Recently, a semi came careening down our street, which by design is not intended for commercial travel, with trees, power, cable, telephone lines and a tree-hugger in his wake. Once subdued the driver stated, “My GPS sent me this way!” Whether your onboard with it or not, unequivocally, autonomous vehicles in some form or fashion will be part of the landscape very soon. However, there are a multitude of obstacles to overcome prior to that coming to fruition.
Currently, one challenge that is impeding the timely and accurate repair of all types of equipment is the ambiguously written repair data provided by manufacturers. This done in an attempt to protect their technological capital from their competitors as well as force the return the asset to their shop. Moreover, in this attempt to protect their intellectual capital, manufacturers do not openly communicate in explicit detail how the various systems function. In short, they hide behind a self-generated proprietary curtain by only giving a description on how the systems are designed to operate rather than an explicit explanation which perpetuates one (1) out of three (3) parts changed in error and a whole preponderance of other issues. Furthermore, even the factory trained technicians don’t have access to the complete data.
For a moment think about autonomous technology interfaced with acceleration, steering, traction control, stability, and anti-locking braking systems and you aren’t going to require the manufactures to indicate exactly how these systems function and interface. Currently, the technicians are attempting to proactively maintain electronic engine control and aftertreatment systems in order to meet EPA regulations without complete data on how they function and now we are on the forefront of adding autonomous systems that control the movement of the vehicles without the complete information on how they operate? Da!
In this same vein, another obstacle impeding this highly competitive industry is the manufacturers push for additional vertical integration, proprietary systems, and reduced number of options. Vertical Integration has several definitions however in this case is when a manufacturer and a supplier integrate to develop a proprietary system for the end product. In short, whatever system it’s developed for it will impede the execution of timely and cost-effective repairs due to proprietary replacement parts or software constraints. This will result in greater capital outlay for additional spare vehicles, increased downtime and cost due to ferrying to and from the dealership. Conversely, vertical integration will assist in the development of autonomous vehicles and will make them safer if the systems are functioning as designed. Additionally, from their perspective they feel it will improve quality, safety, lower production costs. Are they passing those cost savings on to the consumer?
In this industry with highly diverse needs, the assets must be spec’d all the way down to the types of tires, seats, alternators, batteries etc., not what they are able to procure at the lowest price in order increase their profit margin. The procurement of assets that are spec’d properly are as important to the success of the organization as the basic needs of oxygen, water, salt, sugar, minerals, and vitamins are to the human body. If the equipment is not spec’d to the operational needs of the organization cost, service, and utilization will suffer throughout the lifecycle of the asset due to the demands placed on it by the driver, customer, operations or a combination thereof. In short, organizations cannot afford to relinquish capital dollars then turn around and make necessary repairs to order to survive their operational demands. Options viable and/or perceived to work for one organization won’t work as designed for others. Moreover, they will be penalized by Wall Street and/or their financial backers for the reduced “asset utilization” and/or “asset to profit ratio.” If they, the manufacturers continue to push for vertical integration they will need to relinquish the extent of intellectual property in order to make effective repairs that will not put the general public at risk. Keep your proprietary systems and software but clearly define how it operates or intended to function. The FAA does not certify aircraft without defined repairs. Who has the smallest margin of error an aircraft coming into any airport or tractor/trailer on I-95 or I-5?
Currently, the focus of the EPA is to control what is being emitted out the tailpipe, however, they would be much more successful if they ensured the technicians had the data on how the system operated and if they went upstream and put tighter controls on fuel and diesel exhaust fluid (DEF) quality. If this data was readily available, it would not have taken so long to uncover the Volkswagen fiasco.
Lastly, think about the technician working on this equipment who is putting is reputation and livelihood on the line to repair this equipment while attempting to capture a sense of accomplishment from his/her chosen profession. In reality, the manufacturers are charging for this incomplete data in a manner and still not supplying an accurate description on how the systems function.
Autonomous and safety technologies have and will improve safety, but only when they work. When they don’t or an intermittent problem arises, it is imperative the technician have explicit data on how the systems are designed to function. And to accomplish this we will need a paradigm change for the betterment of safety, environment, and the economic growth of the organization, and ultimately for the nation. Ironically, if you think about it, mechanics have been working autonomously since the information started to diminish after the enactment of the clean air act of 1970.
In summary, our neighborhood was without power for four (4) hours and cable and phone for 24 hours and driver was not charged with a preventable accident. We desperately need the best of both worlds.