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Are fleets ready to embrace autonomous technology?

Date: 11 May 2017   |   Author: Debbie Wood

The rate in which safety technology is improving these days is staggering. Features like lane departure warning and blind spot monitoring, although still relatively new in the big scheme of things, have become almost the norm in new cars.

Then there's advanced systems like adaptive cruise control, parking assist and automatic braking, which combine semi-autonomous technology where the car takes over from the driver under certain circumstances, performing some key roles.

However, there's still a great deal of scepticism among drivers around how some of these systems work and how much you can trust them. As a result, they can often be left under-utilised because of a lack of understanding around the benefits they bring.

Recent research from Continental Tyres revealed that 40% of drivers mistrust the concept of a self-driving car and a fifth of those surveyed stated that even the mere thought of it scares them.

But the fact of the matter is drivers need to start using the safety systems available today if they are going to be ready to embrace the cars of the future.

We caught up with Volvo to get the full lowdown on everything fleets need to know about some of the latest safety technology and why companies need to be encouraging drivers to use them, plus tested the firm's latest semi-autonomous technology for ourselves.

Autonomous emergency braking

Many carmakers today offer a variety of advanced safety kit in their cars, some as standard on higher trims, and others as part of optional safety packs. They bring a plethora of benefits, too, helping to keep drivers safe on the roads, reducing the likelihood of accidents and offering savings in insurance premiums.

According to Dominic Gill, Volvo Car UK's business sales operations manager, many don't understand the simplicity of these new systems and by including them as standard, Volvo has taken away the argument of cost for the fleet manager.

"It's always that cost versus value for fleet managers and what we've proven with our cars is that we give fleet managers an easy decision when adding to choice lists because it's built into the P11D," he tells BusinessCar. "It's about duty of care and when we talk to larger blue-chip organisations there's also corporate responsibility that needs to be considered. If you look at the Thatcham testing which has been done, insurance supports us and gives preferential ratings in terms of the technology which is on the car."

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One of the essential safety technologies that needs to be considered is automatic emergency braking (AEB), and the savings speak for themselves. In 2013, the Association of British Insurers (ABI) rewarded all cars with automatic AEB lower insurance groupings. In the case of the XC60, some models immediately fell by four groups, which equated to an average saving of £150. The new S90 saloon and V90 estate have also dropped by a hugely impressive six groups.

Stats from a recent report by Euro NCAP and ANCAP, the independent bodies for Europe and Australasia road safety and risk awareness, revealed that vehicles fitted with AEB showed a 38% overall reduction in real-world, rear-end collisions, with no difference between urban and rural speed zones.

Driving in the city

Another of Volvo's key safety features is City Safety, which was introduced as standard on all new cars in 2008. Essentially, it's a sophisticated autonomous braking system which uses radars to detect cars, people and even some large animals, about three seconds away from a collision. If you react or brake, the car will apply assistance braking, and if nothing is done then it'll apply the brakes for you.

The first generation of this technology worked at speeds up to 18mph. In 2013, this was increased to 31mph across all new cars, and in the new XC90, launched in 2015, the system was updated to work up to 80mph and no longer needed a lead car to mimic.

In Sweden there has been a decline of around 45% in rear-end frontal crashes because of this system and there's more to come. The technology is constantly evolving and new cars are beginning to incorporate an automatic steering assistance  system too.

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"Although City Safety is a great technology and does the job, it's constantly being developed to make the technology even better. The guys back at the factory are just getting smarter at coming up with more ways to make this technology come alive and just be more useful for every different scenario," says Gill.

"We've worked with a number of SMEs here in the UK that have taken the technology and seen a real benefit when it comes to their own fleet and crash reduction. It's that ability to signpost the technology because, actually, it's not a scary new world, but real people are using it already and enjoying the lifestyle with the cars."

Semi-autonomous driving

There are a number of systems currently available which offer elements of autonomous assistance when driving. Lane-keeping aids and emergency braking all can intervene and steer or stop the car if needed, and then there's adaptive cruise control, which will maintain the car's speed when you're on the motorway, slowing down when needed to provide enough space between yourself and the car in front.

In a nutshell, semi-autonomous driving systems join some of the dots. They combine the use of some or all of these systems to enable the car to drive by itself with little interaction from the driver.

Volvo's Pilot Assist system combines adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist to allow the car to maintain the speed set by the driver and stay in lane, slowing down to keep a preset distance with the car in front.

We're not quite at the point where the driver can sit back and read the newspaper or work on their laptop when these systems are deployed - they still require some input from the driver to work. In Pilot Assist's case, the driver needs to have a forefinger or thumb on the steering wheel at all times otherwise the system will deactivate, not straight away but after a short period of time when the sensors detect no touch on the wheel.

Using the system is easy: press a button on the steering wheel and wait for the icon to go green, and then allow the car to take over. You still need to be alert to what is going on around you, but a big draw is how much more relaxing it is, helping to reduce driver fatigue on longer journeys.

"The Pilot Assist piggybacks onto the adaptive cruise control and the two systems work in harmony together and this will evolve in time into fully autonomous driving. We've started conducting tests in Sweden and there are tests in the UK starting later in the year. I think we're a few years away from this technology being ready, but it's on its way," says Gill.

They are still a little temperamental and may not work in all traffic scenarios, weather or road conditions, like roadworks and breakdowns in the middle of the road. They also rely heavily on the right road markings and most are currently restricted to the motorway and dual-carriageway roads. That said, the system does significantly improve the driver's experience when in use and is ultimately safer, significantly reducing the likelihood of an accident when the car in front unexpectedly slows or you encounter traffic.

It's on its way

This year Volvo has recruited people living in Gothenburg, Sweden, to take part in the firm's new DriveMe programme, which enables the general public to test autonomous cars in the real world as part of a research project in partnership with the Swedish government.

Now that the programme is underway in Sweden, a pilot has already started here in the UK, with autonomous Volvos roaming London. It all forms part of Volvo's vision that no one is seriously injured or killed in a new Volvo by 2020.

"Autonomous driving is just around the corner and all the new technology is highlighting that this is a continual development," Gill concludes. "The cameras and the software that support the car are just getting smarter and smarter for what they can identify in the environment around them and it's a really exciting time for Volvo, the industry and more importantly, the drivers."