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Nick Walker's blog: 27 June - Driverless cars and telematics go 'hand-in-hand'

Date: 27 June 2016

One of the reasons why the Back to the Future films were such a success in the 1980s was that it gave us the chance to fantasise about 21st century technology, such as hover boards and flying cars.

Now more than 15 years into that century we may still be waiting for our flying cars to arrive, but we are entering the era of driverless vehicles and ever closer to them becoming an everyday reality.

So the question for our industry is how telematics technology will function in a world of autonomous cars when things like speed and driver behaviour will be literally out of our hands. When I take part in discussions about the future of motoring and driverless cars, this is often what people want to know.

Unsurprisingly, and I know you would expect me to say this, I think the role of telematics will be absolutely key to the development and growth of autonomous vehicles.

This is because we are likely to have a lengthy period of transition where there will be a mix of different vehicles on the road and that could be a very interesting time. Telematics will be central to understanding how those vehicles are behaving and interacting with one another.

In particular, this new era is going to be dominated by getting our data management right. Autonomous cars are going to have a strong need to be monitored in terms of vehicle health as well as location and ensuring they're not behaving erratically. That is going to generate a huge amount of information and it's going to be the job of telematics providers, not necessarily motor manufacturers, to interpret that mass of information and make sense of it for their fleet customers.

I think that knowing that cars are fitted with telematics technology will also reassure everyone on the roads as they adjust to driverless cars. Knowing that someone somewhere is aware of the journey a car is taking will provide an extra layer of comfort for anyone nervous about the new dawn.

Another factor is that we believe future drivers will be a lot less interested in their vehicles. They're not going to be worried about whether it needs a service or not - it could even be argued that the car will probably drive itself to the garage, but that really is a long way off. 

So alerts around vehicle faults, management and maintenance are going to be critical and will need to be flagged, because the driver is going to be disconnected from their vehicle. He or she will just sit in it and get driven around, having the sort of relationship to the vehicle that one has with a taxi or tube carriage, rather than a well-loved and appreciated car.

Whatever the autonomous vehicle of the future looks like, it is still going to have tyres, batteries, alternators, gearboxes and all the other vital components that keep a vehicle moving, but cause a breakdown if they fail. That's why telematics, alerting the driver or fleet manager to those issues will be vital in keeping that vehicle healthy and on the road, where it should be, and not in a repair garage draining a business of cash due to breakdown.

Also, one of the ultimate claims of driverless cars is that they won't crash. While this is the ambition and I believe they might not hit each other, they might still hit people, or cyclists. Those sorts of hazards are unpredictable, and it's very hard to build in avoidance mechanisms for them. So crash detection will be even more important and when it happens we will need to react much faster and telematics will be crucial to this.

I believe telematics providers will play an even stronger role in the future because the technology is devoted to monitoring vehicle health and acting accordingly, something that will be essential. We will need organisations that will have an overview of all the vehicles on the road, recording and interpreting the reams of data generated by the driverless vehicles, providing support services and ultimately keeping everyone safe on the road.