Artifical Intelligence (AI) could transform every industry it touches. But what sort of influence is it going to have on the fleet industry, and the wider world of connected vehicles?

When most people think of AI and motoring, they’re quick to think of driverless cars. Though Tesla and Uber have made significant progress on this front, Google is the leader when it comes to self-driving car technology. The Waymo project began in 2009, and it’s now being described as a mission to build “the world’s most experienced driver.”

Their driverless cars are driving more than 25,000 autonomous miles every day, largely on complex city streets filled with sudden challenges and very real risks. And throughout 2017, Google simulated some 2.7 billion miles of autonomous driving. Throughout all this, the Waymo AI is always alert, never distracted, and always learning.

It’s easy to imagine the effect this will have on fleets. It’s predicted that driverless cars will be more fuel efficient, as they’re less likely to indulge in fuel-guzzling activities like repeated stops and starts. And as most accidents are caused by driver distraction, driverless cars could lead to fewer accidents overall.

But there are downsides to driverless cars. For safety reasons, some insist that autonomous vehicles will still need a person behind the wheel. Nonetheless, people are naturally worried that driverless fleets would inevitably result in huge job losses across the industry.

There’s also the fear that self-driving vehicles might be vulnerable to hacking, as well as some very real concerns about the limitations of the technology. This general distrust of autonomous vehicles, combined with the high cost of implementation, may mean that the driverless revolution will leave many behind.

Smart Connected Vehicles

Connected vehicles are a good middle ground between the driver-operated fleets of today and the theoretical autonomous fleets of tomorrow. There’s already a huge number of features that offer smart driver assistance without taking control of the wheel completely, and these features are only going to get more advanced.

Most drivers have heard of automatic braking, collision avoidance systems and intelligence cruise control. All of these features are powered, on some level, by AI.

In more advanced systems, fleets of connected vehicles can communicate with each other to improve safety and efficiency for the fleet as a whole. There’s the concept of “platooning”, where a fleet of connected vehicles calculate and maintain their optimum distances and speeds. This can apparently boost fuel efficiency by up to 20%.

It’s also easy to imagine the vanguards of the fleet detecting things like potholes, roadworks and traffic jams far in advance, and automatically communicating the information to the rest of the fleet to allow for rapid route replanning.

Cloud Connectivity

In 2016, General Motors partnered with IBM’s Watson supercomputer to create “an industry-first cognitive mobility platform.” The aim is to put the vehicle in service to the driver, and the result is a series of innovations that could make life considerably easier for fleet drivers.

Cloud-based AI platforms can locate nearby petrol stations and allow drivers to pay for fuel without ever leaving the vehicle. They can learn a driver’s eating and shopping habits and recommend appropriate nearby shops and restaurants. And if there are any toll charges on the driver’s route, an intelligent cloud-connected car can make payments automatically, allowing the driver to proceed uninterrupted and with total peace of mind.

If this cloud connectivity is combined with Internet of Things (IoT) technology, the possibilities for fleets become endless. Connected vehicles could automatically send performance data directly to dealers or manufacturers. IoT technology could then be used to report problems and schedule repairs. In fact, through this sort of connectivity, dealers might be able to diagnose and even correct certain performance issues without the need for any shop visits.

Finally, cloud connectivity combined with fleet software will transform fleet management completely. Managers will automatically receive accurate reports of fuel usage, refuelling costs, mileage, and even things like driver alertness and unsafe driving habits. All of this could effectively remove the guesswork from fleet management, enabling managers to make key decisions to boost the safety and efficiency of their fleets.

Predicting the Future

Speaking at the 2017 big data ACFO seminar, Lex Autolease’s Craig McNaughton illustrated both the opportunities and the challenges that big data, AI and connectivity pose.

“There are real contractual challenges to overcome due to the difference between retail customers and fleet owners,” he said. “The connected car will be a huge part of the data lake and the volume of information ever-increasing.”

“Connected car data will fundamentally change our industry. We have a long way to go, but we must change from a rear-view mirror perspective to using data to predict the future.”