WHILE PUBLIC INTEREST in transportation focuses largely on commuting and personal travel, much of the future growth in transportation demand will involve moving freight rather than people. Some extraordinary technological developments in this area are already underway. Innovations currently under development include the following.
1) Truck Platooning. Fuel and safety are one of the biggest concerns in the trucking industry. Being able to connect two or three trucks together in a “platoon” reduces the distance between them to as little as 20 feet, allowing a following truck to take advantage of fuel-saving aerodynamics as it coasts in the wake of the lead truck. Peloton, an automated vehicle technology company that has developed a platooning system, estimates that cost savings could be approximately 10 percent for the second truck and 4.5 percent for the lead truck in a platoon. The company may have paired trucks on the road as early as 2018, according to an October 22, 2017 Washington Post article.
An active safety system would wirelessly link the trucks, controlling acceleration and braking, while radar would detect potential dangers ahead. The linked trucks could react within a fraction of a second, compared to a standard reaction time of up to two seconds for a truck driver.
Other companies working on platooning systems include Navistar, Continental and Volvo. Daimler has received permission from the Oregon Department of Transportation to test its platooning technology on public roads; Volvo and its partners have already tested a partially autonomous platooning system at the Los Angeles Port Complex.
2) Autonomous Trucks. Self-driving trucks could reduce accidents and mortality as well as operating and labor costs. (See “Driverless Trucks,” Development, summer 2015.) Several companies are leading the way in developing this technology. Otto, which has already built and tested autonomous trucks, was acquired in 2016 by Uber and has been rebranded under Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group as Uber ATG. Otto made news in October 2016 when it completed its first paid delivery, a shipment of beer. It also appears to have run afoul of state regulations when it began testing its trucks on public roads in California in December 2016.
Starsky Robotics is designing an aftermarket retrofit kit that will give existing big rigs autonomous capabilities. Starsky says its ultimate goal is to use autonomous technology to allow truck drivers to work closer to home.
This technology suffered a possible setback in October 2017, when the Senate Commerce Committee passed the American Vision for Safer Transportation Through Advancement of Revolutionary Technologies (AV START) Act, which removed provisions for automated trucks and buses from the House’s SELF-DRIVE Act.
3) Hyperloops. A hyperloop is a vacuum tube through which pods containing passengers or freight could, theoretically, travel free of air resistance or friction. This would enable the pods to move at extremely high speeds, floating on a layer of air. They would pull themselves along with a fan and get extra propulsion from electromagnets in the tube’s walls. In August 2013, Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk proposed the Hyperloop Alpha project for a route running from the Los Angeles region to the San Francisco Bay Area at an average speed of roughly 600 mph.
In July 2017, Musk raised eyebrows when he tweeted that he had “verbal government approval” for a Hyperloop route that he claimed would connect New York City and Washington, D.C., via Philadelphia and Baltimore, in less than 30 minutes. In October, Maryland’s Department of Transportation gave conditional approval to the construction of a portion of the tunnel.
While Musk’s proposed Hyperloop tunnels would transport passengers and cars, they could also conceivably carry freight.
4) Floating Warehouses. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has applied for a patent for a blimp-style aircraft that would fly at heights between 500 and 1,000 feet, contain multiple launching bays, and be operated autonomously or by a remote human pilot. Amazon.com Inc. received a patent for a similar aircraft in April 2016. These floating warehouses could make deliveries via drones, which would transport products from the aircraft to consumers’ homes.
5) Autonomous Cargo Ships. The legendary “ghost ship” could become reality if two Norwegian companies, Yara International ASA and Kongsberg Gruppen, succeed in building the first crewless, autonomous ship. A July 2017 Wall Street Journal article reported that this electric vessel, dubbed the “Tesla of the Seas,” will cost $25 million, three times as much as a comparable container ship. Its backers note, however, that without the need for fuel or a crew it promises to cut annual operating costs by up to 90 percent. The 100-container ship is scheduled to be in the water and delivering fertilizer in Norway in late 2018, although initially it will be tested with a human at the controls.
6) Drones. Much of the attention to the role of drones for deliveries has been focused on Amazon’s announcement that it plans to use them to make short-distance deliveries directly to consumers. A possibly even more disruptive technology is being developed by Natilus, a company founded by aircraft designers and military drone specialists.
The firm has announced plans to build an 80-foot vehicle with a 20-ton cargo capacity designed to fly cargo between Los Angeles and Hawaii. Its drones are expected to initially be classified as vessels; they would land on the sea at least 12 miles away from a port, outside of FAA-regulated airspace, then taxi into the port, where cargo would be unloaded. The company claims it could deliver cargo 17 times faster than a standard cargo ship and at half the price of a Boeing 747.
While some of these innovative concepts may never be successfully implemented, they demonstrate an enthusiastic search for new ideas, backed up by research funding as well as interested users. Unlike in the past, there is little government funding involved; most of these efforts are being privately funded. This is a positive indicator for expanding the options available to move freight around the globe.