How Does Automation Affect Fleets?

October 5, 2015

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Here's an illustration of the refuse truck helper robot. Illustration: Adrian Wirén, Mälardalens Högskola; Courtesy of Volvo
Here's an illustration of the refuse truck helper robot. Illustration: Adrian Wirén, Mälardalens Högskola; Courtesy of Volvo

So many things are automated these days. It’s both scary and wonderful.

Siri can be your personal assistant. A robot can vacuum your floors while you are at work. Your car can tell you if there’s another vehicle in your blind spot (among numerous other things cars can do these days). And Mike Antich has already discussed autonomous vehicles in his blog post, “How Will Autonomous Vehicles Disrupt Fleet Management?” earlier this year.

The scary part about automation? Artificial intelligence and robots are and will continue to take over jobs (including writing articles, apparently; don’t worry — we’re not there yet).

I usually see most automation as positive, as these machines are used to help people. What are some automated tasks that affect the fleet industry?

Increasing Automation

In September, Volvo announced it was working on a robot to help refuse truck drivers with trash collection. Automated refuse trucks already reduce work for collectors, but this little robot is more nimble.

In this scenario, the driver focuses on driving, but the robot collects the bins and empties it into the truck under the driver’s supervision. The company says this would reduce noise and allow the driver to avoid heavy lifting.

We know Google, Uber, and the truck industry want to replace drivers with self-driving cars. So it might not be long before these trucks drive themselves too.

Amazon sees delivery drones in its future, getting packages into customers’ hands in 30 minutes or less. A health clinic in Virginia received the first government-approved drone delivery in the U.S. in July. And an Ohio company that offers a drone-and-truck combination is among the 15 companies qualified by the U.S. Postal Service as a potential supplier of its next-generation delivery vehicle.

While I doubt the USPS would be the first to test mail and parcel delivery via drone, if it works successfully for private-­sector delivery services, who’s to say the Postal Service wouldn’t have its own drones assisting mailmen and women?

Also in July, a Georgia county considered adding up to 17 drones to its police fleet. It would arrive at the scene of incident within 90 seconds and transmit video to ground responders en route to the scene. Commissioners eventually chose to delay the decision.

It doesn’t end there. The U.S. Navy is testing a robotic firefighter for ships, a 6-foot robot may soon be patrolling streets, and Amazon has been using robots in its warehouses.

Here’s one that’s more relevant to your technicians: Audi deployed service robots that help dealership technicians diagnose and repair vehicles by connecting the technician with technical assistance consultants at Audi. The robot is designed as a communications portal, but I could see it evolving into a diagnostic and repair robot that doesn’t require human control, perhaps functioning as a technician’s assistant.

Who’s Going to Fix That?

Technicians have to get trained to fix all the new technology in vehicles now, so it’s possible that in the future, the fleet department may eventually have to service new robots and drones that become part of a public sector fleet. The Georgia county drones mentioned above would have come with a maintenance plan, but if unmanned aircraft become common within public agencies, perhaps a separate division in fleet could come to oversee that.

If the industry has technician training problems now, wait until a refuse truck robot joins the fleet!

How do you view automation and how do you think it will affect fleet operations? Or what do you wish were automated now?


  1. 1. Dave [ October 16, 2015 @ 04:37AM ]

    Autonomous haul trucks are gaining ground in the mining industry, farm equipment and some construction equipment have some forms of computer/gps operational controls on them too. The role of the tech is changing rapidly. I don't have an issue with a robot helping me out. However, it must not complain about my choice of music. Who knows, if it does a good job, I'd take it on vacation with me to the beach. He would carry my cooler of course. Good article!

  2. 2. Robert Peck [ October 21, 2015 @ 12:45PM ]

    As always, I thoroughly enjoy your articles. I, for one, am not a fan of advanced technology. Technology should have stopped with the light bulb, toilet paper, and indoor heating and plumbing. It seems that the more technology there is, the more jobs are lost, and those that remain in the job force are required to be electrical engineers.
    With obesity being a major health concern, do we really need more ways to make our lives any easier?

  3. 3. Allen Mtchell [ October 21, 2015 @ 03:00PM ]

    Automation can be viewed from several perspectives. Certainly the need for robust computer systems for overall fleet management and for diagnostic tools to perfect maintenance and repairs are becoming more necessary as time progresses.
    Autonomous vehicles might be one technology that requires further field testing and proving their worth. I would be hesitant to wholesale adopt these vehicles without testing them in real world fleet operations first. Once proven, additional adoption might prove prudent. There are insurance and risk management implications that should be explored first.

  4. 4. Kelly Reagan [ October 22, 2015 @ 06:01AM ]

    Great article Thi!
    No worries, I do not think our jobs are going away anytime too soon though. The day a robot can manage a staff of people, engage user agencies with asset purchases and enable sound daily decisions related to fleet issues is well beyond my retirement date-I think.
    You do raise very good points as I too see automation as a good thing, but most certainly will always require a human intervention for checks and balances.
    I love the thought of my car bringing me to work while I read a good book, the paper or simply enjoy a phone conversation unencumbered. Lord knows I have a hard time chewing gum and driving at the same time, much less talking on the phone, texting, changing the radio, etc. I think many of us could use a little more downtime to just think and plan, perhaps even relax a little.
    Finally, you are right, someone has to fix this stuff and be trained to diagnose, repair and maintain everything with a motor and computer within the same unit-so no worries here, my job is secure for a few more years. Embrace change, never stop learning and growing and try to keep up with the industry as best as you can-I know I will.
    Thanks Thi for another engaging article and making us think yet again about the way things could be in 10,20,30 years-during which time I will be sitting on a beach in Florida drinking a rum punch, reading a good book and/or playing Bocci ball with my other fleet friends.


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Author Bio

Thi Dao

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Executive Editor

Thi is the executive editor of Government Fleet magazine. She is interested in maintenance management and alternative fuels.


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