The Mercedes-Benz F 015 Luxury in Motion research car and its immersive user experience is an innovative perspective into the future of mobility.
The Mercedes-Benz F 015 Luxury in Motion research car and its immersive user experience is an innovative perspective into the future of mobility.
( Source: Daimler)

Autonomous Vehicle The possibilities and challenges of autonomous fleets

| Author / Editor: Jason Unrau / Erika Granath

New transportation solutions come with opportunities such as more effective travel, lower costs, and improved passenger safety. But along with these benefits come a set of new challenges. This article looks at what the future of autonomous fleets may hold in various industries.

Small-scale testing of driverless cars is underway. Vehicles are on the road today with the technology to go completely autonomous, yet without the 'permission' to do so. Fleets of autonomous vehicles could soon dominate the roadways to provide faster, less expensive, and potentially safer transportation solutions.

If you need to refresh your memory on autonomous driving, have a look at our recent article explaining the five levels of autonomous driving.

Are driverless cars the future or doomed to fail?

Driverless cars are the coming; of that fact, there is no doubt. The question is, instead, whether or not autonomous transportation will ever become mainstream. And if so, when that will happen.

In perfect conditions, it isn't difficult to imagine a self-driving vehicle zooming past on the interstate. But in situations and places where the driving-conditions are unfavorable, an increase in autonomous vehicle (AV) numbers on the road is questioned by many.

Below, we've listed six areas of autonomous fleets with both dream-like possibilities and very real challenges. We're discussing what the future may hold for autonomous fleets. But if there's one thing that's for sure, it's that no one knows precisely how autonomous fleets will look and function in the future.

6 areas of autonomous fleets: possibilities and hurdles to overcome

Freight Transport

For transporting goods coast to coast, driverless transport trucks are a highly attractive solution. Mercedes-Benz, Daimler, American Freightliner, and Tesla have prototypes for autonomous trucks but have yet to permeate fleets.

Is it coming? Yes, it certainly is. Walmart has developed a $1 trillion-dollar strategy for driverless trucks to deliver to their stores. Other fleets like Loblaw Foods in Canada have invested in similar programs.

The challenges in delivering goods with autonomous trucks are a lot of unknowns. How will this truck traffic affect traffic congestion on streets with driven vehicles? And will the adoption of freight transport in AV trucks economically devastate the people who currently drive transport trucks as a career, or supplement their work? The social impact will be delicate.

Ridesharing

Congested traffic and limited parking in urban centers are massive reasons that ride-sharing and public transportation has grabbed a foothold. Shared rides like UberPool reduce the impact on roads by condensing the number of passenger vehicles, albeit a slight impact currently.

With autonomous vehicle fleets in ride-sharing and public transportation, traffic congestion can be further reduced with larger vehicles making more intelligent route choices and decisions via the Internet of Things (IoT).

For many car owners, the idea of not owning a car and relying on public or shared transportation options isn't a consideration at all. Traditional drivers struggle to make the shift to ride-sharing, even as a supplement.

Fleet Maintenance

Operating a fleet of self-driving vehicles will require maintenance and repairs of said vehicles. The specialized field is mostly conceptual, with virtually no workforce in place to draw from. A sudden influx of AVs to a fleet could create a service disruption as vehicles are backlogged for servicing, despite the ability for vehicles to self-diagnose issues to some extent.

In fleet maintenance, encouraging staff to develop skills and seek training in AV systems will be key to widespread implementation for companies. It's also an opportunity for self-employment for trained workers, willing to work in the gig economy. Though the pros and cons of the so-called gig economy are heavily debated.

Costs

Of course, the financial investment in AV tech isn't coming cheap.

  • Toyota just invested $400 million in Chinese AV startup Pony.ai.
  • Walmart's plan injects $1 trillion into fleet AVs.
  • Magna has backed Lyft's AV plans with $200 million.
  • Ford Motor Company committed $4 billion to AV development back in 2018.
  • Amazon, BMW, Aptiv, Apple, General Motors, Honda, Nissan, Volkswagen, and dozens of others have committed millions or billions to AV development.

At this point, leaders in the industry include Tesla, whose vehicles often come equipped with the fully-autonomous capabilities built-in, as well as Waymo, who received a license to operate driverless taxis in California.

Safety

At the top of everyone's list of questions on driverless tech is this: "Is it safe?" Autonomous cars will need to be safer than driven vehicles, but to what degree is it safe enough? It's a philosophical question without a concrete answer.

Waymo is an industry leader in autonomous tech and strives for a rate of AV accidents as infrequent as plane crashes. The challenge is to reduce data processing times since one Waymo AV generates as much as 1GB of data for every second in operation. Delays in processing could result in vehicle 'indecision,' leading to accidents.

Vehicle Insurance

With autonomous driving, will it be necessary to license a driver, and how will insurance coverage apply? For driven cars, vehicle insurance is based on a driver's history and the vehicle category to determine rates. It could alleviate pressure on the general public to purchase comprehensive vehicle insurance, especially if AVs are safer.

But when accidents happen, who takes the blame? It could expose AV codes and software developers to potential litigation. And when there isn't a human at the wheel, or when the vehicle isn't privately owned, determining how coverage applies could be complicated.