Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Fleet managers might prefer driverless vehicles

Google Car could be seen as a step towards higher assurance and efficiency

In the few months since Google’s plans for a driverless car emerged, the public reaction has gone from a disbelieving chuckle to taking it seriously. Not that anyone expects to see thousands of them on the road in the next few months, even the next few years, but there is a serious debate around its capabilities and possible uses.

It has even prompted speculation that self-driving vehicles would have implications for insurers. A recent article in Insurance Journal pointed out that if a computer rather than a driver controls a car then any crashes would lead to claims against the product supplier rather than the driver. There may not even be a need for personal motor insurance.

If so, this could affect the thinking of companies that run or hire out vehicle fleets. One of the major elements of their planning is the risk management around careless driving, and they can never be 100% sure of the reliability and state of mind of any of their drivers. But, given a few years, self-driving technology could develop to the point where it would provide a higher level of assurance. Also, fleet operators could feel a lot better knowing they could claim from a multi-national manufacturer in the event of an accident.

This would be a logical progression from the development of mobile apps to support fleet operators. There are now plenty on the market that enable them to assist and monitor drivers, and link to back office logistics systems. They support control and integration, and there’s a case for removing the driver to reduce the uncertainties and streamline the process.

Of course there are some massive cultural barriers to overcome. A lot of people, fleet owners among them, are going to feel uneasy at the thought of trusting an array of sensors and internal processors to drive a vehicle. Existing drivers will not be happy. Even if they remain at the wheel to operate an emergency stop, they will see a future in which their role is downgraded and lower paid. And the larger the vehicle, the more it will spark public anxieties and the more resistance there will be.

But removing that risk of human error, of which we’re all too aware, will still provide a lure fleet operators to make a switch. Those running smaller vehicles, such as delivery vans, car hire and taxi services, could find self-driving cars especially attractive. Give it a few years and the driverless car could be a significant element of plenty of business operations.

Mark Say is a UK based writer who covers the role of information management and technology in business. See www.marksay.co.uk

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