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September 18, 2019 10:45 AM, EDT

Perspective: Preparing for Autonomous Repairs

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As more and more vehicles with autonomous components enter the transportation landscape, the issue of repair and maintenance for those systems becomes more important for trucking fleets. Complicating this challenge is the reality that autonomous technology still is in its infancy — it is being developed and manufactured by a combination of startups, original equipment manufacturers and other technology firms who all follow different approaches to the technology.

Service technicians will need to learn how to repair all of this equipment, so it is vital that developers and manufacturers provide clear information on how to do so — without this, vehicles could be repaired improperly, which opens the potential for safety concerns. While it is understandable that manufacturers wish to protect intellectual property, they must communicate in explicit detail how the various autonomous systems function to ensure that repair shops can complete proper repairs.

Michael Buck, president of MCB Fleet Management

Buck

Without this information, vehicles can be misdiagnosed, which can lead to vehicles continuously being returned for the same repair issues. Repair misdiagnoses also can lead to other problems, including decreased customer service, irritation from drivers whose vehicles need repeat repairs and frustration for technicians.

Autonomous technologies must interface with other systems on the truck, including throttle control, steering, traction control, stability and anti-locking braking systems. It’s important for technicians to have information about how all of these systems connect in order to ensure timely and safe repairs.

The shift among manufacturers toward vertical integration also may complicate repairs. Vertical integration is the term for when a manufacturer and a supplier integrate to develop a proprietary system for the end product. In order to repair these systems, technicians may need access to proprietary replacement parts or confront software constraints, driving up time and cost to repair. As autonomous systems go through real-world testing, manufacturers and suppliers may find it prudent to wait on vertical integration and proprietary systems in order to ensure that technicians have the tools and information they need to repair assets.

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The development of autonomous vehicles comes at a time when technicians can still struggle with maintenance issues on emissions components that truck manufacturers began installing years ago to comply with regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency. Startups and manufacturers working on autonomous technology can start off on the right foot now by providing clear dissemination of this information, making it not only easier for technicians to repair vehicles, but also to ensure that the vehicles meet environmental requirements to fit what fleets will be seeking from a regulatory perspective.

Let’s also think about the role of technicians. There already is a nationwide technician shortage, so as autonomous technology enters the trucking industry, it is important to retain current technicians and attract new ones. Making sure they can access the information and the tools they need will make that easier to do.

Autonomous and safety technologies have and will improve safety, but only when they work. When they don’t, or when an intermittent problem arises, it is imperative that technicians have the data they need on how the systems are designed to function in order to get the technology safely back out on the road.

Michael Buck is president of MCB Fleet Management, which offers fleet maintenance, procurement, litigation, and safety assistance to private, public, corporate and government fleet operations.