THE FUTURE OF FREIGHT
The future of freight transportation is taking shape. While bursting with opportunity, the shifts will see any who don’t adapt discarded to the bone yard of history. We’ve seen this to a degree already with the robot revolution taking place on factory floors. Outsourcing has taken the brunt of the blame for disappearing manufacturing jobs, but automation is just as culpable. That’s “progress,” and it’s not sentimental. Why would a manufacturer who can automate pay more for less efficiency? Nostalgia? Explain that one to shareholders.
The logistics overhaul is already in the news. How is the industry responding to the piling on of regulations that constrict drivers and prevent them from meeting delivery deadlines? It’s turning to new technology, investing in driverless trucks. Wal-Mart introduced its prototype last year; this year a start-up founded by former engineers from Google’s self-driving vehicle unit is taking up the mantle, looking for 1,000 volunteer truckers to have the technology retrofitted on their rigs. The irony won’t be immediately apparent, as the company says truckers will still be onboard. But the future will keep on coming; what do you suppose will happen once this technology has been long perfected?
Hit the road, Jack.
Above the trucks, skies will be abuzz with drones making on-demand deliveries. A few are up there already, but the full realization isn’t far behind. Why? Andreas Raptopoulos, founder and CEO of Matternet recently explained to MarketWatch: “It’s much more cost-, energy- and time-efficient to send [a blood sample] via drone, rather than send it in a two-ton car down the highway with a person inside to bring it to a different lab for testing.” And that’s just B2B; what are the parcel carriers and final-mile truckers planning for when Amazon eventually rolls out its massive drone fleet?
The development I’m excited about is Hyperloop. If you haven’t heard of it, essentially the design is a network of tubes through which a magnetically levitating pod travels at speeds of up to 700 miles per hour, shortening travel time between Los Angeles and San Francisco, for instance, to just 30 minutes. While the concept isn’t new, the basic science for making it a reality was hashed out by Elon Musk (he noodled on it while stuck in L.A. traffic) who then open-sourced it to anyone willing to make it a reality. Musk was apparently busy pioneering the electric car industry, the solar industry, dabbling in A.I. and, y’know, colonizing Mars.
Futuristic as the Hyperloop sounds, a company that jumped on the technology, Hyperloop One, recently conducted a successful acceleration test in Nevada that had its CEO harkening to the Wright Bros.’ “Kitty Hawk” moment. But here’s what we know: It may be a while before you grab dinner at a chic San Fran restaurant before the Dodger game, but the Hyperloop’s first tasks will be to move freight. This makes sense; no lives will be at stake, and if something catastrophic happens, it will be to non-living/breathing goods that can be replaced if properly insured.
Airline execs are supposedly gritting their teeth and maybe even plotting against the Hyperloop, but what about the rail companies, long-haul truckers and even air cargo execs? Should they not be as worried?
Let me back up and say I started thinking about all this while working on the first-time feature we’re publishing in this issue, “13 Logistics Thought Leaders,” which salutes well-deserving executives who have been ahead of the curve in the industry—and in some cases are shaping the curve. While the feature focuses on their successes rather than tomorrow’s technologies, I found myself wondering who among them would embrace these advancements first.
Embrace competitive technology? Well, yeah. It’s mom’s old advice, right? “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” Rather than fight against the future, if in 10 years your shipment is zipping along the BNSF track of the new Hyperloop, arriving faster, safer and cheaper thanks to some forward-thinking executives who accepted the new era would come and jumped onboard, wouldn’t everyone win?
Well, everyone except the ex-engineer.
And herein lies the problem. The march of “progress” always leaves casualties in its boot tracks. It’s easy enough for me to embrace this future—I only write about the transportation industry. It did occur to me though, if I were the CEO of Delta, for example, I would invest in Hyperloop technology the instant it proved viable. It may indeed be damaging to air travel, but travelers will still need attendants, tracks and vehicles will still need maintenance, and who knows what other needs will arise—a slow transition could save a lot of jobs, and whoever plans ahead will be well positioned. Likewise with freight transportation, a long view of the future, embraced by the right executives, will make for an exciting, thriving logistics industry a decade or two from now. n