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Are driverless cars the future of fleet?

As the driverless car revolution approaches, we explore what HR needs to prepare for

Driverless cars on the road by 2021. It sounds impossibly soon. But the UK government has said this is the year it believes ‘genuine driverless cars’ will make an appearance. Clearly this shift – which chiefly means cars with the ability to drive themselves but that still have a human present to take over when required – is going to happen; and perhaps sooner than we all thought.

Exciting as this may be there are significant regulatory, legal, social and technological barriers to overcome first.

For HR professionals tasked with fleet management this could soon pose questions that would have seemed like science fiction a few years ago. Will employees be expected to work while sat in the car if it can drive itself? Who will service a driverless car? Will employees using company cars even need a driving licence?

Whose car is it anyway?

Vehicle leasing, usually from a fleet provider or the manufacturer directly, is a standard practice in fleet management now. But autonomous vehicles (AV) could upend this trend. Such vehicles are going to be complex, expensive pieces of kit, triggering new forms of leasing, predicts Sam Abuelsamid, a senior research analyst on the transportation efficiencies team at Navigant Research. “The nature of vehicle ‘ownership’ is likely to change dramatically with the introduction of autonomous vehicles,” he argues.

“They will be offered by automakers through mobility services to ensure that they are properly maintained and serviced for liability reasons. A fleet may be able to lease the vehicles, but it’s likely that the OEM [original equipment manufacturer] would retain ultimate control.”

It’s a belief shared by Saskia Harreman, director of international consultancy services at LeasePlan. She says we could witness a profound effect on employee ‘ownership’ of fleet vehicles.

“[Driverless cars] could service multiple drivers and in some cases eliminate the need for individually-assigned company vehicles, thereby decreasing vehicle idle time,” Harreman explains, pointing to the benefits from a business perspective.

“This could be an ideal solution for fleets with cars assigned to a single driver and parked for long periods during the day, that could otherwise be used for other business activities.”

She notes, however, that this could require companies to review their policies and liabilities about ownership and insurance, as well as needing resilient logistics to ensure vehicles are in the right place at the right time. “Companies will need to weigh up the pros and cons of managing an AV fleet in house or outsourcing it,” Harreman adds.

Keeping it roadworthy

A driverless car is not going to be the same as the traditional four-door saloon beloved by road warriors. It’s more a supercomputer on wheels. As such it’s unlikely most garages will be equipped to take a look under the hood if something seems amiss.

This means there will need to be a more stringent set of guidelines around how a driverless car is serviced and maintained. And this doesn’t just mean mechanical work either, but software updates to ensure everything is up-to-date and any faults are fixed.

Trend Micro’s principal security strategist Bharat Mistry suggests these new safety requirements are something HR will have to take responsibility for, as part of its obligation to keep staff safe.

“Ensuring the car is maintained – which includes software updates – should be the responsibility of the fleet manager or HR because they are ultimately responsible for the vehicles and passenger safety,” he says.

However, he acknowledges that it will likely become imperative for driverless car manufacturers to act promptly whenever new security flaws are uncovered, which should ease the burden on HR professionals.

“Vehicle manufacturers also need to provide clear guidance, based on say colour-coding, as to the criticality of the software updates,” Mistry explains.

“This will also have a bearing on vehicle insurance; as if cyber attacks on cars become more mainstream insurance companies will mandate that updates are done in a timely manner.”

Working on the road

A key benefit of the driverless company car is that it could enable staff to work while on the move, notes senior manager at EY Brian Cooper. “The employee would be able to work in the car – take calls, have meetings with colleagues and so on – so it is likely to turn the vehicle into a mobile workplace,” he says.

Harreman also sees the positives: “Meetings can be prepared, orders can already be processed, or the time can be used as relaxation to improve work/life balance.”

However, if working in a driverless car becomes possible this could create the need for a raft of new HR policies around expected working habits, warns Andrew Secker, principal associate at law firm Mills & Reeve.

“The prospect that travelling time may become valuable working time could fundamentally change how a person structures their work, and in some cases uses the additional time otherwise lost through driving,” he explains.

“Likewise, given the current issues around liability and accidents at work, employers will need to consider in what circumstances an employee can reasonably decline to work while in a car that is driving autonomously.”

Secker also points out that HR may need to consider the logistics of how employees could work in their private driverless cars.

“Will employers allow people to work while travelling?” he muses. “If they do they will need to consider what equipment they will provide and how they can protect confidentiality of information and personal data.”

Allocated working hours may then also be up for review, as “this could lead to a change in accepted working hours and allow greater flexibility”, he adds. “If we can work on the go will we all really need to work nine to five?”

No licence, no problem

One of the most intriguing ideas around driverless cars is articulated by John Pryor, chairman of the Association of Car Fleet Operators (ACFO), who points out that driverless cars could radically alter how driving is sanctioned by the state altogether.

“In a fully autonomous vehicle the driver is redundant and therefore their ability to drive is irrelevant – potentially making a driving licence unnecessary,” he says.

“Furthermore, if AV technologies develop to the extent that vehicles can undertake door-to-door journeys without the need for a driver at all, they could improve mobility for the elderly and disabled and those without a driving licence, enhancing their quality of life.”

For HR there’s lots to digest here. The idea of someone without a driving licence being let behind the wheel of a company car might seem the stuff of nightmares. But in the brave new world of driverless cars it doesn’t seem impossible.

Complex legal and regulatory issues such as this will have to be worked out at a government level, with the ideal outcome being that clarity on such situations is provided, meaning HR directors know where they stand.

But given the speed at which technology moves – and governments sometimes don’t – it may be the case that HRDs find themselves having to grapple with questions that no-one quite has an answer to yet.