Fleet cards, once dismissed as insignificant niche products, are attracting new levels of bank card industry interest.
In March MasterCard became the first of the major brands to introduce fleet cards, which are being issued by GE Capital and PHH Paymentech. Citicorp and First Chicago NBD are testing them.
Visa is developing fleet capabilities for its purchasing cards. American Express Co. does not have a stand-alone fleet product but does help companies manage the expenses of their car and truck stables.
"Fleet cards are going to be expanding," said Jeffrey Rankin, senior vice president in NationsBank Corp.'s card services division.
He called it significant that the bank-owned associations are paying attention to them; previously they were available mostly through small processing companies.
The new generation of fleet cards does more than simply isolate oil and gasoline purchases. The cards can store a vehicle's service and repair history, and monitor transaction limits.
But not everyone sees the business case. "Right now, many of our customers use the purchasing card for fleet capabilities," said Kerry Williams, manager of BankAmerica Corp.'s commercial card division.
"We're watching what is happening with MasterCard and Visa and trying to decide if we need to offer a separate product," he said. "It doesn't look like there's that big a need to do that."
Steve L. Abrams, senior vice president of corporate products for MasterCard, said the fleet-expense market totals $80 billion to $90 billion annually. About $60 billion of that goes for fuel, and most of the rest for maintenance.
MasterCard spent a year on fleet card research and development. "There was a lot more demand for our solution than we had previously thought," Mr. Abrams said.
MasterCard issues two types of cards: one that individual employees carry and use with various corporate vehicles; and one that would be assigned to a particular vehicle for use by multiple drivers.
When a MasterCard fleet card is presented, several pieces of data can be prompted by the terminal, Mr. Abrams said, including the vehicle identification number and the odometer reading. The extent of data collection is defined by the company.
The card's magnetic stripe can also indicate whether it is authorized for fuel oil only-in other words, not at a gas station's convenience store. That combats what Mr. Abrams said is known as "the Twinkie problem."