Interview: George de Boer, leader of connected car initiatives, TomTom Telematics

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What will be the impact of autonomous vehicles? George de Boer, leader of connected car initiatives at TomTom Telematics, does some crystal ball gazing. By John Challen.

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Will the changing face of the automotive industry make life easier for fleets?

Management systems have become essential tools for fleet managers and operators in recent years, helping to monitor and control company vehicles and employees when behind the wheel. But with so many systems in the marketplace – and with many of them offering the same or similar benefits – it can be confusing to know which is the right one to choose for a business.

TomTom Telematics is just one of the many service providers in the fleet management sphere, but it is fully focused on the evolution of the products it currently has, as well as preparing for new user models and forms of transportation. “We are using our 16 years of experience in commercial vehicles to get data from vehicles into one platform and making it understandable and valuable for fleet managers,” explains George de Boer, currently in charge of business development for connected cars, but a veteran of the TomTom business. “The role of the fleet manager is different for cars to commercial vehicles as the former is more about monitoring where the fleet is, how much it is costing the company and the promotion of safer driving. In passenger cars there isn’t the need to know exactly where vehicles are and when they will be at their destination – not at the moment, anyway.”

But de Boer maintains that TomTom – and the wider industry – needs to re-think the benefits of fleet management for passenger cars and how people look at and interpret data. “We say that if you want to drive adoption of our systems with drivers, you need to give them enough benefits,” he explains. “We have taken the back end technology of connecting two cars, but altered the front end – the applications of pre-journey and post-journey. Pre-journey, we are looking at how much fuel is in the tank and whether or not the driver needs to refuel and add more time to their journey. Post trip it could be knowing whether or not the door is locked on the car and where it is parked. All of the information makes your life as a driver more convenient.”

Health checks

In many companies, fleet managers have become ‘mobility’ managers, in response to the changing demands of drivers and the way they use their vehicles. “For increased mobility, we want to be able to monitor the health of the car and check there will be no problems with it,” explains de Boer. “We also want the ability to share that data with the mobility manager. It is a trend we are seeing more and more in leasing and rental where the traditional fleet manager is not only looking at the car but also other means of transport. To do this you need to have a good insight into the data of how and where the vehicles are being used.”

When it comes to driver benefits, de Boer sees the value in a workshop automatically calling and arranging a convenient time for a service. “Making things fit in with the needs and the demands of the driver means a lot to them,” he says. “This scenario focuses on the driver perspective, but we believe the process should also look at the wider connected world – the driver is living with a car that he can connect to the home. If you have a thermostat, why not make sure that your car is connected to the home so they can talk to each other and heat the house while you are on the way home?”

Business benefits

Away from the drivers, de Boer says there also needs to be benefits on the fleet and mobility management side – first and foremost having access to reliable and up to date data. “For leasing, we found it is very important that they have information in real time relating to the mileage,” he explains. “These figures could be used for maintenance reasons, or having the best idea of when to defleet or remarket a vehicle. If the driver approves of it, they can be given advice on what their next car should be. The mobility manager could have some insights not necessarily about where they have driven, but how they have driven. Short or long trips? Time of the week? International travel? Then you can decide whether diesel or petrol is better, or if a hybrid or electric vehicle would be a more suitable option.”

On the rental side, de Boer believes that same information can help with a faster service. “You would be able to see in advance if a car needs to be refuelled or not, or if anything has to be done with the car. For electric vehicles, you can quickly see if there is enough charge for it to be immediately rented out again or if it needs a fast charge,” he maintains. “You can look at geofencing – not necessarily monitoring where the car is, but more controlling it if it is going into areas you don’t want it to be in. If it is driving in a straight line towards the port, maybe the driver is planning on leaving the country, you might not want that so could stop them.”

There are various different solutions to cope with the new technologies that are making their way into the market and dealing with the growing amount of vehicle data. “We are looking at ideas that will help fleet managers better monitor their vehicles and also contemplate different forms of mobility,” says de Boer. “The drivers will also be happy, because they can have the option of other forms of mobility. Employees, in many cases, are not always asking for a company car but instead a mobility budget. If you want to give them this budget and calculate it based on how they use the car, then you have to include driving behaviour and driving style.”

First EVs, now AVs

“Autonomous vehicles present a great opportunity for the fleet market as there will be no autonomous vehicles in the future that aren’t connected to other cars, infrastructure or the environment around them. You need the connectivity to ensure they get the updates they need and to communicate with the environment, such as traffic lights.” That’s de Boer’s verdict and it’s likely to be sooner rather than later.

“There won’t be a world of purely autonomous vehicles – there will be a mixed environment of AVs and non-AVs. The other thing is that when you have a fleet AV, which is more expensive than a traditional vehicle, you probably want to share it. That means you need to call the car to come to a pickup point, so productivity will be more important, and that is just from a functional point of view.

“If I look at the vehicle safety, we are currently developing – from the TomTom part – HD maps and road DNA as a reference for the cars to be able to drive. For example, lane information and where an AV can ‘see’ around, which we can scan with our mobile mapping bands that have highly accurate equipment on top of the roof,” explains de Boer. “They provide accuracy within a centimetre, because the GPS isn’t accurate enough. Sourcing that data right now is being done by vehicles with a lot of equipment on board, but we want to update the maps with the data coming from the AVs themselves. That means they will also have cameras, sensors and lighter systems on the car and the data coming from it is maybe not as accurate as our current equipment that we use for mapping technology, but it is a valuable input.”

The TomTom man reveals that the company has been working with the Dutch government on a project, looking at using the sensors to spot any irregularities in the road or in weather conditions. “Where we now connect our car to see if the doors are locked, how much fuel there is or if there is something wrong with the engine – in a similar way we can connect to fog lights, temperature sensors and windscreen wipers to determine the local weather conditions,” he says. “If you take that one stage further, we can also connect to the ABS to spot slippery road conditions or the airbag and then you can have additional information and also warn the other autonomous vehicles that are around.

“Connectivity will only become more rather than less important, so it is critical that we are working heavily on it now.”

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