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Prime Mover Magazine

Robots at the wheel? Don’t hold your breath

Like many Prime Mover readers, I grew up watching David Hasselhoff in Knight Rider.

Week after week, I loved that ‘the Hoff’ could outwit the criminals in tidy storylines that had the baddies locked away at the end of the episode.

But what I liked best was KITT, his sophisticated, intelligent driverless vehicle.

Not a day went by that I didn’t imagine how good life would be if I had my own KITT car on call.

A few years ago in Adelaide, I was lucky enough to be involved in the first test of driverless vehicles in the Southern Hemisphere.

The assembled delegates, all big names and powerhouses in the insurance and motoring industries, keenly watched as the drivers switched the vehicles into driverless mode and executed a range of commands like overtaking, changing lanes, emergency braking and using on- and off-ramps.

Since then, the excitement about driverless vehicles has continued to escalate.

It’s not just their potential to create financial savings across the sector that has manufacturers and industry players so interested – providing efficiencies is one thing, but also their ability to protect human safety is paramount.

You can understand why, when you consider that around 98 per cent of vehicle incidents are caused by human error1.

The idea of driverless vehicles also keys directly in to the popular culture we grew up with – where KITT and other futuristic robots operate with minimal human intervention.

This makes a driverless future seem almost inevitable.

But it’s my view that this just isn’t going to happen.

Or at least, not any time soon. Because the technology behind driverless vehicles can’t necessarily compete with a real, live human driver.

It can’t offer a 100 per cent solution. Not every road environment will suit driverless vehicle sensors.

To date, in every trial of driverless cars around the world, drivers are considered essential to take control of the vehicle if required.

And while the tests I saw in Adelaide went smoothly, others have not.

That’s not to say that technology won’t play a significant role in our industry.

Already, there are some wonderful systems out there that help with operational procedures and mandatory requirements that can also be used to improve a driver’s overall performance.

These systems can gather data around risk-related behaviours like acceleration, harsh braking, sharp cornering and speeding.

This data can then be used to support better driving, and to lower vehicle maintenance costs. One other technology, developed by a company called Seeing Machines, can map a driver’s eye movements and identify instances of fatigue or distraction – significantly reducing the potential for a crash, and the many downstream impacts of that.

These types of solutions are fast becoming an essential part of a holistic risk-management approach for transport operators.

Truly enlightened companies recognise and treat vehicles as an extension of the workplace and introduce policies, procedures, and awareness of employees who operate as mobile workers.

The companies develop feedback loops and train their employees to be aware of safety features and hazards in the same way traditional employers would with workers at a fixed location.

By improving driver conditions in this way, transport operators can also solve another key issue facing our industry – our ability to retain good, reliable, qualified, and experienced drivers, and to attract new drivers to the industry.

Spending money on innovation is a big ask of businesses that are already challenged by tight margins.

It’s not just the purchase of the hardware, software, and installation, but the ongoing monitoring, maintenance and optimisation of the systems that adds to the cost. However, choosing the right package with the right technical solution really needs to be viewed as an investment.

We know that every time an insurance company pays $1 of a claim, there can be as much as $3 in uninsured costs to the business.

These costs can include the effect on driver morale, absenteeism, financing vehicles while off the road, excesses, lost orders, administration and claim investigation costs.

If companies can use technology to reduce these costs, and to prevent incidents, they can operate in the best interests of all involved.

Considering the real difficulty in finding and retaining good drivers, the spend on technology is an investment in the people who literally drive the business forward.

We’ve already seen companies that have used technology well and have been able to reduce their crashes by 20 per cent or more, while at the same time, reducing their fleet running costs, such as fuel and maintenance, by 10 per cent.

They’ve used data to improve driver performance and the experience the driver has while at work. A qualified, professional driver will make the roads safer, reduce fatalities, improve the company’s profitability, deliver better service to customers and make the journey more pleasurable and refreshing too. 

For now, cost and risk reduction are the highest priorities for maximising the return on investment in technology in the transport industry.

One day we may have autonomous vehicles that decrease the need for drivers, but I believe that time is still a long way off. Operating heavy vehicles requires a high degree of skill, expertise and judgement that machines are unlikely to be able to replicate in the near future.

Even machines as impressive as Knight Rider’s KITT.

- Mervyn Rea, Zurich

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