Some of the greatest changes in the history of fleet management have been the result of changes in governmental regulations, such as the Tax Reform Act of 1986, the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, and the National Energy Policy Act of 1992; however, there were also two other key changes that revolutionized fleet management as a result of military breakthroughs – namely the opening of GPS to civilian use and the creation of the Internet.
The first of a constellation of 24 GPS satellites was launched by the U.S. military in 1978. For the next 22 years, GPS technology was reserved solely for military applications. In May 2000, President Clinton made a more precise GPS signal available for civilian use, which triggered an explosion in commercial GPS applications and created an entirely new industry. In 2010, the U.S. started to deploy the third generation of GPS III satellite navigation technology, which, in addition to enhanced military applications, will be needed to operate intelligent highway and traffic-safety systems. In terms of future fleet management, GPS is a transformational technology that will be one of the critical cornerstones to autonomous vehicle technology.
The second military breakthrough was the creation of the prototypical predecessor of the Internet. In the early days of the Cold War, the U.S. military was concerned about a nuclear “Pearl Harbor” attack. In 1963, the Department of Defense research arm first contracted universities to develop ARPANET, the precursor to the Internet of today, which sought to disperse databases critical to the U.S. economy and military operations. In the early 1990s, the World Wide Web was created, which is an information system of interlinked hypertext documents. The advent of the World Wide Web, gave birth to a multitude of commercial Internet service providers. Fleet was an early adopter of Internet-enabled systems, which are now integral aspects of fleet management as we know it today. Similar to GPS, the Internet will be another critical cornerstone technology needed to operate autonomous vehicles.
With this as a background, let’s examine current military research on autonomous vehicles and autonomous weapon platforms. The U.S. Army believes autonomous vehicle technology for logistic units will be field ready later this year. In May 2014, the U.S. Army successfully tested a convoy of “man-optional” autonomous trucks driving 40 mph in formation. This research also extends to other military branches. For instance, advances in artificial intelligence were incorporated in the U.S. Navy X-47B unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). On July 10, 2013, the 22-ton X-47B made the first-ever autonomous landing on an aircraft carrier at sea, independent of human control. Likewise, Northrop Grumman developed the MQ-8 Fire Scout unmanned autonomous helicopter, which made its first autonomous landing aboard a ship in 2006.
My point is that, just like GPS and the Internet, there will be a cross-pollination of autonomous vehicle technology from the military and the civilian applications and vice versa. Currently, the automotive industry is already manufacturing semi-autonomous vehicles, employing adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, pedestrian avoidance, frontal collision automatic braking, and parking assist. Another motivation for OEM research in autonomous vehicles is to secure patents. OEMs are racing to develop the patents for autonomous vehicles to be used as a revenue source similar to how OEMs pay Toyota, Nissan, and Ford to use their hybrid vehicle technology.
Inhibitors to Autonomous Vehicle Adoption
While extremely difficult to do, technology will not the issue with the implementation of autonomous vehicles. Other issues, such as unresolved liability issues with autonomous vehicles, will slow implementation. Can any system be 100-percent reliable? If an accident did occur, who would be liable? One concern is that the OEM could be liable, especially as the deep-pocket party. Another question mark is whether autonomous vehicles will be vulnerable to hacking. But, the biggest inhibitor to widespread use of autonomous vehicles will be governmental regulations and societal concerns. For example, autonomous vehicles will, most likely, result in the loss of many driving-related jobs. In the future, will autonomous vehicles make bus drivers, cab drivers, and truck drivers obsolete? If there are fewer speeding tickets and parking citations, will this impact municipal revenues? Will this result in a reduction in employment of traffic police officers? Will unions exert pressure on legislators to protect these jobs? Likewise, other industries may be financially affected. For instance, the insurance industry and parts suppliers have already voiced concern that fewer accidents resulting from widespread use of autonomous vehicles will impact future revenues. From an OEM perspective, will autonomous vehicles negate the value of vehicle ownership? Will it become more popular among consumers and fleets to pay for usage versus vehicle ownership?
In addition, there is no guarantee that the U.S. will be the global leader in the adoption of autonomous vehicles. According to a recent survey, the countries with drivers most willing to trust autonomous technology are Brazil, India, and China. While currently in the vanguard of research, the U.S. market may not lead the autonomous vehicle revolution in terms of implementation.
Let me know what you think.