“History shows that the fleet industry has been quick to take advantage of technology. Pressure to do so is intensifying even more. Quite simply, it holds the key to both competitivity and commercial viability.

From a technological point of view, the last month or so has been especially interesting for the fleet industry. Tesla has just announced the forthcoming launch of an electric articulated lorry with a 500 mile range (ignore for a moment how much it’s likely to cost). At the same time, the news has been buzzing with tales of driverless cars (let’s skip over the odd crash or two) and of Domino’s automated delivery vehicle (disregarding the fact some people think it looks like a mobile toilet cistern). And all the while, drones keep buzzing overhead, swarming like an army of harpies ready to take on the delivery of everything. Technology is taking over, and there are major implications for the fleet industry.

However, if this sounds like a threat, it shouldn’t. Ever since motor vehicles took over the reins from horses, fleet management and technological development have gone hand in hand. GPS provides a shining example of how technology can help make fleet operations more efficient (even if those large lorries directed into tiny side streets might disagree). The fact is, like all industries, fleet operators are looking to harness technology to get more done, more quickly, and for less cost. With this in mind, it’s worth doing a quick tour of what’s out there, and how it’s helping shape the future of the fleet industry.

Strangely, perhaps, we start not with technology, not even with the vehicle. But with the component arguably most prone to failure or meltdown. Yes, the driver. Tasked with getting to their (often multiple) destinations on time, they battle against adversity in the form of traffic. Even GPS can’t plot a quicker path through a 5-mile tailback on the M25, though the day’s surely coming when they’ll be able to predict and plan routes more pro-actively using real-time data.  The fact is, humans aren’t automatons and they don’t have technological repeatability. Each one has his or her own unique driving style – riding the clutch, changing gears at different times, forgetting to check the tyres, idling, speeding, braking or accelerating harder than they need to… and, inevitably given the sheer weight of mileage, there’s the odd and inevitable bump. Taken individually or as a whole, each of these impacts on – variously – the longevity of parts, the efficiency of fuel and the availability of the vehicle – not to mention the alertness and well-being of the driver. To each of these, there’s a cost – but interestingly, in a recent BT Fleet survey, 42% of fleet managers claim not to know the cost of a vehicle being off-road for a day. There is a cure to these ills, in the form of electronic logging devices (ELDs) which help monitor vehicle and driver performance. As a result, we can understand much more about individual driver behaviour and, more usefully, use the insight to modify their driving style. This helps improve the lot of drivers, reducing fatigue, increasing productivity and even, possibly, helping prevent the inexorable rise of insurance.

By now, we’re all familiar with the wonders of onboard diagnostics, with plug in capability to detect and fix errors. Many vehicles already monitor their own tyre pressures, but that’s nothing compared to what’s on the horizon: next generation remote diagnostics and even self-repair software, so the car can heal itself before you even knew anything was wrong. Already helping change the way fleets operate, big data and telematics continue to be at the forefront of pro-active network management, optimising vehicle performance and business profitability.

The last, and perennially topical point covers the question of fuel and rising costs – both to pockets and the environment. While fleet owners still try to squeeze every last drop of value out of the fuel pump, it’s bringing ever diminishing returns. The answer must lie elsewhere, and the race is on to find viable alternatives. With its electric artic, Tesla leads the way even if, as with all new technology, return on investment can appear prohibitive in the early stages of adoption. Elsewhere, new fuels are in various stages of development or acceptance – from LPG and vegetable oils (HVOs) through to natural and biogas, made from various forms of food waste, manure and other organic sources. Today, as many as 30% of UK Fleets claim to be using alternative fuels. This figure is set to rise to 63% over the next 5 years.

History shows that the fleet industry has been quick to take advantage of technology. Pressure to do so is intensifying even more. Quite simply, it holds the key to both competitivity and commercial viability. Those who embrace it will be more resilient and assertive in the marketplace. (Provided they also embrace technology and best practice in marketing. But that’s a story for another day). Those who don’t, might just find themselves drifting along driverless in the slow lane.

Which brings us right back to where we started this blog: with drones and driverless vehicles. Far from being a threat to fleets, these will probably be integrated into their operations, helping improve and accelerate final mile delivery while also cutting costs (thanks to fewer vehicles, fewer drivers, and a smoother and more streamlined operation).

There’s everything to play for and, at the moment, it’s all in the hands of humans to drive.

Far-reaching impact on business