iTracking Blog

The Impact of Driverless Cars on Fleet Management

Posted in: Fleet Management Systems
Date posted: 28 September 2016

With the subject of driverless cars making headlines across the globe right now, are we really on the verge of making them a reality on the road?

According to some experts, UK drivers could be taking a permanent backseat by as early as 2020, and across the pond earlier in the week, the US government threw its full weight behind the idea of implementing driverless cars.

So, what do we know about driverless cars so far? And more importantly, what will the impact of driverless and self-driving technology on fleet managers?

The distinction between self-driving and driverless

Self-driving cars are fast becoming the norm, with more and more introduced onto the market all the time. However, there’s still a very important difference between self-driving and driverless cars.

For instance, self-driving cars may mean you don’t really have to touch the steering wheel for long periods of time, but they still require someone to be in the driver’s seat.

Car manufacturers are still scrambling to produce the best self-driving and driverless technologies, but getting a car to drive itself is still just the first vital step in a series of hurdles that need to be overcome before driverless cars become a modern fixture.

Truly driverless concept cars (such as the likes of Mercedes-Benz F 015) actually show all four seats facing each other – just like a scene you’d expect to find in a first class cabin on an airplane.

However, for now we’re a long way off getting to that point, with few manufacturers admitting just how difficult it’s going to be to get there.

If you’ve ever used a self-driving car yourself (a Tesla, or perhaps one of those special self-driving Ubers), you’ll probably know that sitting inside one feels much like a version of cruise control, yet one that controls the entire car.

Yet you still have to be in charge of setting off and finishing up at your intended destination – in fact, let’s go back to the plane analogy again for a second, where the pilot simply sets the controls to autopilot during flight. He’s also right there, ready to take control if even the slightest thing goes wrong.

Genuinely driverless cars are still a few years off, but as we mentioned before, might be here a little sooner than you think, with the likes of Google and Ford set on releasing their offerings around 2020/2021.

Still, we need to learn to crawl before we can walk, and the art of self-driving cars is still in the process of being perfected.

How will driverless cars change the rules of the road?

With all the recent news on the progress of driverless cars, you may be wondering just how different it’s going to make driving on the road in future.

Only this month, Germany’s transport minister has announced the country will be leading the way in introducing the first ever highway code for driverless cars.

It’s already been dubbed ‘The Three Laws of Driverless Cars’, and is set to govern the way such cars will react in dangerous situations or collisions where lives could be lost.

The three laws are Germany’s attempt to address the grey area some experts call the ‘death valley’ of robotic or autonomous vehicles. In other words, the jump we have to take between self-driving and truly driverless cars, which could even delay the introduction of the latter.

Transport minister Alexander Dobrindt has stated he is aiming for three things when implementing these laws:

  1. For autonomous cars to prioritise property damage over that of personal/human injury (so in a collision, the car will always choose to damage itself over injuring the people inside)
  2. That autonomous cars never distinguish between humans over factors such as age or race
  3. If a human were to take his/her hands off the steering wheel, liability falls to the car’s manufacturer in the case of a collision.

Dobrindt said: “The change to the road traffic law will permit fully automatic driving.” He also added that it should make autonomous cars pretty much our equals on the road when it comes to a legal standpoint.

However, it goes without saying that many experts still factor in the liability issue as a major concern when it comes to realistically introducing driverless cars on the road. For instance, right now, UK insurance terms recently introduced for ‘driverless’ cars stipulate that drivers must remain fully alert with their attention on the road.

What will driverless cars mean for fleet managers?

With the concept of driverless cars already said to reduce the occurrence of road accidents by around 80%, according to research by Swiss Re and Here, the impact on most fleet managers should be that of less disruption and increased productivity, with many driverless fleets expected to all be linked and perfectly synced up to large networks.

Efficiency and route optimisation, not to mention a potential reduction in fuel costs, are all very real pros in terms of fleet management – although an upfront investment to adapt to the new system is also most likely predicted.

However, the work of managing large-scale fleets will still be an ongoing challenge. For instance, many fleet managers right now have the question of where to send their drivers when they’re not on a job, or are constantly trying to find ways to reduce waiting times. This will open up entirely new challenges when driverless cars are introduced.

London start-up Improbable is at the heart of developing driverless fleet software, and the company has already received “a huge set of enquiries” from companies about how they are going to manage driverless fleets, as well as how to predict the impact they’re going to have in our lives.

As for whether the role of fleet managers will remain traditional, or switch to a more technology-based standpoint, co-founder of Improbable, Robin North, says he can’t give a concrete answer, but authorities such as the likes of Transport for London are curious to find out more.

The good news is that studies have shown driverless fleets could massively cut down on congestion within cities, which most of us will welcome.

What is the current progress on driverless cars today?

By now you’re probably wondering exactly where we’re at when it comes to developing driverless car technology.

It’s safe to say that most car manufacturers are investing a lot of time and money towards introducing these vehicles of the future, but in the race to get ahead, who is coming out on top?

Well, despite some teething issues, Tesla is still determined to push on and maintain their lead, with chief executive Elon Musk telling the world that autonomous driving is a “solved problem”, and properly driverless cars set to be introduced just a couple of years away.

However, it’s true that Tesla doesn’t exactly produce cars for the mass market, so what about the rest of us? Well, the good news is that the likes of Ford have promised a fully developed self-driving car (with no steering wheel or accelerator) by 2021, whilst Volvo have been quietly testing their own line of autonomous vehicles.

Google is making waves with its own recent self-driving technology, including a recent radical redesign of the classic automobile – in fact, with no pedals involved, all you need to do is push a button. Still, the world is watching with baited breath to discover if the company will develop its own driverless cars, or merely the technology which it can then licence out to other manufacturers.

As for Apple, the company seems to be experiencing some early ‘growing pains’, with a reboot of its current strategy being introduced this month, and much in-line with the traditional Steve Jobs-esque ruthless style the company is known for, dozens of people involved in the project have already lost their jobs.

That’s not all, though: with BMW, Audi, Daimler, Toyota and Microsoft all involved in various deals towards driverless technology, it seems everyone wants a piece of the action.

Conclusion

With driverless cars seeming closer to reality than ever before – and especially with all the recent news stories – now seems like a good time to take stock and prepare for a very changed future on the roads.

In fact, despite driverless cars not even existing yet, it seems like it’s already going to be a huge market for all involved, with some very interesting choices paving the way for upcoming new designs and technologies.

What will driverless cars mean for your business? This is still very much an open question.