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Fleet analysis

By / 6 years ago / Features / No Comments

Is the “driver-less car” a realistic prospect?

Not only is the driverless car a realistic prospect – it’s becoming a reality, and not only in prototype form. Buy or lease a car with a self-parking feature and you’ve already got a car which drives itself.

Volvo’s City Safety system, which automatically brakes the car at low speeds to avoid collisions, is another self-drive feature. In a more basic form, cruise control (first offered in 1958) and the more sophisticated adaptive cruise control is another form of autonomy for cars.

So the question is not really “if” but “when”. And the “when” is dependent on how quickly the legal issues can be resolved, and of course how quickly the public will accept the technology. The former is a question for the lawyers, but as automotive professionals we can perhaps be a little too close to the industry and its products, forgetting that not everyone is as enthusiastic about driving as some of us are. Put bluntly, for some people driving is a chore, and one they would happily be freed from.

Let’s look at a sector which has grown rapidly over the past decade: internet shopping. E-commerce is the fastest growing sector of retail in Europe. In the UK alone it is forecast to be worth £45 billion, a growth rate of 15.8%. Online sales could account for as much as 13.5% of the retail market this year. Naturally as with all new technologies consumers were resistant. Is it secure? How can I be sure I’ll get what I want? I’d prefer to see what I’m buying “in the flesh” before I buy. But as trust has grown so has the sector, and it will continue to grow.

How does this relate to autonomous vehicles? Well I think autonomous vehicles will have the same effect on transport that the internet has and is having on our relationship with shopping (and information, entertainment and other areas of our lives). Autonomous vehicles have the potential to be a transformative technology in a way nothing the industry has seen before has.

Fundamentally, the cars we drive today are not that much different from the “Patent-Motorwagen” which Frau Benz and her sons took for that first drive in August 1888. We’ve refined and improved the basic template, improving safety, comfort, and fuel efficiency and adding new technologies to make our cars a nice place to spend time, but fundamentally we remain in charge of the machine.

The autonomous vehicle has come about as a number of connected technologies have come into common use, matured and developed. Sat nav is now widely used and accepted by drivers – we’re happy to accept the directions given to us by a box on the dashboard. Cruise control is widely available and a popular feature on many models. Safety technology like lane departure monitors, automatic low-speed braking and traffic sign recognition is increasingly common, as are convenience features like self-parking and night vision. Put these together and you have the basis for the autonomous vehicle. Remove the legal requirement for the driver to be in full control of the vehicle at all times and the autonomous vehicle becomes a reality.

The really interesting subject is how the autonomous vehicle will change the shape of the world of driving. An autonomous vehicle can’t exceed the speed limit, or wait in a box junction, or run a red light, or even park illegally.

So the millions in revenue made by local and national governments in the form of traffic fines would dry up. An autonomous vehicle can have an “efficiency” programme, using the least fuel for the journey, avoiding hold-ups and congestion, and thus increasing fuel efficiency – great for meeting our CO2 targets, but again reducing revenues from fuel duty. If you bought a 100% autonomous vehicle with no “manual” mode, why would you need insurance – if the car was involved in an accident it couldn’t be your fault. And you’d never need driving lessons.

Fleets could be at the forefront of this. Combine safety with efficiency, cost of ownership and duty of care to the employee and fleet managers could well be the pioneers in the introduction of autonomous vehicles. And whilst the focus is primarily on passenger cars, the technology is equally applicable to commercial vehicles, and indeed they could be the better arena to test the acceptance of the technology.

So where would this leave the current generation of cars? Once a technology becomes widely adopted it usually spells the end of its predecessor. However the car as we’re used to it is so ingrained in our society it’s unlikely that we’ve seen the last of the steering wheel. There will likely be an era of part-autonomous, part-driven cars, with more and more technology being integrated. So fleets will have to judge what their customers want, and fleet managers will want to balance cost, technology and driver-acceptance to ensure a smooth integration of these vehicles into their fleets.

 

Should motor manufacturers be doing more to incorporate technology for the “app” generation in order to improve the resale value of their cars?

Given the profitability of tech companies, it’s not surprising that car makers are in awe of their success. In August the buzz surrounding the launch of the iPhone 6 drove Apple’s share price to record highs – when was the last time that happened to a car manufacturer? But it’s a mistake to think that mimicking companies like Apple will see some of their magic rub off on them. And automakers are always looking to build credibility with the next generation of drivers and buyers.

There are four issues to take into account on this. Firstly, many apps are best classed as entertainment – if it’s not acceptable to play them on your smartphone when driving, you probably shouldn’t be playing them on the screen of your centre console! Secondly, those apps which are functional, like sat nav systems or DAB radio, are also potential sources of revenue for car makers, so do they really want to lose a source of revenue by facilitating a cheaper alternative?

Thirdly there’s the issue of security – cars are so reliant on electronics, that protecting cars from viruses is a major concern for car makers, and this could be a weak point in the system. Fourthly there’s the matter of obsolescence – cars have a 5-7 year cycle, whereas some people change their smartphones annually or every couple of years and apps come and go in popularity, so integrating this technology is likely to have little if any impact on residual values after three years. It’s probably a better strategy to ensure that consumers can make as much or as little use of apps to ensure your products are as attractive as possible.

 

How will the proposed charge for pre Euro 6 diesels in London impact the diesel market, considering most diesels having been fitted with particulate filters for around eight years?

There’s a wider issue here – and that’s the response to diesel. There is already concern that the UK Government has “betrayed” consumers by encouraging them towards diesel but now penalising them. There’s been a massive shift towards diesel in the past decade, with share of new registrations rising from 14% to 50% – close to the West European average – between 2000 and 2013.

The proposed charge on pre-Euro 6 diesels in London alone is unlikely to have much effect on RVs – the number of vehicles affected is simply too small. However, if this spreads to other city centres, then we could see a negative impact on RVs. Since 2006 German cities have introduced “green zones” where only cars bearing a green sticker are admitted – no sticker and you can expect a €40 fine. There were only three cities with green zones in 2008 (Berlin, Cologne and Hannover), but the system has since been adopted by over 80 cities and towns.

Will this affect demand for diesels, new and used? In Germany there doesn’t seem to have been much of an impact on diesel penetration, probably because the cost is low. And that’s the key – as long as the charge for London (or any other city) is low enough to be discounted by the driver, it’s unlikely to impact new and used buyers and thus RVs.

 

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Natalie Middleton

Natalie has worked as a fleet journalist for 16 years, previously as assistant editor on the former Company Car magazine before joining Fleet World in 2006. Prior to this, she worked on a range of B2B titles, including Insurance Age and Insurance Day. As Business Editor, Natalie ensures the group websites and newsletters are updated with the latest news.