Forward thinking on telematics and autonomous vehicles

How will the seemingly unstoppable drive towards electrically-powered and “autonomous” vehicles directly affect my job and my business? More immediately, what likely developments should I be watching out for most when business planning for the year ahead?

Questions like these surely are not far from the thoughts of most truck fleet managers and transport engineers. The hundreds who attended a recent one-day conference at the Silverstone race-track in Northamptonshire came away with well-informed answers aplenty and were left in no doubt that telematics systems are going to play an increasingly crucial role in this sector, regardless of how vehicles are powered.

The event, called “Driving Excellence”, was organised by Isotrak, one of the UK’s leading suppliers of commercial vehicle telematics systems and now with a fresh spring in its step following the acquisition last June, for an undisclosed sum, of Verilocation, a highly-regarded, Northampton-based fleet management technology specialist firm with around 26 employees. The logic behind this deal was spelled out at the time by Dan Adler, a partner in the Lyceum Capital private equity firm which has owned Isotrak for the past four years.

“We acquired Isotrak in 2013 with a vision to build the vehicle tracking and fleet management software group of choice for transport operators, providing business-critical information and service,” he said.

“The add-on acquisition of Verilocation allows both companies to expand the functionality of their offerings, bringing the best of each business to help drive customers’ success. Combined with the investment in its own product and operations in recent years, the enlarged Isotrak group is set to lead innovation, functionality and customer focus in the dynamic telematics space.”

Speakers at the Silverstone conference included Jim Sumner, Isotrak executive chairman since last February; Andrew Overton, Verilocation chief executive and now Isotrak group technology director; Ricky McFarland, head of strategic accounts at Mercedes-Benz Vans UK; and Richard Brewer, technical services executive at RTITB (formerly the Road Transport Industry Training Board) and manager of the UK’s national register of large goods vehicle driving instructors. Messrs Sumner, Overton and McFarland were joined on a BBC Question Time-style panel, responding to impromptu delegate questions, by Gordon MacDonald, head of enforcement policy at the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA); Ed Cowell, chief executive of the huge Fraikin commercial vehicle rental, contract hire and fleet management operation in the UK; and Commercial Vehicle Engineer managing editor Tim Blakemore.

Andrew Overton, Isotrak group technology director
Andrew Overton, Isotrak group technology director

One questioner wondered where the return on investment for telematics businesses like Isotrak was going to come from when internal combustion engines are ditched in favour of electric motors. Good question. Andrew Overton was happy to tackle it head-on. “We’re all involved in logistics,” he said. “Most of our customers move things from A to B. Whatever the vehicle’s power source, we’re still going to need to do that as efficiently as possible.”

As a Verilocation co-founder, Overton recalled how back in 1999 the company’s first big contract was supplying digital maps to Domino’s Pizza. “Then a small company came along which disrupted online mapping,” he said, tongue firmly in cheek. “It’s called Google. They gave away maps for free. My customers decided I was too expensive. So we started tracking mobile phones. Then we went to GPS (global positioning system satellite tracking). The rest is history.

“Everyone in this room has to think constantly about what they do. Don’t think about the past. Re-invent yourselves. Think about the future. Electric vehicles will bring new opportunities for us.”

The question of autonomous vehicles

A question about what fleet operators should expect as a “realistic timeline” for the introduction of autonomous trucks exposed a wide range of views among the panellists. CV Engineer’s Blakemore opined that there is no single answer to this question, and that it will vary hugely from one transport sector to another.

“There are fully autonomous trucks in operation right now, in mining and construction for example,” he said. “And platoons of digitally-connected artics have started working already in Singapore, of all places, transporting containers from one port to another. As for fully autonomous, driverless trucks as a common sight on the roads of the UK and continental Europe, I don’t believe they will be here in our lifetimes.”

Jim Sumner, Isotrak executive chairman
Jim Sumner, Isotrak executive chairman

Jim Sumner disagrees. “I think we might all be surprised,” he told the conference. “I suspect that it won’t be in Europe or North America. My strong hunch is that the Chinese will lead the way on this and that they will drag us all along with them.”

Ricky McFarland offered the most precise forecast of all, but emphasised that this is his personal view rather than that of Mercedes-Benz Vans or its Daimler parent group. “I think that we’ll see the first autonomous vehicles on our roads by 2027,” he said. “The 5G (cellular telephone) network is due to be rolled out around 2025. That will be an enabler for autonomous vehicles two years later.”

Andrew Overton agreed about the significance of 5G but expressed the view that psychology rather than technology is what really lies at the heart of this question. “As much as 99% of a typical scheduled aircraft flight is already controlled autonomously,” he suggested. “It could probably be the entire flight, including take-off and landing. Pilots are there in essence for monitoring purposes. But would you want to get on an aircraft without one? Psychology dictates that we want someone at the front of the aircraft in case something goes wrong.”

Jim Sumner turned to Gordon MacDonald, wondering whether the advent of autonomous vehicles could make the DVSA redundant. “Hard to say,” came back MacDonald. “But eliminating human error has to be a good thing. Making roads safer is what the DVSA is all about.”

Fraikin’s Ed Cowell was keen to put in a good word for drivers. “I think we’re always going to need drivers,” he said. “But I wouldn’t want to be one. What would make you want to become a driver today? There is a real challenge facing this industry. How do we rebrand the occupation of commercial vehicle driving? How do we attract a younger demographic?”

Brexit concerns and the DVSA’s new recognition scheme

The two topics on which there was greatest consensus among the panellists turned out, surprisingly perhaps, to be Brexit and the DVSA’s new “earned recognition” scheme, due to be fully up and running early in 2018. Everyone was worried about the implications of the former for business and the UK economy, and strongly supportive of the objectives of the latter.

One delegate wanted to know what the panellists thought would have the greatest impact on road transport businesses over the next 12 months.

“I think it will be Brexit,” said Sumner. “I really don’t think we fully appreciate what a disruptive effect this might have on this sector, whether that is in driver recruitment (already a challenge), or moving goods in and out of ports, or in currency exchange rates. Trying to make two- or three-year business plans in the transport industry right now is one heck of a challenge.”

Some honesty and clarity from politicians on this and other subjects would be helpful, suggested Blakemore, but readily accepted that this was hardly more than “wishful thinking.”

Ricky McFarland of Mercedes-Benz Vans expressed surprise at the “resilience” of the UK commercial vehicle so far in the face of Brexit. “We haven’t seen a downturn yet,” he said. ” I hope we don’t. But a hard Brexit would hit all of our industry pretty hard. Maybe in the long term we’d be better off. Who knows? But in the short term, there are real challenges. Will we still be able to bring our trucks and vans into the country as easily as we do today? Probably not.”

The DVSA’s Gordon MacDonald was less equivocal on this topic than might have been expected. “Brexit will certainly have an effect on our work,” he said. “For example, on what we do about allowing foreign vehicles into the UK.” But naturally enough, the DVSA’s earned recognition scheme takes precedence over everything else, including Brexit, on MacDonald’s 2018 agenda.

“The immediate priority for us is the advent of earned recognition and how much these guys (telematics companies like Isotrak) can play a part in encouraging adoption of the scheme and facilitating it as much as possible,” he said. “We hope to launch the scheme early in 2018. We hope that once that ball starts to roll others will start to see the importance of it and the result will be better compliance and ultimately a safer industry.”

The DVSA man must have been encouraged by the strong support he got from fellow panellists. “I’m always surprised at how few people know about the earned recognition scheme,” said Fraikin’s Ed Cowell. “We’re certainly signed up for it. I think it’s a great thing for safety.”

Isotrak’s Andrew Overton was similarly supportive and left MacDonald in doubt that he is pushing at an open door with this telematics firm for one. “I’ll make a commitment on earned recognition,” he told the conference. “I’ll make sure it’s fully integrated into what we do in workshop management with our system.”

Overton was also at pains to reassure operators already using either Isotrak or Verilocation systems that the merger of the two would not lead to any service disruption. “The two teams are being knitted together slowly,” he said. “The great news is that we have exactly the same database platforms. We are going to take the best of both sets of systems and make sure that nobody loses out.”

Driving Excellence Panel
Driving Excellence panel: (L-R) Jim Sumner, Ricky McFarland, Gordon MacDonald, Tim Blakemore, Ed Cowell, Andrew Overton
Tim Blakemore
Tim Blakemore
Tim Blakemore is an award-winning automotive journalist and the former editor of our sister title, Commercial Vehicle Engineer magazine. He is also the UK representative on the panel of judges for the biennial, pan-European Trailer Innovation Award scheme.

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