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Age of the smart fleet

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Whether you’re looking forward to sitting behind the controls of a driverless car or you’re less optimistic about the prospect, it seems certain that it is only a matter of time until they start to appear on Britain’s road network.

In 2016, Mercedes-Benz presented its Vision Van – a concept next-generation delivery van. With drones that can be launched from the roof and a joystick control, it offered a fairly radical vision of how emerging technologies are likely to transform our commercial vehicle fleets, making them more efficient, more environmentally friendly and safer.

In order to serve an expansive network, the rail industry relies on a collective fleet of tens of thousands of commercial vehicles. Network Rail alone has a fleet of around 8,500 vehicles – thought to be the third- largest commercial fleet in the UK – which clocks up around 31 million miles every year.

“There’s not many other fleets I could go to that are bigger than this,” said Steve Duffy – the man who oversees Network Rail’s road fleet.

The fleet is mostly made up of small, medium and large vans but it also includes 1,600 cars, 300 HGVs, 600 4x4s and 800 pickups. It is largely made up of diesel vehicles but Network Rail is looking at the potential to introduce hybrid and electric vehicles into its city fleets.

Around this time last year, Network Rail began installing telematics across its fleet and it’s seeing notable improvements.

Steve is keen to embrace any technology that can improve safety and performance. He’d like to see Network Rail learn from Formula One and adopt a similar attention to detail that their engineers show to fleet monitoring. “They say to Lewis Hamilton don’t brake so hard you’re wearing your brakes out… That to me is my utopia.”


Companies across the industry are investing in onboard equipment that strives to prevent drivers having accidents and improve people’s driving habits.

Road traffic accidents represent a big safety risk. Several members of railway staff have been killed in road traffic accidents travelling to and from work in recent years, so it is not surprising that Network Rail’s Lifesaving Rules have a dedicated section on driving.

Intelligent vehicle technology has become big business. Fleet owners are now using various onboard devices to mitigate the risks facing their staff when they’re on the open road. Some of this technology – things like forward collision and lane departure warning systems – come as standard on many modern vehicles but companies are also fitting systems retrospectively.

Jon Guest, a director at Safety Shield Systems, said he was seeing increasing interest for fatigue monitoring systems (pictured right). According to figures from the Department for Transport’s Think! campaign, around 40 per cent of sleep-related incidents on the road involve commercial vehicles.

The technology used by Safety Shield Systems was originally developed for use in hospitals to monitor the facial expressions of critical patients to alert medical staff to potentially life-threatening changes. When mounted to a car dashboard, it can be used to alert drivers if they start to fall asleep.

Jon believes major projects like HS2 will see these kind of systems becoming more common in the fleets of contractors and supply chain partners in the future.

Photo: Shutterstock.com


Some onboard systems are designed specifically to protect other road users. Crossrail made it a requirement for all of its contractor vehicles to have warning equipment designed to alert pedestrians and cyclists.

Manufacturers are looking to produce all-in-one systems that combine the various monitoring and warning devices on the market. “You’d end up with three or four monitors on someone’s dashboard,” said Jon, who explained there can be a risk of overloading drivers which could lead to them ignoring alerts or becoming distracted.

Network Rail’s two driving-related lifesaving rules require staff to always obey speed limits and never use or programme a mobile device. As a result, Network Rail vehicles all have speed limiters as standard and are supplied with Bluetooth disabled so that drivers can’t pair their phone with the vehicle.

Although wary of driver distraction, the technology onboard Network Rail’s cars and vans continues to evolve. Network Rail vans now have perimeter lighting fitted to help with visibility on site, reversing monitors to aid parking and weighing devices that can ensure they’re not overloaded.

Thinking about how Network Rail’s fleet of the future might look, Steve said he tends to look four to five years ahead. For the next generation of vehicles, he is looking at electronic braking systems (EBS), which can significantly reduce braking distances.

© Mercedes-Benz


There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that telematics and other monitoring systems do promote safer driving habits, but they’re not always welcomed with open arms.

Drivers can feel uncomfortable about being constantly monitored and suspicious about how the information could be used against them.

For companies, however, the data can provide valuable insights. Steve said the introduction of telematics revealed that Network Rail’s fleet was actually doing far fewer miles than originally thought.

Steve explained how the technology has also had an effect on driver behaviour and has resulted in Network Rail’s fuel bill going down. He estimates that the organisation is now spending £1 million less a year on fuel. Using telematics, companies are able to create benefit schemes based around driver behaviour where drivers are rewarded for driving safely and efficiently.

Telematics and other onboard driver assisting technologies have become commonplace. “Nowadays it’s just second nature,” said Steve. One thing is certain: we are entering the age of the smart fleet.