A few years ago, the idea of a driverless car was ‘pie in the sky’ thinking, a fad that would never become mainstream. If the words sound familiar, it’s probably because they’ve also been linked to the electric vehicle (EV), hybrid technology, diesel and petrol before it.
Manufacturers are taking the idea of autonomous driving very seriously. In fact, the new Audi A8 features ‘Level 3’ autonomy. This means that the car can control itself in certain situations, although the driver must remain alert and prepared to take control at any time. There are five levels, and the interesting stuff begins at Level 4. Therefore, we’re not far away from science-fiction becoming science-fact.
What does this mean for the aftermarket? Well, in terms of vehicle repair, the need for training will be ever more critical. Imagine an accident caused by an improper repair, the technician responsible would be liable and the result could be even more catastrophic. Or could it? Many seem hung up on the idea that a bad repair will lead a computerised car to crash, but surely if the vehicle is that smart, it would detect a fault and pull over? Technically, this leads to the possibility that less focus can be placed on repair safety. The ‘oh if it fails the car will pull over’ line would lead to complacency, and with that, the big accident will come.
Therefore, technician licensing could be the answer. The industry, through the automotive body the IMI, has long called for some form of scheme to ensure that the wheat are sorted from the chaff. Maybe autonomous vehicles are the answer to this demand. It would have a huge impact on the industry however, technicians would need to prove their accreditation. Some may not bother, choosing to retire or retrain. But ultimately it would grow confidence in the industry.
Another area that could benefit from the introduction of autonomous vehicles is training. However, the technology behind these cars, vans, trucks and lorries is complex. It is not just the simple brakes, clutches and tyres that may need servicing, nor too the electronics (which will become much more complex). Sensors and cameras will also require calibrating or replacing. Technicians will need to become computer engineers, with the ability to understand the curvature of a lens and how the light refraction can affect the on-board computer in its decision making (I kid you not, this is coming!).
But why are manufacturers following this route? Well, to put it simply, they are scared. The vehicle market has changed over the last few years. No longer is vehicle ownership a requirement of living, today’s ‘generation x’ are quite happy using ride-sharing facilities such as Uber, or joining car clubs and paying as they drive. In order to live with this change in the market, vehicle makers have identified that driverless cars will be of benefit to these services. An Uber without a driver is safer, and driverless cars without a single owner can bring in profit, never have to park and maintenance is carried out by the provider of the service.
Therefore, in coming years, driverless cars could take a majority of normal everyday vehicles off the road, affecting the number of cars available to come into a garage.
Ultimately, a true driverless car is still years away. However, with the technology developing, it is in the interests of all in the aftermarket to ensure that they stay aware of the news, listen for any training courses offered and above all else, continue to offer the professional and dedicated services they do. No matter what technology the future brings, it won’t bring anything without customer service.
The five levels of autonomy
Level 1 – The driver remains in control the entire time, but some vehicle systems can be controlled by the car, such as steering and acceleration. features such as self-parking systems, adaptive cruise control and lane departure warnings are examples
Level 2 – Driverless cars that require occupants to pay attention to their surroundings and be prepared to “take control of the vehicle in specific situations” are classed here. The vehicle can operate two systems at once, such as steering and acceleration.
Level 3 – A Level 3 autonomous system is capable of monitoring the driving environment around them, allowing vehicles to make decision themselves. However, the driver still needs to remain alert and ready to take control at any time. This is the first real stage of autonomy.
Level 4 – Cars with onboard computers that can handle tasks like indicating, braking and steering at the same time. A Level 4 car is officially driverless in certain environments and “can drive safely on its own even if a driver chooses not to intervene when asked.
Level 5 – A car that does not need a human occupant to control any functions and can drive when no-one is on board. These cars will not feature stern wheels or pedals, as they are truly independent of any internal control.