to several “smart” transponders at once (anti-collision protocols);

4. working “smart” transponders that have onboard microprocessors; and

5. exemption from Federal Communication Commission licensing requirements.

How RFID works in the field
The Brandt Trucking Company in Bloomington, IL, is a regional carrier with 150 vehicles. To meet new EPA 1999 underground tank regulations, the company installed a new fixed-base fueling station and took the opportunity to upgrade a card-operated fueling system with state-of-the art RFID. Brandt’s installation provided automated, hands-free vehicle ingress and egress of the automated vehicle odometer upload at the time of fueling; fuel dispenser authorization; and an automated truck wash.

Many people may think that the integration of commercial fueling facilities with RFID is an unlikely way to use passive, low frequency RFID technology. However, the design and operation of fleet fueling stations are often lacking in efficiency, and proper use of RFID can restore it. As in the Brandt example above, the goal is to achieve better fuel control, accountability and fleet maintenance.

What makes commercial fueling stations likely candidates for RFID usage? For one thing, the fuel dispensers are generally well spaced. This is important because a vehicle tag that automatically energizes a dispenser when in proximity must only energize the correct dispenser. If more than one dispenser is energized, it may be unclear which dispenser matched up with which vehicle to obtain fuel. If a mismatch results, the wrong customer may be billed for the fuel.

This “match up” is an ongoing issue with retail service stations with multi-product dispensers (MPDs) because RFID requires well-defined read zones to control dispensers. Where the definition of read zones is a problem, continued use of dispenser access cards are recommended. However, even in these cases, as we will discuss, RFID may still be integrated to improve other functions. Now, let’s go back to the first two items on my “top five” list.

Figure 1: RFID in commercial fleet stations is easier to install than in retail stations due to easier, less complicated antenna placement.

First two advantages
RFID advancement number one—the ability to read multiple tags in the same read zone—is very important. Only very recently has it become possible for two vehicles to fuel from a twin dispenser in the same read zone without locking up the RFID system. In fact, most RFID systems installed today still can only read one tag in the read zone. (Access to the correct dispenser with twin dispensers is accomplished with a barrier that allows for one-directional-lane-only fueling.)

Another benefit of multiple reads in the same zone is the creation of a two-tag system: One transponder identifies the vehicle and the other transponder identifies the employee. In this situation, for the dispensers to be energized, both the vehicle and the employee must be in the same read zone. Thus, greater accountability is achieved because a company vehicle must be present (not an employee’s auto being fueled for weekend fun), and the employee is positively identified along with the standard transaction statistics.

With existing card reader systems, it is often difficult to know who was responsible for the fueling as the cards are passed from one employee to another, fueling multiple vehicles. RFID provides a simple and more secure solution.

RFID advancement number two is the ability to overlap read zones. Previously, it was critical to space the readers in such a way that no overlap existed because the system would lock up and fail. However, in commercial fleet fueling stations, creation of directional reads (so that the dispensers are properly energized) often requires overlaps.

This new technology makes it possible to retrofit stations because dispenser layout and spacing are not as critical. The readers are now more able to handle an overlap, and therefore, it is much easier to accomplish the retrofit.

Next three advantages
RFID advancement number three, the development of anti-collision, rapid development software, makes it possible to communicate with many tags simultaneously and, thus, to allow them to perform multiple tasks. With this technology, trucks, trailers and employees can enter the fueling station at the same time, with unique data and instructions sent to each. Also, the importance of being able to write to a tag allows for vehicle manifest information and other unique identifers to further automate the transport and handling of goods.

The quality of anti-collision software and hardware varies significantly by manufacturer. Many systems operate well with a maximum of nine tags in one read zone, while a greater number of tags significantly slows the identification and communication process. Other systems can identify several hundred in the same read zone quickly and accurately. It is important to match both the needs and functionality of the anti-collision software with the cost of each.

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