Mobile & Tech

Field Service Test-Drives Letting Go of the Wheel

Peering into the crystal ball, experts say autonomous fleets could become mainstream by 2030.

When it comes to robots taking over commercial fleets, it’s not a matter of if, but when, says David Alexander, senior analyst with global market research and consulting firm Navigant Research.

“BMW and Ford have stated a goal to get Level 4 [fully autonomous] vehicles into production in 2021, and I’m sure others will follow,” says Alexander, who expects that fully autonomous vehicles will become widely available by 2025.

Juniper Research offers a similar outlook, forecasting that nearly 20 million fully autonomous vehicles will be on the road globally by 2025, with consumer adoption set to take off in 2021.

A Robot at the Wheel

Momentum has been building quickly on the self-driving front during the past year. Last fall, Tesla launched its semi-autonomous Autopilot feature for its Model S sedan and Model X crossover. This spring, GM acquired the self-driving tech startup Cruise Automation to accelerate the automaker’s driverless car development. And last month, ride-sharing giant Uber made major news on two fronts: It unveiled its first self-driving fleet in Pittsburgh, and it purchased Otto, a barely six-month-old startup founded by former high-level Google employees that develops a retrofit self-driving system for heavy trucks.

But in each of these cases, a human driver is still required to handle certain functions of the drive, or even take the reins when necessary.

Google’s self-driving pod.

The holy grail of self-driving technology is so-called Level 4 automation, or fully autonomous driving. The prime example right now is Google’s self-driving pod, which lacks a steering wheel, pedals and other driving controls. Software is in complete control.

So when will robots take over commercial fleets, like those operated by field service organizations?

“Fleets are going to take their time to learn about the practicality of self-driving vehicles just as they do with any new technology,” says Alexander. “The use of the vehicles will be very closely monitored and limited to a small number of selected fleet customers in specific sectors — such as a taxi service. I would say that 2030 is when autonomous vehicles really become mainstream [in fleets].”

A Vision of Field Service in 2030

In August, Uber acquired self-driving software startup Otto, which makes an autonomous driving retrofit for heavy trucks.

If this is really the case, and we’re looking at only a little over a decade from now before robotic vehicles become widely available, what could the implications be for field service operations?

Imagine this scenario: Instead of owning service trucks, you would have on-demand access to a publicly or privately owned pool of self-driving pickup or flatbed trucks, where you can schedule those vehicles to arrive at the facility first thing in the morning. Service technicians would set up and organize their tools in a removable fiberglass capsule or pod, which would be lifted (with autonomous forklifts) onto and off the bed of the self-driving truck. This way, technicians can easily switch from one vehicle to another without tying up their time with reloading tools, equipment and products each time they change to a different truck.

Then imagine that a technician is at a customer site — say, to repair an HVAC system — but realizes he doesn’t have a component needed to finish the job. Instead of having to leave the customer and schedule another trip back, he can call the warehouse and have the part loaded onto an autonomous truck, or “delivery pod,” to be delivered directly on site.

And instead of completing paperwork while parked outside the customer’s location, the service tech can use the commute time between jobs for administrative tasks. This would shorten the time between dispatches and enable technicians to get more jobs done per day.

What’s the bottom-line impact this scenario would have on key metrics for field service organizations?

  • Lower capital and fleet operational costs. You pay only for the vehicle when you need it, eliminating ongoing maintenance, tag and title, and insurance costs. Nor is there the upfront cash outlay for acquiring new vehicles.
  • Higher first-time fix rates, lower personnel costs. The technician can get a required component from the warehouse to complete the job without leaving the customer’s site, while also not tying up another employee’s time with delivering the component to the technician.
  • Higher worker productivity. Eliminating the task of driving translates into more productive commutes between jobs and more possible jobs completed per day.

Seems Far-Fetched, Right?

FSD posed this scenario to both Navigant’s David Alexander and Sam Barker, an analyst for Juniper Research — both experts on the autonomous vehicle market — for a sanity check. Does this scenario sound plausible? Or is it out of whack from what you think a self-driving world would look like in the field service sector?

“[That] vision of the future service organization is one possible scenario,” says Alexander. “It could mean field service companies may no longer need to own or manage a fleet. The independent vehicle fleet would have a selection of vehicles that would drop off technicians and their tool pods at the site and deliver parts when needed.”

He adds that there would be no need for the vehicle to park at the customer’s location, allowing it to be used for other purposes. “The exception to this would be remote customers where the journey takes about as long as the service, so the vehicle may as well remain there,” Alexander says.

Barker agrees. “That scenario is likely to occur. The introduction of autonomous vehicles means we will see a completely different vehicle ownership model with users tending to rent out the vehicles rather than owning one themselves. Users will also see productivity increase as commute times can now be used for other tasks.”

But the job of unmanned parts delivery might not be performed by a self-driving ground vehicle, Barker says. “It is more than probable that [an aerial] drone will be used to pick up small items rather than an autonomous vehicle.”

Tapping the Brakes

While all trends appear to be pointing toward a self-driving future, there are still regulatory hurdles that could cause the automotive industry to tap the brakes on releasing fully autonomous vehicles into the market. “We will certainly see some degree of autonomous capabilities easing their way into commercial fleets over the next few years. However, current legislation around the use of autonomous vehicles requires an individual to take control of the vehicle when necessary, so it is likely to be some time before we witness fully autonomous vehicles in use with no human driver inside the vehicle,” Barker says.

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