Tag: Technology


The State of Self-Driving Vehicles: Proceed with Caution

Norman Vincent Peale, author of the classic self-help book “The Power of Positive Thinking,” put it like this: “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”

Peale’s message is clear: Aim high. That way, even if you miss your target or it takes you longer than you had hoped, you’ll accomplish so much more than you could have if you had set your sights lower.

It appears that after a decade of shooting for the moon, the automakers and tech giants working in the self-driving space have realized that replacing human drivers with software is a much harder challenge – and will take longer – than anticipated to solve. But in their pursuit of full autonomy, OEMs have made significant progress in developing driver-assist systems and other technology that could pay significant dividends in saving lives until the day that “driverless” becomes a reality.

What has happened in the past year to change the trajectory and outlook for fully autonomous vehicles? Where does the industry stand today?

The Moonshot
In 2009, search engine giant Google launched its self-driving car project – now branded as Waymo – as one of the company’s “moonshot” initiatives. That decision has transformed the automotive world with significant implications for public safety.

After all, nearly 40,000 people die on U.S. roads each year. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 94% of crashes can be tied to human error.

So, if self-driving systems remove the human driver from the equation, and thus eliminate human error, we can prevent the vast majority of on-road fatalities, right?

In this way, autonomous vehicles would usher in a crashless society. And Waymo’s first fleet of highly automated Toyota Priuses began to make that vision look possible, spurring traditional automakers and other Silicon Valley companies – like Tesla – to join Waymo in an all-out race to autonomy.

Self-Driving Hype Cycle
But the race really began to heat up in October 2015, when Tesla released its first version of Autopilot, which operated like cruise control on steroids, using cameras to keep the vehicle within lane markers, radar to maintain safe speed and distance from vehicles ahead, and sonar to sense when to change lanes safely.

This was a big deal because it gave consumers access to the most advanced vehicle automation system commercially available at the time.

Autopilot opened the public’s eyes to the possibilities of what full automation might look like. In 2016, other automakers began tapping into that market excitement and anticipation by touting their own latest advancements in autonomy, not just at auto shows but also at popular technology events, like South by Southwest and the Consumer Electronics Show.

The hype around self-driving vehicles swelled over the next two years, as media headlines promoted the idea that truly driverless vehicles were right around the corner.

The Crash
Then came March 18, 2018, when the first recorded case of a pedestrian fatality involving a self-driving vehicle occurred.

Elaine Herzberg was walking her bicycle across a Tempe, Arizona, street when the radar and LiDAR of an Uber-owned autonomous Volvo XC90 SUV failed to spot Herzberg and fatally struck her.

According to Tempe police, the safety driver in the Volvo was streaming video on her phone at the time and didn’t hit the brakes until less than a second after the collision.

This incident caused Uber to stop their self-driving testing program in Arizona.

Then, just five days later, on March 23, 2018, the driver of a Tesla Model X was killed after colliding with a freeway median barrier while the vehicle’s Autopilot was engaged.

A few months later, in June, one of Waymo’s self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans crashed on the freeway outside the company’s office in Mountain View, California. The lone safety driver fell asleep at the wheel and inadvertently pressed the gas pedal, which disengaged the vehicle’s self-driving mode. Fortunately, the safety driver wasn’t hurt, and no other vehicles were involved.

But the impact of these high-profile collisions in short succession caused the industry to take a step back to reflect: “Are we racing too fast toward full autonomy at the expense of safety?”

The Caution Flag
Today, most companies in the self-driving space are setting more sober expectations compared to the year or so leading up to Herzberg’s death in March 2018.

For example, when Raquel Urtasun, chief scientist with Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group, spoke about the challenges of self-driving development at a Reuters Newsmaker event in New York this April, she said, “Self-driving cars are going to be in our lives. The question of when is not clear yet. To have it at scale is going to take a long time.”

At a Detroit Economic Club event in April, Jim Hackett, chief executive officer at Ford Motor Co., said that too much hype had been built up around how soon self-driving cars will hit the road. “We overestimated the arrival of autonomous vehicles,” he said. While Ford’s first self-driving car is still coming in 2021, “its applications will be narrow, what we call geofenced, because the problem is so complex.”

Tesla is the lone player in this space saying that full self-driving is imminent.

On April 22, at an investor event that Tesla promoted as “Autonomy Day,” CEO Elon Musk said that Tesla would have a million “robotaxis” on the road next year, meaning a million truly autonomous cars that can operate commercially in a ride-hailing network, generating passive income for their owners.

Industry analyst sentiment was generally skeptical.

Tesla investors and analysts – no media members were invited – had the opportunity to ride in the cars in full self-driving mode but were not permitted to film the drive. The experience left some analysts with more questions than answers.

As reported by CNBC, Deutsche Bank analyst Emmanuel Rosner, who took a test drive of the vehicles Tesla showed, said, “Given our own test ride still faced issues despite being on a preplanned course and under relatively simple road conditions, we believe the company’s targeted timeline for both full self-driving and its robotaxi service is at the very least aggressive. Ultimately, we still wonder whether Tesla can even solve the large challenges of fully autonomous driving with its vision-based approach alone.”

The Bottom Line
Although most companies in the self-driving race have tapped the brakes and pulled back from their more aggressive timelines, consider the progress made in the past decade with the increased availability of advanced driver-assist systems – the building blocks for automation, which include auto-braking, lane-keeping assist and blind spot detection – that are saving lives today.

Full self-driving may be much further away than anticipated. But in the pursuit of improving driver safety, it’s a good thing that Google shot for the moon and the industry followed.


Going Sideways: Technology that Protects Crews in Rollover Incidents

It was early 2017.

A crew for Oklahoma City-based Oklahoma Gas & Electric (OG&E) was traveling on the highway in a Class 8 digger derrick when the unforeseen happened.

There was a truck pulling a trailer ahead of them when, suddenly, the axle broke off that trailer and began hurtling, with wheels still attached, toward the digger derrick.

As the OG&E driver swerved to avoid the incoming debris, his truck flipped onto its side before coming to a stop.

“The driver was okay, and the passenger broke his hand, but it could have been a lot worse,” said Paul Jefferson, fleet manager at OG&E, who oversees about 2,000 of the utility’s fleet assets.

His crew was indeed fortunate. In fact, rollover crashes account for 55 percent of all commercial truck driver fatalities, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

“The driver did a great job by setting [the truck] down on the shoulder of the road,” he said. “If they had gone any farther, they would have hit the embankment.”

This was an eye-opening experience for Jefferson and his team. After all, even when you equip your trucks with stability control and advanced collision-avoidance technologies, and your drivers consistently follow safety best practices, there still are incidents like this that your people won’t be able to avoid.

So, if you can’t prevent all rollovers through technology and driver training, how can you at least reduce injury risk when a rollover does occur?

That’s the question Jefferson posed to his truck OEM reps.

The consensus: add a seat option equipped with the RollTek side rollover protection system by IMMI (www.imminet.com).

How It Works
RollTek combines side airbag protection with advancements in seat-belt technology to reduce the potential for death or serious injury in a rollover incident.

How does it work?

When the roll sensor inside the cab detects an imminent rollover, the system deploys three components in about a quarter of a second. The occupant pretensioner tightens the seat belt to keep the occupant secure in the seat. The suspension seat drops to its lowest position to increase survivable space. And the side airbag inflates to cushion the head impact, reducing head and neck injuries.

Passenger Seat Availability
Jefferson now specs RollTek-equipped seats on all of his fleet’s new Class 8 trucks. But when he first started ordering the RollTek option, his truck OEMs only offered it for the driver side.

“At the time, [the OEMs] didn’t have it engineered for the passenger side because there wasn’t a lot of demand,” he said.

But Jefferson pushed for the passenger option – and eventually got it added for his spec.

“I told [the OEMs] that if there’s ever an accident, you can’t tell the widow of the passenger, ‘It’d cost too much money to put [RollTek protection] on the passenger side,’” Jefferson said.

UFP reached out to Julie Cooley, director of marketing communications at IMMI, to get more information on passenger-side availability for RollTek. 

“While IMMI encourages the truck OEM to include the passenger-side version in their engineering project when releasing RollTek in a specific cab model, some OEMs do not elect to release a passenger-side version,” Cooley said. “Some OEMs may elect to release only the driver side initially, while later including the passenger side. A lot of time it is limited engineering resources being deployed to the highest volume.”

But Cooley added that IMMI has noticed a growing interest in the passenger-side version. “In the past, fleets that had included both sides were primarily van trailer applications,” she said. “Now we are seeing more demand of RollTek in vocational applications, and we are seeing vocational fleets that might have a driver and passenger in the truck specifying both sides.”

Under the Radar?
Are most utility fleet professionals aware of this type of safety technology? Or is it still under the radar?

“I think it’s still under the radar,” Jefferson said. “I really do. I’ve talked to some people in the industry about it. Most people don’t know about it.”


Safety Tech to Have on Your Radar
Besides side rollover protection systems, here are three other fleet safety technologies that may not be on your radar – but should be.

1. Anemometers for Aerial and Lift Trucks
Either hand-held or attached to the aerial platform, an anemometer measures wind velocity to ensure crews do not use aerial devices in unsafe wind conditions. One system from Etesian Technologies (www.etesian-tech.com), for example, alerts crews with a text message the moment that wind speeds exceed safe levels. 

2. Wheel Lug Nut Indicators
These are directional attachments to the lug nuts that enable the vehicle operator to quickly spot loose wheel nuts with a visual inspection. For example, with Wheel-Check (www.wheel-check.com), the wheel-nut indicators are placed in a uniform pattern on the wheel nuts after the wheel nuts have been torqued to spec. This way, if a wheel nut becomes loose, the indicator will appear out of sequence, making it easy for drivers to spot it on their pre-trip inspection.

3. Voltage Detectors on Construction Equipment
These also are referred to as “power-line proximity devices” that alert operators when the machine gets near high voltage. For example, the Voltek NS by Voltek Systems (www.volteksystems.com) uses a wire antenna running the length of the boom of the equipment to detect the electromagnetic field when working near power lines. The system translates the detected relative strength of the electromagnetic field into usable information for the operator. So, if the system senses a strong voltage signal, it will generate a warning siren with increasing frequency, telling the operator to proceed with caution. But if the machine gets dangerously close to a power line, the siren will alert with a more urgent constant sound, and the system will shut the machine down.


The Latest Developments in Drones for the North American Utility Sector

Although drone sales in the North American utility market will reach only about $850,000 in 2018, that number is expected to grow by more than 20 times – to $25 million – by 2026, as U.S. regulations ease and drone technology improves.

That’s the outlook from Michael Hartnack, a research analyst covering drones and robotics for transmission and distribution operations worldwide for Navigant Research. (For Navigant’s full market report, visit www.navigantresearch.com/research/drones-and-robotics-for-transmission-and-distribution-operations.)

While those numbers might appear underwhelming, they represent hardware sales only, and not revenue from ancillary drone services – such as piloting, training, software development, data management, cybersecurity and other support offerings – which will make the overall U.S. utility drone market significantly larger, Hartnack said.

So, what exactly is the state of drones in the North American utility sector today? What pieces need to fall into place to accelerate growth? And what are some of the most interesting future possibilities?

UFP recently spoke with Hartnack to get his perspective. Here is an edited version of our conversation.

UFP: With all the buzz surrounding the potential for drones in utility applications, the market size you’re quoting is much smaller than one might expect. Why is that?

Michael Hartnack: Right now, there aren’t many utilities that own drones. And the ones that do may buy three, 10, 15 or, at most, 20 units. So, when you consider that the price of a drone is anywhere from $8,000 to $50,000, that doesn’t equate to a tremendous dollar amount for the overall market.

Today, the utilities that are using drones are doing so as part of a limited pilot program – and that’s where things are going to stay until regulations are eased. So, there’s a ton of potential for drones, but everything is kind of stalled right now.

That’s why, in our research, you see an exponential growth curve. There’s minimal growth until the middle of the forecast. And then the market takes off.

What assumptions are you making to explain such a steep growth curve?

One assumption is that the FAA will ease regulations, specifically the rule that requires the drone to always be in the line of sight of the operator. This would enable utilities to inspect much longer segments of power lines per flight, making drones more efficient, productive and practical.

So far, Xcel Energy [based in Minneapolis] is the only utility company that has been granted an exception by the FAA to fly drones beyond the operator’s line of sight.

So, is your assumption that the FAA will ease line-of-sight restrictions across the board for utilities?

Yes. It’s hard for me to put a precise timeline on it, but for most people I have spoken to in the industry, one to three years is about when they expect the FAA to start granting more exceptions like they have done for Xcel Energy on a much bigger scale.

Beyond regulations, what’s holding back wider-spread adoption of drones by utilities?

Once you take the regulations out of it, you still have a technology barrier. For the most part, the technology required to do a lot of the work utilities want them to do is already here. For example, the ability to put a camera on a drone and fly it over and inspect transmission lines – that’s here.

The issue now becomes, how far can the drone fly without having to be recharged? How can it be controlled without somebody piloting near it?

There are a lot of technological questions that need to be answered, but none of those questions is really being addressed right now because of the line-of-sight issue.

As this market grows, will you see utilities own their drones or outsource that function of their operations?

Right now, utilities, for the most part, own their drones. But I think there will be a shift toward a more hybrid approach where utilities may own the drone itself but outsource other aspects of drone operations. They’ll say, “OK, I’m going to own the drone, but I want to use your pilots and software platform where all I need to do is plug into an app and see the data.”

What are some exciting possibilities for drones that could create game-changing breakthroughs for utility operations?

One possibility is being able to install a drone in a box under a transmission line or a substation, and program it along the lines of, “OK, once a month, I want this drone to fly over a preset area of this transmission line.” And it would have a long enough battery life to do the job. Or, in some cases, the drones could return to home base and get a new battery all by themselves, and then get back to work, flying over the line, doing this whole thing autonomously. The end game here is total autonomy; you’re removing the human, as much as possible, from having to be involved with the process.

Another cool application is using drones for light repairs on transmission lines. Right now, if you have a fault that’s caused by a tree branch, you have to roll a truck out there, get everyone all geared up in their safety equipment, cut the power and perform the repair.

But what if you could sit there in the truck and send a drone up with two little robotic arms that grab the tree branch and throw it to the side? And maybe it can do some minor line repair with tape and insulators and things like that. You can save a lot of money and time, minimize power disruption to customers and, most importantly, improve worker safety.

You talk to any utility and the first thing they’ll say is, “Well, this needs to be safe.” Putting a drone up there in these situations is safer than putting a person up there.


What Will It Take for Autonomous Vehicles to be Ready for Prime Time?

When it comes to fully autonomous vehicles becoming commercially available, industry consensus is that it’s not a question of if but when. And that time frame appears to be within the next two to three years.

For example, industry research firm Navigant Research (www.navigantresearch.com) expects that highly automated light-duty vehicles will begin to be introduced in 2020, with steady growth anticipated starting in 2025.

Then there’s Waymo (https://waymo.com) – formerly the Google self-driving car project – pushing the pace, saying that it will roll out fully self-driving taxi rides to the public by the end of this year, with a plan to operate 1 million self-driving miles by 2020.

And at the NTEA Work Truck Show in March, Ed Peper, vice president of fleet at GM (www.gm.com), said that the automaker expects to launch fully self-driving vehicles “safely and at scale” in ridesharing applications in 2019.

But fatal crashes in recent weeks – involving an Uber vehicle in fully autonomous mode and a Tesla Model X with Autopilot engaged – also have caused many in the industry and government to pump the brakes on vehicle testing, creating some uncertainty around when robots will actually rule the roads.

So, what needs to happen for fully autonomous vehicles to be ready for prime time?

UFP spoke with Sam Abuelsamid, senior analyst for Navigant Research, to get his perspective.

Innovation vs. Regulation: Striking the Right Balance
Abuelsamid said that the industry and regulators need to develop standards that achieve a delicate balance between innovation and regulation.

“We don’t want to stifle innovation or development of technology,” he said. “At the same time, I think that if we’re going to put these vehicles on public roads – either for testing purposes or commercial deployment – we need to take a look at some basic standards and make sure that the vehicles that we’re putting on the road achieve at least a minimum level of safety.”

What might those standards involve?

“We can begin by taking a look at developing standards for the sensing systems on these vehicles – to make sure that they can reliably ‘see’ in a wide range of driving conditions,” Abuelsamid said. “And then we need to make sure that the systems can react and do the right thing under those conditions. We should have confidence that when the autonomous systems detect something, that they’re going to make the right decision. As human drivers, we have to take a basic driving test to get a license to drive. We should have the same expectation when it comes to licensing a car to drive itself.”

The Machine-to-Human Handoff Hassle
In both the Uber and Tesla crash incidents, the human driver in the vehicle was required to be fully aware and ready to take over control when necessary. But it’s precisely this machine-to-human handoff situation that can be dangerous, according to Abuelsamid.

“I get to drive a lot of different vehicles and try out these different technologies,” he said. “And unfortunately, I’m increasingly coming to the opinion that the partially automated systems like [Tesla] Autopilot and others that require a handoff to a human being are actually a bad idea. I think that having a human as a supervisor for these systems is fundamentally not going to be safe or workable because as soon as you start getting reasonably comfortable with the technology, people quickly become complacent.”

What’s the solution?

“What we should do is move away from these partially automated systems to fully automated systems, even if they’re limited in their scope in terms of where they can operate,” Abuelsamid said. “I have no problem with testing the systems and using them in limited conditions. But I think that is a better approach than relying on a human to oversee the system because that’s what we had in the recent Uber [crash] case.”

Remote Control
Last year, Nissan (www.nissan-global.com) introduced a remote control system for autonomous vehicles called Seamless Autonomous Mobility, or SAM. The way it works is that when the car encounters an unpredictable situation – such as a new road-construction area – it brings itself to a safe stop and requests help from the command center. The request is routed to the first available mobility manager – a person who uses vehicle images and sensor data, streamed over a wireless network, to assess the situation, decide on the correct action and create a safe path around the obstruction. Once the vehicle has cleared the area, it resumes fully autonomous operations, and the mobility manager is free to help other vehicles calling for assistance.

So, is a remote control system like this a viable solution to give human passengers greater confidence in an autonomous vehicle?

“I think that some degree of remote control is going to be a necessity for autonomous vehicles,” Abuelsamid said. “There are going to be certain situations where the vehicle gets stuck and is unable to figure out what to do. So, having a remote operator who can see what the vehicle sees and guide it through certain scenarios or to a safe place if there’s some sort of system failure is a good thing. But that’s not something that’s ever going to be scalable to all the vehicles on the road. It would be used as an emergency-only backup.”

What about cybersecurity? How much of a challenge is that right now?

“It’s a huge issue that all the OEMs are going to have to deal with to make sure that autonomous vehicles are both secure and resilient,” Abuelsamid said. “When you have complex systems like these, you can never guarantee absolute security. It’s not possible. No one can say that a system is 100 percent secure with as much code as these systems are running. The technology must be resilient so that when there is a security breach, it can be detected and the vehicle brought to a safe stop.”

How optimistic is Abuelsamid that automakers are making cybersecurity a top priority?

“The good news is that manufacturers have recognized that cybersecurity is a real issue,” he said. “Four years ago, I could not say that was true; they weren’t taking it very seriously. But now they are.”

The Bottom Line
What needs to happen for fully autonomous vehicles to expand beyond niche robo-taxi applications to achieve significant scale?

Here’s how Abuelsamid put it: “People have to trust that these vehicles are going to behave properly – that they’re going to be reliable. The public needs the confidence that the autonomous vehicle is safer than a human driver.”

And that timeline is not so certain.


What Do AI and Machine Learning Mean for Utility Fleets?

There are some people who still believe artificial intelligence (AI) is no more than sci-fi wizardry. And there are others who tend to view it with blind optimism, as a kind of be-all, end-all for industries of all types. But somewhere in between, AI has taken its true place as just one piece of a much broader technology transformation.

Both AI and machine learning – a field of computer science that enables computers to think intelligently and even “learn” from historical data without specifically being programmed – eventually will make their way to utility fleets, perhaps through relationships with other industries. David Groarke, managing director of Indigo Advisory Group (www.indigoadvisorygroup.com), a new-energy/utilities consulting firm, ticked off some possibilities. These might involve, for example, electric fleet vehicles automatically being charged during off-peak times. Or, they might include the use of telematics to better predict and adjust driver behaviors. Examples abound in other industries, too, such as supply chain and logistics.

As a result, Groarke and others have said, now is the time for utility fleet professionals to take notes, ask questions, be willing to share data for more accurate and strategic insights – and keep pushing the envelope by exploring what-if applications.

“More information is always better,” said Paul Millington, vice president of technology products for Element Fleet Management (www.elementfleet.com). “As experts who are dedicated to fleet, we make it our job to anticipate what insights our customers would be looking for. I’d say keep asking the questions of your fleet management company and others on whether your objectives could be achieved with machine learning.”

Millington and Marius Stroe, Element Fleet’s director of software development, referenced a maintenance management project that uses AI to more efficiently handle vendor authorizations and proposed pricing. Rather than separating out utility fleets, Millington said, incorporating the data into a broader set can reveal different insights, perhaps related to similarities in usage patterns or asset types. That could result in “better recommendations and better understanding for all, regardless of industry,” he said.

Not-So-New Technology
Groarke noted that even though these concepts might seem futuristic, machine learning has been around “for a very long time. The utility industry has been using machine learning in how it operates the grid since the 1970s. But we’re only starting to get really sophisticated big data sets now.”

For example, with more sensors on vehicles, more data can be explored, which can lead to more patterns being recognized and inferences being made. This is especially the case with safety and maintenance, and inroads are being made.

Even so, Groarke said, he’s still seeing some skepticism among certain groups. “They really want to see if the proof is in the pudding, to look at the numbers and see why they should invest in this technology.”

For those groups in particular, he recommended keeping an eye open. The ability to better process data eventually can lead to the ability to make smarter business decisions.

Stroe, meanwhile, referenced the importance of constant dialogue between technology experts and business leaders as the field evolves. Ongoing education is essential on all sides.

“You have to have the technology team explain to business leaders what machine learning is and how it works,” he said. “You also have to have business leaders explain all of the features of the enterprise to the technology team.” In many cases, company technology teams already are exploring these possibilities – but the external conversations haven’t yet taken place.

The experts also urge dialogue with OEMs to help further insights.

“It’s interesting to see how manufacturers are starting to leverage some of this data,” Millington said. “That’s part of the next frontier that fleet managers will need to start thinking about. Fleet management companies have some influence over OEMs, but it’s the client base in the utility space that really has a lot of influence.”

About the Author: Fiona Soltes is a longtime freelance writer based just outside Nashville, Tenn. Her regular clients represent a variety of sectors, including fleet, engineering, technology, logistics, business services, disaster preparedness and material handling. Prior to her freelance career, Soltes spent seven years as a staff writer for The Tennessean, a daily newspaper serving Nashville and the surrounding area.


First Steps for AI and Machine Learning
Don’t know where to begin when it comes to artificial intelligence as it relates to your utility’s fleet? David Groarke, managing director of Indigo Advisory Group, offered a few suggestions:

  • Seek to understand the AI and machine learning solutions that already are emerging. This likely will involve looking at other industries and exploring how efforts might translate to utility fleets.
  • Do more with the data you already have on hand. Look at the information that sensors are providing. Explore the technology and software that are available. This will help engender trust in – and perhaps build excitement about – what’s possible.
  • Realize the different uses of AI and machine learning will be introduced incrementally. “We’re not in a period of disruption,” Groarke said. “These are changes that are going to take decades.” With that said, there still are elements that can help businesses in the shorter term.

3 Ways Telematics Can Help Improve Fleet Safety

One benefit of implementing a telematics solution is that it can help create a safer environment for utility fleet employees. How? UFP recently reached out to several industry experts, who provided three of the most valuable ways telematics data is currently being used to strengthen fleet safety.  

1. Telematics solutions can be used to monitor driving behavior and coach drivers.
Each day, fleet managers are tasked with ensuring the safety of their drivers as well as the public. Analyzing telematics data can help reveal driving trends and behaviors – such as speeding, hard braking, rapid acceleration, hard turns and unauthorized usage – that may be contrary to a company’s safety policies. 

“The data available through telematics is much more than maintenance and fuel transactions; it can track or predict behaviors that impact fleet costs,” said Spero A. Skarlatos, CTP, senior consultant, truck solutions for Element Fleet Management (www.elementfleet.com).

And once an undesirable trend or behavior is discovered, some telematics providers, such as GPS Insight (www.gpsinsight.com), provide real-time and post-incident coaching for drivers on ways they can improve. Feedback can come in the form of text messages to the driver that tell them to slow down, or a buzzer that goes off to coach drivers in the cab in real time. In addition, according to Ryan Driscoll, GPS Insight’s marketing director, the company also supplies “actionable data for managers to coach their drivers after the fact to help educate drivers on how to improve behavior behind the wheel.”

Telematics-based driver coaching also leverages gamification, informing drivers of how they compare to their peers in terms of safe driving behavior and related areas, such as deployment of onboard scales integrated into telematics systems to make sure vehicles are not loaded beyond their weight rating, according to Geoff Scalf, director of global oil and gas business development for Telogis (www.telogis.com).

2. Telematics data is being used to improve emergency response times.
Another valuable way fleets are using telematics data is to find new ideas to more quickly respond to emergency situations.

With telematics, Driscoll said, “[w]hen utilities send their crews in to help, they can see their entire fleet, make decisions on which trucks can be used to help and ensure they take the proper routes.”

In addition to knowing where fleet vehicles are, knowing where a technician or crew is located in real time also is critical, especially for sending help when it is needed. So, what about those times when a lineworker is alone or doesn’t have access to a phone, and calling for help may be impossible?

GPS Insight created a custom panic button on a key fob, specifically designed to operate independently of the user’s vehicle, that can be tapped when an emergency arises. This alerts dispatch/management, who can then send help.

3. Telematics systems provide greater asset visibility. 
Gaining visibility of assets is the most important use of telematics systems for utility fleets, according to Kimberly Clark, director of telematics products for Element Fleet Management.

“Safety of drivers and security of the vehicles is always critical in both everyday work and the post-event response work where drivers and vehicles might be deployed hundreds of miles away from their home territory,” she said.

Through the use of telematics, utility fleets can get a clear picture of what’s really going on with their fleet operations – in particular, the vehicles and equipment.

“This includes analysis of congregation of vehicles at sites, getting visibility to storm surge assets deployment in critical areas, providing customers access to real-time technician deployments in their neighborhood, and tracking productivity metrics to maximize technician site time and associated grid online needs,” Clark explained.

Asset visibility is just as important for maintenance work as it is for new construction work; to control project costs, it is essential to tightly manage the fleet’s assets and the utilization of those assets at construction sites. In terms of vehicle utilization, gaining greater asset visibility through telematics use can help fleets better plan for the types of vehicles needed in the field and where to place trucks with specific upfits, Clark said.

Telematics solutions also can capture odometer readings and automate reminders for any type of maintenance needed based on those odometer readings, run time or scheduled dates. These reminders are sent to the driver, the mechanic and management so that services are not overlooked or forgotten about. Reports also can be run to determine if any services are overdue.

“Critical to effective asset management is knowing assets are well-maintained and compliant with acceptable safety standards,” Scalf said. “With electronic [driver vehicle inspection reports], inspection information is uploaded on the spot, giving management an up-to-the-minute overview of equipment safety.”

Other telematics features, such as routing, also can advise drivers to avoid unsafe roads, bad weather and more.

About the Author: Grace Suizo has been covering the automotive fleet industry since 2007. She spent six years as an editor for five fleet publications and has written more than 100 articles geared toward both commercial and public sector fleets.


The Future of Drones in the Utility Market

Darting about inside one of Consolidated Edison’s 10-story steam boilers in Manhattan, the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) looks like a hobbyist’s dream, a multirotor mini-helicopter outfitted with a megapixel camera mounted inside a gyroscopically balanced geodesic sphere. But don’t look for it at your local hobby store. It’s a custom-built UAV – also known as a drone – that ConEd’s engineers are testing as they explore the potential benefits of this new and growing technology.

To say that utility executives are excited about the possible uses of drones is a significant understatement. Most utilities are exploring the possibilities at one level or another, said Chris McMurtry, solutions architect with Sharper Shape (http://sharpershape.com), a supplier of UAV services for utilities. “Of the major utilities, probably 80 percent have some sort of drone initiatives going right now, and almost all [utilities] have put in a lot of hours thinking about this,” he said.

The most common use to date has been to provide safer and more economical inspections of transmission and distribution infrastructure.

When inspecting a tower or other vertical infrastructure that’s within sight, “a drone will beat just about any other method you’ve got, whether it’s a bucket truck, binoculars, helicopter or climbing that asset,” said Dexter Lewis, senior research engineer with Southern Company Services. “It doesn’t matter how big the structure, that use case will probably return value.” Southern Co. is the parent of several utilities.

But the potential of UAVs goes well beyond that.

“We’re beginning to look at applications for storm recovery and damage assessment,” said Margarett Jolly, director of research and development at ConEd. “The aspect that is interesting is creating visualization technology that will make damage assessments more accurate. It will help make our recovery process quicker and more efficient.”

ConEd’s boiler drone has the potential to eliminate the need to build scaffolding for inspectors inside the tall structures, thus saving time and money, and reducing the possibility of accidents, said Jade Wong, project manager of research and development with ConEd.

“Gone are the days when we have to send someone into a manhole or climb a tower,” she said.

ConEd continues to test other applications, but they plan to implement the automatic inspection of transmission towers using the drone program in 2018, Jolly said.

While the potential uses of UAVs may carry a big wow factor, enthusiasm is currently held in check by regulations, as well as finding the applications that make the most business sense. (For more, see the “Regulations Create Obstacles to Wider UAV Use” sidebar below.)

Without waivers from the Federal Aviation Administration, commercial drones cannot be flown beyond the operator’s visual line of sight (BVLOS), at night or over people, among other restrictions.

When inspecting towers without a BVLOS waiver, a utility has to look at which solution makes the most sense, Lewis said. The more towers or the greater the distance that has to be covered, the more the business case may shift to favor a more traditional option, or an outside service.

The Hidden-Cost Hurdle
Drones are plentiful and relatively cheap. A Phantom 4 Pro with a 20-megapixel camera from DJI (www.dji.com), the world’s largest consumer drone manufacturer, has an online retail list price starting from $1,499. The real financial considerations come into play when utilities look at what data they want to collect and what to do with it, according to Michael Hartnack, an analyst with Navigant Research (www.navigantresearch.com).

“It’s more than just buying a drone,” he said. “You need a system to aggregate the data and integrate them into the utility’s infrastructure. That can be very expensive.”

Right now, I don’t think many utilities want to take it all on themselves,” said Ed Hine, director of drone capability development for HAZON Solutions (http://hazonsolutions.com). “They want a hybrid model. Down the road … I expect some companies will continue to contract it out, but I see other companies taking on their own capability as systems will get a lot more automated.”

Most utilities are still feeling their way along, McMurtry said. “As this shakes out and drone technologies and regulations become more simplified, a lot of work will be done in-house, particularly visual inspections. But when doing infrared or [radar], it’s a different level of difficulty and I think utilities will outsource most of those activities.”

About the Author: Jim Galligan has been covering the commercial truck transportation sector for more than 30 years and has extensive experience covering the utility fleet market. In addition to writing and editing for magazines, his background also includes writing for daily newspapers, trade associations and corporations.


Regulations Create Obstacles to Wider UAV Use
Although the Federal Aviation Administration last August relaxed the regulations covering commercial UAVs, there still are regulatory hurdles utilities must clear to realize more of the potential benefits of drones.

The most significant, industry experts said, is the requirement that drones cannot fly beyond the operator’s visual line of sight (BVLOS). That severely limits the value case for using drones where they could be most beneficial – when inspecting infrastructure in rural areas or over long distances. Among other restrictions, commercial drones currently cannot be operated at night or above people, both of which effectively prevent widespread use for assessing storm damage.

Businesses can apply for a waiver of these regulations, but so far only a few have been granted and none to utilities, according to Chris Hickling, director of government relations for Edison Electric Institute (www.eei.org).

As of mid-July of this year, the FAA had received 5,037 waiver applications, approximately 70 percent of which were for nighttime flights and 18 percent that involved BVLOS flights, an agency spokesman said. The FAA does not break those numbers down into business sectors.

Notably, EEI has applied to the FAA for a blanket BVLOS waiver that would cover many utilities, but the association has not yet received approval.

“We’re in the middle ground; we haven’t gotten a yes or no,” Hickling said.

Matt Dunlevy, CEO of SkySkopes (http://skyskopes.com), an inspection and data-collection services company, said the reason for the delays in granting waivers or opening up the skies to wider commercial use is essentially due to the absence of airworthiness standards for drones.

“There is no method of getting them certified as airworthy in mass quantities,” he said. Thus, waivers are being considered on a case-by-case basis.

The FAA currently is working on setting standards for operating over people in congested areas, Dunlevy said, and he expects that BVLOS standards will be next on the list.

EEI’s Hickling said he’s optimistic because Congress has taken an interest in commercial drones, which may pressure the FAA to speed things up.

“There is a push [on the FAA] to give critical industries, such as utilities, a focus on some of these elements,” he said.


A Growing Market
The commercial unmanned aerial vehicle market is taking off. Navigant Research has estimated that global revenue from UAVs and similar robotics technologies and their services will grow from $131.7 million in 2015 to $4.1 billion in 2024.

Michael Hartnack, research analyst for Navigant, said the company would release an updated report later this year, but that he expected that their estimate of the total value by mid-decade likely would be higher.


Using Technology to Reduce Engine Idle

In the U.S., roughly 3 billion gallons of diesel fuel and gasoline are consumed each year by idling engines on medium- and heavy-duty trucks, according to Argonne National Laboratory (www.anl.gov). So, improving fuel economy – and thus lowering fuel expenses – without sacrificing performance is a must for utility fleets that often have to idle assets during working hours. 

UFP recently reached out to industry experts to gain some deeper insight about this issue and discover possible idling solutions for utility fleet operations.

A Changing Landscape
For a long time, technology selections for medium-duty trucks were very limited, according to George Survant, senior director of fleet relations for NTEA – The Association for the Work Truck Industry (www.ntea.com).

But that’s changing. And while many fleets take a driver-behavior-based approach to idle reduction, one advantage of an equipment-based solution is that the change typically is good for the life of the equipment, said Survant, who also spent more than 25 years as a telecom fleet manager.

“We, as fleet operators, are becoming more sophisticated in our acceptance of new technology and sensitive to the need for better solutions,” he said. “Consequently, the market is producing more viable solutions that are made for an increasing number of applications.”

In Survant’s experience, each of the segments of a fleet may require different types of solutions to reduce idling based on vehicle type/mission. Idle reduction technologies for medium-duty trucks include air heaters, coolant heaters, waste-heat recovery systems and battery/auxiliary power systems, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (https://energy.gov/).

“For vehicles with extreme temperature swings – high or low or both – cab heating and cooling from stored energy may be a legitimate tool,” he said. “Stored energy solutions also may work for high-PTO-use equipment. With some of the new OEM products, where the manufacturer is increasing torque and horsepower with smaller displacement engines, a careful review of the legacy truck specification may reveal impressive opportunity for improvement.”

Additionally, Survant said some of the best opportunities for idle reduction come from vehicles built with stop-start technology. He noted that the “technology can be unsettling to the driver until they learn to trust the equipment’s restart capabilities, along with understanding the slightly different driving technique needed to take advantage of these capabilities.”

It is important to recognize that while some vehicles may share a basic description and upfit, not all of them will necessarily benefit from an idle mitigation strategy. For instance, “Think of an aerial unit that could use stored energy for PTO operations but does not deploy the aerial unit often enough to justify the cost of the mitigation strategy,” Survant explained.

Realizing Benefits
Washington-based Clark Public Utilities wanted to provide its fleet exceptionally reliable equipment, reduce its dependency on fuel and lower transportation emissions – in that order, said Paul Chamberlain, fleet services manager for CPU.

The company sought a solution that would not impede upon the work required of the equipment, but that would provide operators access to heat and air conditioning, offer programmable features, be cost-effective, and have the capability of managing numerous inputs and outputs.

Of CPU’s 265-unit fleet, 29 over-the-road vehicles have been upfitted with idle management systems. The company is currently using two different systems: GRIP Idle Management System by Canadian Extreme Climate Systems (www.gripidlemanagement.com) for light- and medium-duty equipment, and Zone Technologies’ OZONE TECH (www.zonetechnologie.com/en/products/idle-reduction-system/) for heavy-duty equipment. According to Chamberlain, CPU prioritized integration of idle management systems onto equipment that exhibited high levels of idling as well as high levels of mechanical failures due to idling.

The idle reduction module is designed to start and stop the engine within a controlled set of programmability values and ambient temperature. It can be integrated into both gas and diesel engine applications within the electrical system of any vehicle.

The results? “We are averaging about a 25 percent reduction within the trucks upfitted with idle management, with a fleet average of about 15 percent overall,” Chamberlain said. “Not all of it has been as the result of technology, but has been a combination of technology and employees making an effort to shut their vehicles off when they do not need to idle.”

Where to Start
If you’re wondering where to begin with an idle reduction strategy for your fleet, first and foremost, be clear about what you are trying to achieve.

“It is imperative to know what you need and are expecting from an idle management system,” Chamberlain said. “There are vendors more than willing to work with you toward a solution that will meet your needs.”  

Survant shared similar advice: “Weigh the existing fleet performance and forecast the amount of improvement potential to the units you are upgrading to the new technology. Some segments of your fleet may only get a 2 to 3 percent reduction in fuel burned, but when evaluated against the cost of the mitigation strategy, even what appears to be a modest improvement has the potential to provide a solid return on your investment.”

Good techniques for addressing fleet engine idling include identifying the idle characteristics of your fleet by vehicle type, understanding the root cause of the high-idle conditions you need to address and finding good technology-to-mission matches to deploy anti-idle strategies.

“As more and more equipment goes into service with idle mitigation technology, every gain becomes a permanent improvement in your operation into the fleet’s future for the life of the new technology,” Survant said.

About the Author: Grace Suizo has been covering the automotive fleet industry since 2007. She spent six years as an editor for five fleet publications and has written more than 100 articles geared toward both commercial and public sector fleets.


A Recovering Fleet Manager’s Guide to ICUEE

In just a few weeks, thousands of field operators and fleet managers will visit the International Construction and Utility Equipment Exposition (www.icuee.com) in Louisville, Ky., with one thing on their minds: finding cost-effective equipment solutions that will make their crews more productive and enhance their emphasis on safe operation. Held every other year, ICUEE – The Demo Expo is perhaps the biggest equipment show for the electric utility industry.

After 30 years of working for an investor-owned utility, I’ve sat through my share of meetings with executives seeking to identify business plans and core values. But never did those efforts adequately convey the central concern of most fleet managers as this prayer a veteran mechanic once said before a monthly safety meeting: “Lord, don’t let us miss something that could cause someone to get hurt.”

Those simple words capture better than any corporate mission statement the true desire of fleet managers. Properly trained personnel and properly maintained equipment contribute to safe and productive work performance. Every person in an operation’s chain plays a critical role in achieving that goal. From stocking the right equipment, to thorough inspections and maintenance, to selecting the right equipment for your fleet, each is equally important.

ICUEE is an equipment show. More than 900 exhibitors will be there. When I’ve attended ICUEE in the past, my focus was becoming familiar with the latest technology and building relationships with peers, service providers and manufacturers. There’s much to compare. Often, I discovered that the lowest-cost option was not always the best option.

Terex Utilities (www.terex.com/utilities) will display at least 24 pieces of equipment, including aerial devices, digger derricks, auger drills and cranes. The Optima Series of aerial devices – the newest Terex product to be introduced at ICUEE – takes into account how productivity is impacted by each person in the operations chain. Lower ground access, for example, makes it easier for operators to enter and exit the bucket, allows one to easily hand off tools and supports ease of personnel rescue and platform debris cleanout. A simplified maintenance access and hose system makes it easier to keep equipment in top working order. For example, the new pedestal design provides convenient access to torque lower rotation bearing bolts.

Sharing knowledge with peers at ICUEE is just as important as seeing new equipment. Joe Suarez, director of fleets for Florida Power & Light, will present a case study with Dan Brenden, Terex Utilities’ director of engineering, on how our companies worked together to develop the Terex Load Alert system. This automatic load-sensing device supports safe work practices in aerial devices and has the potential to change the industry. We’ll also be introducing some new fleet management upgrades in the Terex Load Alert system. If you are attending the Utility Fleet Conference (www.utilityfleetconference.com) co-located at ICUEE, be sure to check out Joe and Dan’s session on Tuesday, Oct. 3. Finally, as ICUEE is The Demo Expo, Terex’s booth will provide visitors opportunities to see live demonstrations of our latest innovations and “Ask-A-Tech” any of your burning maintenance or service questions.

Desire for top-notch safety protocol remains a constant, but our industry is changing. As customers produce their own solar- and wind-powered electricity, utilities are realizing a devaluation of their revenue stream. Reimagining how the grid functions in the 21st century is the theme of the book “The Grid” by Gretchen Bakke. Engaging in this dialogue is critical for the health and well-being of the electric utility industry. We hope you’ll join Terex and AEM for the “Diversity In The Grid” luncheon with Ms. Bakke on October 4 to learn more about this important issue. Register online at www.icuee.com.

Fleet professionals never stop looking for reliable, cost-effective solutions that can aid their safe work practices. Your challenge is our challenge. Terex Utilities is listening.

About the Author: Ted Barron is vertical market product manager for Terex Utilities (www.terex.com/utilities). He joined the company in 2017 after a 30-year career with Alabama Power and Southern Co., where he managed fleet engineering and technical support, including designing equipment specs and overseeing maintenance. At Terex Utilities, Barron assists with new product development and application of technology for investor-owned utilities as well as public power, rental, contractor, tree care and international markets.


Confronting the Human Dilemma in a Brave New Self-Driving World

In his speech at the AutoMobili-D Conference in Detroit this past January, John Krafcik, the CEO at Waymo – formerly the Google self-driving car program – cited this compelling statistic: “Each year, more than 1.2 million people die on the roads around the world.”

He then put that number in context: “That’s equivalent to a 737 [airliner] falling from the sky every hour of every day all year long.”

Krafcik’s point is clear. Society would never tolerate having a major airline crash every day; so, how can it accept the same number of people dying in automotive crashes? If self-driving systems could prevent the vast majority of fatalities on the road, wouldn’t it be a moral imperative for society to adopt that technology?

That’s the argument that Krafcik, several Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and most automotive executives have been making in recent months as they present a vision of a “crash-less” society made possible by fully autonomous vehicles. After all, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 94 percent of crashes can be tied to human error. Remove the driver, eliminate human error – right?

But despite bold predictions by industry executives and analysts that fully autonomous vehicles will be available for sale in the U.S. within the next four years, human psychological barriers could put the brakes on societal adoption of this technology.


Fear of Autonomy
Consider this: Although autonomous vehicles offer the promise of significantly greater safety than their human-driven counterparts, U.S. drivers don’t believe it – at least not from an emotional and practical standpoint.

That’s based on the findings in a recent report from AAA, where three‐quarters of U.S. drivers said they would be afraid to ride in a self‐driving vehicle. And the majority – 54 percent – of those drivers said they would feel less safe sharing the road with fully autonomous vehicles while they drive a regular vehicle.

You might think, OK, that makes sense when you factor in older generations that may be more apprehensive about new technology, but what about millennials? Certainly, younger people would be much more open to riding in self-driving vehicles.

Yet according to the AAA study, 73 percent of millennials also indicated they were likely to be afraid to ride in a self-driving car, compared to 75 percent for Generation X and 85 percent for baby boomers – not that big of a difference.

So, how is the industry responding to counteract this fear?

Companies like Waymo, ride-hailing giant Uber and Boston-based nuTonomy have recently launched programs that offer self-driving rides to select passengers in limited locations around the world. The idea is to get people used to riding in these vehicles and to share their experiences with family, friends and colleagues, with the hopes of not only reducing fear but also increasing market demand for self-driving rides.

Collective Good vs. Self-Protection: The Double Standard
But then there’s also the issue of machine morality and how society will write the rules of the road for autonomous vehicles. When software assumes more and more of a human driver’s responsibility for decision-making, what moral model will govern those decisions?

Imagine this scenario: A self-driving vehicle is approaching a traffic situation where there will be an unavoidable crash. The car must decide between killing 10 pedestrians or its own passenger. What would you say would be the right moral choice?

According to a study titled “The Social Dilemma of Autonomous Vehicles” by scholars Jean-Francois Bonnefon, Azim Shariff and Iyad Rahwan, 76 percent of study participants said that it would be “more moral” for the autonomous vehicle to sacrifice one passenger than kill 10 pedestrians.

This is based on the moral philosophy of utilitarianism, where a morally good action is one that helps the greatest number of people – in this case, allowing the vehicle to sacrifice the one passenger to save 10 pedestrians.

But what if you’re the passenger of the self-driving car?

Now, that’s a different story. According to the study, you’re more likely to prefer a vehicle that will protect your life, not sacrifice it. “It appears that people praise utilitarian, self-sacrificing [autonomous vehicles] and welcome them on the road, without actually wanting to buy one for themselves,” the report states.

This is a prime example of what the researchers call a “social dilemma,” where people may have a strong consensus on what’s best for society as a whole but will still prefer to act in their own self-interest. And this double standard could have huge implications in terms of impeding the development of regulations that will make autonomous vehicles commercially available.

To encourage more public discussion on this issue on a global scale, one of the study’s authors, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Iyad Rahwan, launched Moral Machine (http://moralmachine.mit.edu/). It’s an online platform that invites the public to get involved with building a crowd-sourced picture of human opinion on how machines should make decisions when faced with moral dilemmas and discussing potential scenarios of moral consequence.

The Bottom Line
The emergence of self-driving systems could have a significant impact on utility fleet operations – by improving worker safety, boosting productivity and achieving the highest possible utilization rate from all your fleet assets. But there are human factors that go beyond technology development that could slow the market availability of these systems. Watch this space closely as technology companies, automakers and governments grapple with these societal issues to pave the way to a brave new self-driving world.

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