Commentary: Driving Into the Future

February 2016, - Editorial

by Deborah Lockridge, Editor-in-Chief - Also by this author

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Deborah Lockridge
Deborah Lockridge

Advances in communications, connected vehicles, navigation, and automation — coupled with a surge in the use of transportation-related data — are poised to dramatically change how people travel and how we deliver goods and services.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Volpe Center for Transportation Systems Research has been busy exploring some of these emerging technologies and how they might affect transportation, including the delivery of goods and services. It all ties in to Beyond Traffic, the DOT’s framework for a discussion about the size, shape, and condition of our transportation system. While sparked by the issue of infrastructure, as Congress struggled to finally pass a long-term highway bill in 2015, the topics being explored in “Beyond Traffic” go far beyond highway funding.

In December, Volpe published a report, “Transportation Technology Scan: A Look Ahead.” Here are a few of the technologies it discusses that could affect trucking:


The Internet of Things. As more and more “things” become “smart,” with the ability to communicate with other “things,” we could see advances such as bridge sensors that detect icing and alert approaching vehicles, or semi-autonomous freight delivery with robotic loading and unloading, notes the Volpe report. Wearable sensors could combine GPS data with physiological data to monitor driver fatigue.

Automated Vehicles. Daimler made some pretty sensational headlines last year with its Freightliner Inspiration Truck that demonstrated autonomous technologies. Meanwhile Peterbilt quietly went about its own testing and development of what it calls “driver assist” technologies. Many of these same technologies, and in fact many technologies that are already available, can be used in “platooning,” where trucks are linked wirelessly allowing one to follow closely behind another for savings in fuel and driver fatigue. TMC recently published “Automated Driving & Platooning: Issues & Opportunities,” put together by its Future Truck Committee. The Volpe report doesn’t deal too much with the freight-transport side of things, but it does say, “The near future of vehicle automation is likely to be characterized by uncertainty.”

Unmanned Aircraft Systems. More commonly known as drones, these have been envisioned as being used to deliver items direct to homes and businesses, with web retail giant Amazon leading the charge. Drones also could supplement existing ground transportation services by providing first- and last-mile freight and package delivery. The argument is that it could help reduce road congestion and environmental impacts, notes the Volpe report. But there are a lot of concerns about safety and how they might interact with regular air traffic, especially for higher-altitude, longer-distance flights.

Additive Manufacturing (3D Printing). This technology is advancing rapidly, and could change the way equipment is designed and affect how goods are delivered. As manufacturers are able to use these machines to produce parts – GE is already making jet fuel nozzles from a single alloy – it means fewer loads needed to transport all the different parts and raw materials needed. One study found that approximately a quarter of trucking freight business could be affected.

There are many more. How about the use of “big data” to develop predictive analytics on everything from when a component is going to fail to which drivers are most likely to be involved in a crash? That’s already here and will only become more prevalent. And Uber-like load matching services have been launched in some urban areas, with the Volpe report noting that “with over 20 billion miles per year driven by empty trucks in the United States, matching shipments to drivers could dramatically improve efficiency.”

The road ahead for technology at times looks more like a roller-coaster. There will be exciting highs, unexpected lows, times when we’re not sure which was is up. As the Volpe report notes, “Ultimately, we can expect the unexpected: These technologies will evolve and interact in ways we cannot imagine today.”

Are you ready?

Related: 7 Technologies That Will Affect Trucking and the Aftermarket

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