By Darya Efimova, Iflexion
Science fiction shaped our imagination to easily envision a world where we can take a driverless taxi, ride a flying car, and use drones in place of snail mail. In reality, the changing consumer and societal needs do give a push to new technologies that get us closer to autonomous transport. However, highly connected vehicles, remote fleet control opportunities, and autonomous vehicle development unearth various challenges related to moral and legal aspects, insurance, privacy, cybersecurity, and cost, and demonstrate our overall unpreparedness in terms of business models, infrastructure, and user mindset.
To evaluate the possibility of comprehensive transport automation in the near future, let’s review the current autonomous fleet management trends and consider their advantages and limitations.
Fleet telematics devices use sensors and GPS to let fleet owners and managers look holistically at their fleet health, performance, and safety. Tracking devices aggregate loads of data that can be successfully used for controlling drivers, spotting technical problems, running proactive maintenance, and more. Additionally, fleet management software developers empower telematics technologies with voice and machine learning capabilities helping drivers and fleet managers alike to receive real-time updates, run diagnostics, and make smarter decisions.
Cost is a major deterrent factor when it comes to equipping a fleet with advanced telematics. On top of purchasing and maintaining vehicles, fleet owners should install sensors, purchase, or develop fleet management software, take care of upgrades and successful adoption. Many companies can’t afford it and continue operating traditionally.
As telematics-equipped fleets collect and store loads of data, fleet management companies need to take care of data security, too. Security flaws can lead to third parties tracking vehicles for malicious purposes or even cause accidents by meddling with onboard electronics. It means that fleet managers need to get new skills for creating and enabling data security strategies, including access permission levels, data encryption, internal security guidelines, etc.
More and more manufacturers produce electric and hybrid vehicles, for commercial transportation included. As the charging cost is gradually falling and battery capacity is growing, electric vehicles are getting cheaper and more efficient.
Even though governments introduce bans on new fossil fuel car sales and tighten air quality standards, the infrastructure doesn’t seem to become more friendly to electric cars. With the current limited number of charging stations and their chaotic distribution, electric vehicles can’t be treated as fully reliable, which hampers their adoption.
With the number of electric vehicles growing anyway, traditional gas stations will have to think about how to repurpose their forecourts and facilities for electric vehicles and their owners.
At the same time, despite the wide electrification of buses and light commercial vehicles, electric heavy-weight trucks, particularly long-haul ones, are still slow to embrace electrification. To make it a reality, there’s the need for battery chemistry and capacity advancements, the development of battery mega-chargers, and wider charging networks.
Teleoperation serves as a bridge between driver-operated transport and fully autonomous vehicles. A teleoperator drives the vehicle remotely or provides instructions and scenarios that vehicles translate into specific actions. This way, teleoperators can control multiple vehicles and ‘train’ them to be fully autonomous even when encountering unknown situations.
Remote driving poses many safety issues, like dealing with vehicle blind spots, trusting life-and-death situations to network conditions, and battling with cognitive issues hampering the feeling of a constant presence in an operated vehicle.
For this reason, a safer option is to draw paths for vehicles to execute considering the current road situation. In this case, teleoperators take over the vehicle in case of unexpected situations, like accidents, extreme weather conditions, or unplanned roadworks. All of these require advanced machine learning capabilities.
Safe teleoperation needs a stable and low-latency mobile network with uniform coverage. 5G networks seem to be a great solution as they are so much faster than 4G, offer lower latency, and can simultaneously connect a much larger number of devices per given area. Though the transition to it is unavoidable, today 5G doesn’t seem an affordable option for mass implementation as it requires cross-state rollout to become a working solution for reliable teleoperation.
The idea of autonomous fleet vehicles has been in the air for quite some time, promising long-term cost savings, safer roads, and improved asset utilization. It’s going to be an ideal solution for various carrier businesses and a blessing for long-haul deliveries.
Leading truck manufacturers already have models and prototypes of autonomous trucks but it’s still early to let them into the wild. Luckily, autonomous loading, unloading, and goods movement within the facilities are already available in modern warehouses. Drones and delivery robots also promise to become a thing for last-mile deliveries soon, with the technology being accelerated by the current events when it’s important to observe social distancing.
Fully autonomous driving has so many nuances it’s hard to predict when it becomes a reality. Obvious concerns about the safety of passengers, pedestrians, other vehicles, and property that can be damaged also touch upon insurance — who’s liable in case of an accident: a vehicle owner, a manufacturer, or a software developer? Can cybersecurity risks be insured as well? Obviously, autonomous vehicle insurance should be completely reinvented, and a new legal framework for autonomous driving should appear.
Autonomous driving is also going to disrupt the logistics business and invite several new players to it. As a result, drivers can lose their jobs unless they master teleoperation, telematics maintenance, or other related skills. Logistics and maintenance companies can suddenly understand that IT service providers can displace their competencies with automation, and carrier businesses can be replaced by capacity-as-a-service companies.
Infrastructure is one more challenge for going fully autonomous. Besides an obvious need for 5G for data transfer, software updates, on-the-go maintenance, etc., there should be huge road infrastructure restructuring and upgrading based on new standards and regulations. For instance, one of the most viable options for autonomous fleets soon is platooning of autonomous trucks, which requires long open interstate roads or dedicated roads or streets within a city.
Mobility-as-a-Service, or MaaS, is a natural reaction to the situation where vehicle ownership is becoming less attractive for modern consumers. They’d rather make use of a mobility service than taking the burden of car ownership entailing insurance, maintenance, and parking.
For this reason, we now have Uber-like taxi services and various sharing options, be it bicycles, scooters, cars, and even trucks. It’s similar to other aspects of our life — we subscribe to music and movie streaming platforms, and we want to subscribe to a transport usage shaped around our needs.
MaaS can have a negative impact on urban public transport usage and disrupt many businesses up to the point of pushing them out of the market, so it will inevitably lead to a clash of interests.
Traditional taxi drivers protested against Uber in many countries, and now we see that thousands of apps serving as Uber for trucks appear, making it possible to match loads with vehicles, compare quotes, and select a reliable option without any intermediaries. Will MaaS take up the market share of carriers and logistics companies? Or will it make them switch from owning fleets to having virtual ones by leasing it on demand?
Other players who can address the new demand much faster will surely claim their share as well, such as car rental services, energy companies, and tech giants like Google and Amazon. Other businesses, like banks, payment service providers, insurers, and investors won’t think twice before jumping on the bandwagon.
Preparing For An Autonomous Future
We see that fully autonomous fleet management is a thing of the future and it requires lots of courage and investments to even start walking in this direction. However, as it frequently happens, pioneers are more likely to benefit from the winner-takes-all environment and influence the industry development.
Moreover, it’s not imperative to own a fleet anymore with the new MaaS model. For the time being, even if you’re not ready to invest in autonomous fleet development or restructuring your business, you still need to decide whether you’re going to participate in the new ecosystem and, if yes, adjust your business model.
About The Author
Darya Efimova is a Digital Transformation Observer at Iflexion.