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Driverless cars: will fleet drivers say goodbye to the wheel?

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Tim Bowden, head of operations at Hitachi Capital Car Solutions looks at the effect of autonomous cars on fleet drivers.

As fleets continue to consider alternative fuel models to their traditional counterparts, a new automotive revolution is emerging – driverless cars. But, how will the fleet industry react to a technology that could make their drivers largely redundant?

Recent statistics suggest opinion is mixed. According to Masternaut, 55% of young business drivers have a fear of being replaced by driverless vehicles in the future. However, another survey from Venson found that nearly two thirds (62%) of fleet drivers would welcome autonomous technology in their company cars.

While some suggest that fleets will have to wait until 2025 for autonomous vehicles, their impact could have a profound influence on the automotive industry. The SMMT estimates that they will create approximately 320,000 new jobs, yet it could also significantly affect those employed solely as a driver.

With the UK Government pouring £100 million of investment into the development of autonomous technology, and announcements of updates to the Highway Code to accommodate both driverless and traditional vehicles, it is likely that driverless cars could appear on choice lists in the not too distant future.

There is understandable scepticism surrounding driverless cars, despite numerous advantages; their ability to detect obstacles and react quicker than the driver may lead to higher speed limits and more efficient, environmentally-friendly journeys. The number of traffic collisions could be reduced thanks to advancements in existing accident-prevention solutions, while self-parking cars may allow for significant reductions in space requirements.

Although there are obvious safety benefits, autonomous cars also pose several problems. For example, the autonomous car could detect an over-hanging branch as a significant obstacle, bringing the vehicle to a complete stop instead of manoeuvring safely around it, which could potentially cause an avoidable accident.

The highly topical issue of moral responsibility must also be considered; the car will need to be programmed to ‘choose’ between two outcomes in the event of an emergency. This raises an ethical dilemma about premeditated decisions made by the car, especially if there is significant risk to human life.

To take full advantage of autonomous ‘car trains’ or ‘platooning’, laws governing tailgating may need to be relaxed, but the vehicle’s collision-prevention technology would need to recognise the difference between the car ahead and a dangerous obstacles. Other issues include the security of software and protecting it from potential hacks, while the vehicle’s ability to ‘learn as it goes’ is vital in continuing to make the correct decisions.

The vehicle’s reliance on GPS for navigation – exaggerated in areas of low reception or high interference such as cities – and roadside connectivity for receiving traffic information would need to be addressed, although the newly-formed Highways England have announced new ‘expressways’ that incorporate WiFi to send traffic information to vehicles.

Despite the automotive sector’s enthusiasm to embrace new technology and turn the car into a fully connected entity, it’s clear that driverless vehicles are for the moment, at risk of creating more problems than they solve.

While some fleet drivers think they could lose their jobs to the technology, it’s currently helping to keep them safe on the road.

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