A regular feature of the Fleet 500 issue of Automotive Fleet is a comprehensive listing of the Top 300 fleets in the U.S., with each fleet’s composition broken out by vehicle segment, such as the number of cars, vans, crossovers, and so on.

One category that will be added in the future is the number of autonomous vehicles (AVs) in each fleet. While that day is coming, I believe volume penetration of fleets by autonomous vehicles will take much longer to occur than what is predicted in today’s optimistic forecasts.

Conceptually, autonomous vehicles are technologically feasible, but, as they say, the devil is in the details. One thing is certain, as we trail blaze new ground, so too will we trail blaze new problems. None of these obstacles will be insurmountable, but they will act as ballast slowing the speed of deployment. Below are a few “obstacles” that need to be addressed:

Recognition of Hand Gestures

Autonomous vehicles find it difficult to decipher the meaning of hand gestures by a driver or pedestrian giving it the right of way. Conversely, an AV runs the risk of misinterpreting a causal hand motion and erroneously determine it has been given the right of way. Understanding gestures is a major safety issue since it is used in a construction zone, by police officers directing traffic in an intersection with a disabled stop light, officers redirecting traffic around a vehicle accident, and at major public venues, such as concerts and sporting events.

Difficulty Driving in Snow

AVs are programed to recognize various road landmarks, such as lane dividers, turning only lanes, or when two lanes merge into a single lane. But when covered by snow, these road markings are obscured or hidden. Similarly, when snow or road grime cover vehicle sensors, it “blinds” an AV to its surroundings impeding autonomous navigation.

Driving Through Standing Water or a Flooded Street

Similar to the issues encountered when driving in snow, standing water likewise obscures road markings impeding AV travel.

Inability of AVs to Effectively Communicate with Human-Controlled Vehicles

There will be a long transition period when AVs share the road with human-controlled vehicles. This will create a period of incongruity. For instance, a vehicle horn is used as a communication device providing a cautionary warning. Can an autonomous vehicle hear a horn? What about the colloquial rules of the road?

For instance, will an AV know what is meant when a vehicle in the oncoming lane flashes its lights to yield to it the right of way? Flashing lights are also ambiguous because it can also signify displeasure. Can an AV distinguish between the two? What about ambulances and fire engines that in an emergency do not follow the rules of the road, such as driving through red lights? Ultimately, vehicle-to-vehicle technology will be embedded in emergency vehicles, but a fire truck can be in service for as long as 20 or more years before it is replaced.

Decades Needed to Develop Case

AVs will necessitate the creation of an entirely new body of case law that will take decades to adjudicate legal precedents. It is generally accepted that if an AV is forced to make a choice between hurting a single person versus many individuals, the AV will be programmed to take the course of least damage.

However, could a lawyer representing the aggrieved family argue premediated manslaughter (or even second degree murder) because the AV was programmed to intentionally hit a person? Unfortunately, the death of a pedestrian by an Uber AV won’t be the last person killed by an AV. What will be the reaction from regulatory agencies? Will reactions vary by state?

Personal Privacy Concerns

AVs will be tracked every moment of the day. As vehicle data is collected, so will data about the occupants, such as when and where they are driven. How will the privacy of vehicle occupants be protected?

Higher Acquisition Costs

AVs will be more expensive than the traditional driver-operated vehicle, which will impact a fleet’s total cost of ownership. What will be the residual value of a used AV? One way to look at it is to ask, what is the value of your used personal computer?

With the ability to download software updates, the “operating system” of an AV will always be current, with obsolescence restricted to dated hardware. It is generally accepted that AVs will accumulate higher mileages since potentially they can be used in a 24/7 environment, which will have a direct influence on vehicle condition at the end of its service life.

Taxing AVs

If AVs strictly adhere to posted speed limits and parking restrictions, what will be the impact on government budgets from the subsequent reduction in traffic and parking fines? In a mid-size city, such as Seattle, traffic fines constitute 2.6% of the city’s operating fund. One idea floated by government officials is to mitigate this revenue loss by instituting an AV registration tax.

Impact on Organ Donations

The No. 1 source of organ donations are young people who died in traffic accidents. With widespread AV usage, will there be a decrease in organ availability?

Inadequacy of 5G Network in an Autonomous Network

Fifth generation wireless systems, abbreviated 5G, are improved networks that will deploy in 2019. Although 5G is very powerful, there are concerns widespread use of AVs will make it inadequate in providing robust communication. This will be a temporary concern, as technology will advance to address any inadequacy.

Electromagnetic Disruptions to GPS Transmissions

Solar storms are unpredictable and rare, but when they do occur, they erupt vast amounts of energy that can cause a massive spike in geomagnetic activity and radiation, which can interfere with the data connection between a vehicle’s onboard GPS system and the satellites that transmit location data. Electro-magnetic disruptions have caused flights to be diverted to alternate routes.

Cybersecurity Threats

This a real concern that will eventually result in deaths and triggers a pendulum reaction from regulatory and government agencies. Based on past history, cybersecurity is often reactionary and vulnerable to zero-day cyber-attacks.

It will take time to rectify these obstacles and issues. Often, when one problem is fixed, it reveals (or creates) a new problem. These problems are not insurmountable, but they will take time to fix.

Let me know what you think.

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About the author
Mike Antich

Mike Antich

Former Editor and Associate Publisher

Mike Antich covered fleet management and remarketing for more than 20 years and was inducted into the Fleet Hall of Fame in 2010 and the Global Fleet of Hal in 2022. He also won the Industry Icon Award, presented jointly by the IARA and NAAA industry associations.

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