Digital Edition

Jan.9, 2017

Issue link:

Contents of this Issue


Page 97 of 139

96 THE JOURNAL OF COMMERCE JANUARY 9.2017 SURFACE TRANSPORTATION 2017 ANNUAL REVIEW & OUTLOOK T echnology is catching up with the transportation world, as ideas considered far-fetched or futuristic a few years ago move off the drawing board and toward the mainstream. Autonomous trucks, 3D printing and even drones received more serious attention at the JOC Inland Distri- bution Conference in Memphis Nov. 8-10 than in previous years, although the ability of so-called disruptive technolo- gies to turn industries upside down was questioned. At previous conferences, speakers were openly skeptical about so-called driverless vehicles. But autonomous vehicle technology is progressing faster than expected. In October, Uber subsid- iary Otto made its first delivery with an autonomous truck, a 120-mile run in Colorado hauling Budweiser Beer. That delivery run may well be the Kitty Hawk moment for autonomous trucks. Opinion about how quickly auton- omous vehicles will hit the road is divided. Some believe it will take years to find the right kind of technology. Others expect more rapid progress. More than technology has to change, however. Regulations, infrastructure, business models and public perception must change before the autonomous truck is widely accepted. When it does, however, distribution will be trans- formed in ways we can't predict. We've seen this all before; exactly 100 years ago, in fact. The transition from the horse wagon to the motor truck took almost three decades, and the reaction of shippers and car- riers a century ago to motor trucks resembles the reaction to autonomous vehicles today. In 1901, The Horseless Age described how New York's "truckmen" saw the auto-truck: "They all look upon an automobile as an untried, expensive experiment, a good investment, perhaps, when considered as an advertising medium, but not a practical business wagon for their line of work." The benefits of motor trucks weren't immedi - ately clear, and businesses were reluctant to adopt them. Trucks were costly, for one, and not always reliable. And it was hard to get executives who had spent their entire careers managing horse wagons to abandon them. Distribution networks were built around the distance and number of times a team of horses could draw a wagon each day. But by the 1910s, the volume of freight was rising, infrastructure was inadequate, and congestion and pollu- tion were big concerns. Horse-drawn fleets "fail to meet the needs of big shippers," W.L. Day of General Motors Truck Co. said in 1913. A century later, much of that sounds quite familiar. To better understand what needs to change before autonomous vehicles gain ground, let's look at what had to change before the motor truck could become the dominant transportation method of the 20th century. For one, trucks had to clear technological hurdles and become more reliable. Second, the US needed a better network of roads. Third, carriers had to retire old equipment and old freight distribution strate- gies based on "horse-paced" commerce. When they did, they reaped big benefits. "The first-class motor truck will enlarge the delivery area of the owner two or three times and enable him to dou- ble or treble his clientele of customers by making quicker and more prompt deliveries," an International Motor Co. execu- tive told The Traffic World in 1913. Importantly, the motor truck replaced the horse, but not the teamster, who became a truck driver. (Not all teamsters made the switch, leading to the first truck driver shortage). The autonomous truck isn't likely to be a true driverless truck either. The economic advantage of the autonomous truck won't be realized by replacing labor, but by extending the range of a tractor-trailer significantly, just as the motor vehicle did for trucking in the early 20th century. "The most near-term significant game changer is the idea you can have trucks running a lot longer than you have right now," David Egan, CBRE's head of industrial and logistics research in the Americas, told The Journal of Commerce recently. "You can handle freight over longer distances." That means more consumers will be within a one-day range of a distribution center, he said. Eventually, this will have regulatory implications. Will hours-of-service rules need to be rewritten to ref lect the new realities of autonomous trucking? That may be necessary if the ultimate goal is not to replace the driver, but to extend the range of the truck, bringing more consumers within a next-day distribution radius. Does anyone doubt that is happening, with or without autonomous trucks? Ever hear of With new technologies emerging rapidly, these changes won't take three decades. The hard part will be keeping pace with the opportunities these technologies offer. JOC Contact William B. Cassidy at and follow him on Twitter: @wbcassidy_joc. WILLIAM B. CASSIDY Back to the Future? Importantly, the motor truck replaced the horse, but not the teamster, who became a truck driver.

Articles in this issue

Links on this page

Archives of this issue

view archives of Digital Edition - Jan.9, 2017