Not long ago, a major European car company provided an unintended and painfully spectacular demonstration of some new technology fitted to one of its cars. The occasion was the press launch of the model in question, held in a picturesque and very hilly region of north-east Spain.
During the early morning of the launch, the company's communications manager and a colleague drove the journalists' prescribed test route to check that there were no issues with it. Halfway round, he hit a patch of sheet-ice large enough to send his car skating off the road and plunging into a tree-filled valley. The pair were bruised and badly shaken, but their chief problem was that the car was hidden from view on a quiet road, and they needed help to extract themselves from it. Happily that help was only a switch-click away, a stab of the 'SOS' button above the rear-view mirror alerting the emergency services and pinpointing the car's precise location via GPS. A few hours later both were back at base, recovering after hospital checks.
It was an unfortunate incident and potentially a very dangerous one, but it provided a convincing demonstration of the car's SOS system - or eCall, as it's officially known - just one of the advantages of a vehicle being electronically connected to the outside world.
These systems have now been developed to the point that the car itself can determine whether it has crashed, and automatically contact the emergency services - vital, if the occupants are immobilised or unconscious.
A car with an eCall system can automatically contact the emergency services in an accident. Credit: NDP/Alamy
But there are inevitably controversies with this kind of connectivity too, which is why the standardisation of this equipment will not be mandatory in new cars until 31 March 2018. The delay is the result of political debate over privacy - of which more later - and the £70-odd-per-car cost of the system. But in the meantime, manufacturers are fitting it to more and more cars anyway.
And eCall is just the tip of the iceberg. Satellite navigation systems that can reroute you using traffic intelligence delivered to the car in real-time have been available for several years, and growing numbers of cars are available with their own mobile Wi-Fi hotspots. Infotainment systems increasingly enable you to download apps, allowing you to stream music, find parking spaces, locate the nearest cheap petrol and a lot more. In many ways, the car is becoming a (very) large mobile phone on wheels.
The fleet market, of course, follows the trend, as well as adding a few special connectivity tricks of its own. Systems to monitor fleet cars using telematics are now achieving levels of sophistication (and intrusiveness) that will impress - as well as possibly alarm - users.
Off-the-shelf tech is available from sat nav providers like TomTom with its Webfleet system, and Trafficmaster's Teletrac, while some vehicle-leasing companies provide systems that enable fleet managers to buy cars and fleet management packages from the same source.
All have the same broad aim of improving efficiency, not only of the fleet itself but of the driver's use of the vehicle, by monitoring and analysing everything from individual journeys to the way the car is being driven, its maintenance status, fuel costs and more.
Trafficmaster's GPS-tracking Teletrac system includes real-time visibility of individual cars and scope for improving fuel economy, driver safety, security and compliance using an interface called Fleet Director. The system is provided as standard on Citroen Berlingo, Dispatch and Relay panel vans, and according to Pat Gallagher, director of in-vehicle products at Trafficmaster, 'more and more fleet operators are now appreciating the productivity gains that Teletrac telematics brings'. Related products also offer security benefits, by tracking the location of vehicles - reducing insurance premiums by making recovery in the event of theft a great deal more straightforward.
By the time sales of these vans had passed the 100,000 mark, Gallagher was able to claim that some 6,500 working days had been regained through the avoidance of traffic congestion during a single year, along with fuel consumption improvements of up to 12%, reduced driver stress levels and an associated reduction in risk. These are attractive benefits for fleet managers, who can also use the system to monitor and schedule vehicle maintenance and to plan more efficiently a driver’s daily round of jobs.
You’re being watched! Illustration: Curt Merlo
The TomTom telematics system offers a similar array of features, and like Teletrac includes the option of monitoring driver behaviour. It may be controversial but it works, says Andy Saunders, contracts director at Ferns Surfacing Ltd and a TomTom customer. 'Within three months, speeding was reduced by 95% and driving events, such as harsh braking, reduced by 65%.'
The ability to record and analyse a diverse array of vehicle usage and driver data enables fleet managers to harness ever more sophisticated analytical tools to control their fleets. Although initial take-up was greatest among commercial vehicle users, whose assets are more expensive and whose running costs are higher, telematics is now increasingly popular with company car fleet managers. Even the general public are getting in on the act - those pay-as-you-drive insurance black boxes are a form of telematics.
Arval, owned by BNP Paribas, is one of the top five vehicle leasing companies in the UK with a fleet of 105,000 cars - 700,000 worldwide. It decided to invest heavily in telematics in 2013 and has just extended its offer with a system it calls Arval Active Link.
Chief commercial officer Bart Beckers says that ‘the trend in the market is clearly towards digital systems, and it's accelerating. Fleet managers look for them - they're a dynamic tool allowing them to do their homework.’ Arval reckons it is the first company 'with an integrated offer on telematics, which can help the client to control maintenance, fuel, safety, insurance, and provide drivers with alerts for servicing,' says Beckers.
Just launched in the UK, the new system is designed to promote responsible driving, allow detailed analysis of individual vehicles' fuel usage and alert drivers to their car's servicing needs. It also provides alerts for fraud, accident and theft. Beyond that, there are options enabling the use of pool cars to be optimised, to monitor drivers' activities and manage delivery drivers in real time.
For the company car and van drivers themselves, the idea of being so closely monitored may seem unappealing. Readers of a certain age will recall the fuss made by lorry drivers when the ‘spy in the cab’ tachograph was introduced years ago to monitor hours spent behind the wheel, and these systems are a great deal more comprehensive. Not only can they record where you are and when, but also whether you break the speed limit and how smoothly - or not - the car is being driven.
Sudden braking, excessive acceleration, aggressive cornering or abrupt lane changes, all economy-reducing, tyre wear-increasing indicators of poor anticipation, can be picked up and logged and potentially used to name and shame poor driving.
However most administrators of these technologies are aware that admonishing drivers over individual transgressions is not the way to improve employee relations. 'Telematics is a sensitive topic, so we're careful with that,' says Beckers. 'The drivers can hide their data,' he adds, although this applies only to private trips. On the other hand, thanks to our smartphones we are all gradually becoming more used to the idea of data being used to drive changes in our behaviour, so acceptance of telematics is likely to rise.
But even if you don't fancy having your at-the-wheel-habits so closely scrutinised, it's by no means all bad for drivers. The facility to distinguish between business and private mileage simplifies expenses claims, and navigation guidance and jam-dodging data all help to ease our progress from A to B. GPS also provides their location in the event of an accident or breakdown, while advance warning of the need for vehicle servicing makes it easier to plan for.
The connected VW Golf links apps on the dashboard to your phone
Access to all this data can provide the fleet manager with impressively detailed analysis of the inner life of his or her vehicle fleet. Besides providing info on fuel consumption and servicing costs, it can indicate whether a leased car is in danger of going over its mileage allowance (over-mileage cars can incur cost penalties), its accident record and any speeding fines associated with it, the rate at which it's gathering mileage on a daily, weekly and monthly basis and, for example, key metrics like the daily total expenditure. If having killer stats like that at your fingertips doesn't impress the FD then nothing will. Managers can also compare the cost of running their cars with those of other firms using the same leasing company, and carbon footprinting becomes much more straightforward when the fuel consumption of every vehicle is tracked in real time.
With such powerful tools available, it's not surprising to hear that the fleet industry expects telematics to have a big impact on the way it chooses, operates and manages its vehicles. The British Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association's (BVRLA) recent Fleet Technology survey shows that 45% of fleets consider themselves to be early adopters of new automotive technology, while 47% are more cautious, leaving 8% who consider themselves to be 'stragglers'.
The features that users look for in a car are expected to change significantly too, with connectivity and smartphone integration likely to soar in importance over the next five years according to the survey's respondents. Two-thirds of fleets reckon these issues will be very important in five years’ time, while a fifth reckon they're already very important now.
The view of BVRLA chief executive Gerry Keaney, ‘is that the automotive environment is set to be transformed by technology over the next few years. The knowledge, expertise and buying power of the rental and leasing sector means that it will be at the heart of this revolution. Our findings suggest that some of the things that used to drive vehicle choice - such as driving performance, comfort and design - are rapidly becoming less important as fleets focus on technology and safety.’ These developments look likely to prompt an eventual convergence of the vehicle monitoring and navigation technologies of both the fleet sector and the vehicle makers themselves.
Given that many cars now come with satellite navigation and more as standard, adding specialist vehicle monitoring kit from a leasing company can involve the duplication of some systems. The problem, explains Arval's Beckers, is that ‘there is no common standard across the car manufacturers’, making it difficult to integrate the add-ons cost-effectively. ‘We're more than happy to cooperate with them - it would be useful to integrate the systems,’ he says. Beckers adds that his employer would like to contribute to the standard-setting, and that it's talking to some car manufacturers already.
The car companies, meanwhile, are introducing new electronic technologies themselves at a quickening pace. The top-of-the-range Mercedes S-Class has for decades debuted new systems that eventually cascade into cheaper models, both within Mercedes' and other carmakers' ranges, making it a fair guide to what's in store for those who can’t afford Stuttgart's finest limousine. Aside from ever-more sophisticated infotainment systems, featuring 3D maps with topographical modelling and photo-realistic buildings, occupants can flag songs they hear on the radio for later downloading, enjoy unrestricted web browsing and the facility to write emails and texts via voice recognition.
The car’s ability to ‘see’ via radar and stereo imaging cameras provides night vision via the infotainment screen as a supplement to what the driver can see, active parking, pedestrian recognition and more arcanely, the facility to ‘read’ the road surface so that the S-Class’s Magic Body Control system can prepare the suspension for the next bump or bend.
Night vision system in a Mercedes S-Class
Vehicle manufacurers are also using a car's ability to know precisely where it is to programme automatic transmissions so that they are in the right gear for the next speed limit, curve or traffic light to optimise fuel consumption. It is systems like these, and more, that are leading us inexorably towards the autonomous, self-driving car. The date when it becomes legal to use an autonomous car remains an unknown, but in the meantime there is no doubt that technology is infiltrating every corner of the car and the way in which it is used.
In the near future, ‘Telematics-based services and the data they produce are keys not only for the automotive sectors, but also for the future of full-service leasing, which is going to be transformed, placing anticipation at the core of every strategy and allowing the whole business model to shift towards a new era,’ reckons Arval CEO Philippe Bismut. Whatever your views on the privacy vs utility debate, he is almost certainly right.