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Since its introduction 15 years ago, telematics has largely been regarded as a tool for recording where vehicles are and how long their journeys have taken. But as its technology becomes more sophisticated and fears of intrusive spying on drivers recede, telematics is now a vital part of fleet management.

“All our intelligence suggests that monitoring by telematics is increasingly accepted . . . as a fact of life and the benefits more fully understood,” says Ralph Morton, editorial director of Business Car Manager.

Such benefits include the ability to analyse how routes and even the timing of journeys can be modified to save time and money.

“Vehicles also generate data on how they are being driven — perhaps too much acceleration or speeding, for example — allowing companies to take intelligent decisions about driver training and to the benefit of fuel consumption and accident reduction,” says Mr Morton.

“Reasons for breakdown and likely component failure rates can also be identified. Evermore importantly, it also allows fleets to demonstrate to insurers the levels of safety they have achieved, with the potential for reduced premiums.”

It is not just delivery drivers who can be affected by telematics. Using the technology to monitor the driving habits of senior managers and board members with luxury company cars is potentially much more problematic than in the case of essential car users such as junior sales or delivery staff. It takes a brave fleet manager to confront the chief executive as a lead-footed petrolhead.

The take-up of telematics is still patchy among smaller companies. But there is a growing consensus among industry executives that, in five to seven years’ time, the technology will be an integral part of all vehicle fleets as costs fall when manufacturers achieve economies of scale.

Precise benefits can be calculated, according to Stuart Wiseman, group fleet manager at Andrew Page, which has a 900-vehicle fleet that distributes tools, parts and equipment in the UK. The introduction of telematics in Andrew Page’s fleet led to a 97 per cent reduction in speeding, around 7 per cent better fuel economy, a 47 per cent reduction in crashes and other incidents and reduced maintenance costs. The company’s independent telematics provider, Masternaut Connect, helps investigate accidents and their causes, says Mr Wiseman.

Commercial fleet operators report that the development of single data and control centres which can integrate the operations of individual depots is helping improve business efficiency.

Among them is Stobart Group, one of the UK’s largest hauliers and logistics companies with a fleet of 2,500 trucks. Every driver logs details of each delivery in real time, telling “mission control” exactly where he is and what he has done, This allows Stobart managers to instantly rearrange vehicle movements to pick up unexpected loads or compensate for accident or breakdown. Far fewer truck journeys are now made empty, which would not have been possible before telematics because of the lack of data.

97%

Reduction in speeding attributable to telematics

Fears about “Big Brother” — that fleet managers would spy on drivers — have not been entirely assuaged, says James Hookham, deputy chief executive of the Freight Transport Association, which has 14,000 member companies.

“[It] is not so much about drivers resenting being monitored so minutely but about the loss of independence and their perceived glamour of the driving ‘profession’,” says Mr Hookham. “It’s obviously made drivers a lot more visible, and not every driver has felt that that was where they wanted to be.”

However, a 2015 survey by LeasePlan, one of Europe’s biggest vehicle leasing groups, concluded that resistance to telematics is diminishing even among drivers of company cars and commercial vehicles yet to be faced with monitoring. It said 50 per cent would feel comfortable with telematics monitoring.

The future of telematics and related technologies, and their ability to transform driver safety, remains the subject of much debate. Hakan Samuelsson, Volvo Cars’ president and chief executive, left even veteran industry observers bemused in setting out his 2020 “vision”: that by the end of this decade “no one should be killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo”.

He was speaking more than a year ago, as assembled media and industry watchers saw a new Volvo sport utility vehicle shoot out of a Gothenburg research centre building at 50mph, slip off the road into a three-foot ditch, hit a culvert head on, bounce 10 feet in the air and crash into banking. Telemetry data from the dummy occupants showed a human family would have sustained at worst only minor injuries.

The Gothenburg crash demonstrated a level of structural safety when involved in a crash. But more profound, preventative safety features are already being built into its cars. Among them are pedestrian and animal detection in darkness as well as road edge and barrier detection. Other developments include “intelligent” cruise control and steering that automatically react to vehicles in front, alongside and behind; automated “follow the leader” driving mode; and emergency braking along main town and city roads. These all derive from the capacity and technology of telematics.

Continuous communication with nearby vehicles is already achievable through telematics, and so Mr Samuelsson’s vision of death-free driving is starting to resemble reality. As Marcus Rothoff, director of Volvo’s autonomous driving programme, says: “We absolutely know this is the future and we want to get there first.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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