Where are we headed? Well, with enormous potential waiting to burst, we’re in the midst of the second industrial revolution. It’s all about the Internet of Things, meaning a network of physical things embedded with electronics and sensors and internet connectivity — and crucially, the ability to exchange data. Put a savvy truck in the middle of that network and start thinking about what it could link up with.
This is big. And wildly complex.
There was a time not so long ago when things started to get complicated trucking-wise. I suppose you could define that extended moment as the time when the suits decided that regulatory controls had to go. It didn’t happen overnight, but happen it did, and our industry was basically turned on its head.
A phrase was launched in that era — ‘the only constant is change’ — and it was on everyone’s lips. An accurate assessment of things at the time, the late 1980s through the mid-1990s, but we didn’t know what was coming. We had no idea.
We’re now in the midst of a revolution that mocks the notion of change we had 30 years ago. Back then we could keep up because the basic principles remained the same, but keeping up in 2016 is a different matter altogether. The fundamentals of the freight-hauling business are being bent and shifted to the point where it seems that anything is possible.
Autonomous vehicles seem to be the magnet idea in 2016, but it’s really a pretty old concept that goes back decades. Two years ago I watched a Mercedes-Benz Actros wing its way down a stretch of German autobahn while the driver fooled around on his tablet, maybe ordering pizza. Freightliner followed with its own such truck.
Drivers began to think that their jobs were about to disappear, but they’re not. First off, we’re talking about Level 3 autonomy there, meaning a driver is still in charge. Secondly, there are so many legislative and social hurdles standing in the way that you can all relax for quite a few years yet. In other words, don’t hold your breath.
We’ll see platooning long before any of that, maybe as early as next year, some say. Which means two, three, or even 10 trucks in close formation, essentially a train in which the first truck sets both pace and direction, the rest following its lead. They’re connected and held in close proximity to one another by electronic systems that are already well proven in solo trucks — radar, video, GPS, collision mitigation gizmology, etc.
All of that is pretty cool stuff but for the most part it’s built on what has become fairly ordinary technology. We already have trucks that can “see” the road ahead by means of GPS and then manage engine and transmission and road speed with the coming terrain in “mind”. We can now update or change engine parameters remotely on the fly. Magical.
But the Internet of Things will lead us into very new territory. IoT for short, it means connecting our uber-competent vehicles with almost everything else from other road users to “smart” infrastructure. It means, at the most mundane level, sharing weather information with other vehicles and possibly adjusting a route automatically. It will also mean linking the truck with traffic alerts or parking options, taking decisions and many stressors out of the driver’s hands.
It will also include load management and route planning and even border crossings, all of it integrated and to some very large extent automated.
That’s all about over-the-road operations but this data integration will reach everywhere, and maybe most dramatically in urban delivery.