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Management Side
Week of 25 February 2019: What will another year bring in transportation?

Email Jim at jthompson@taii.com

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Of course, it is hard to say, but I will say this: "I would be leasing all my transportation equipment if I were you, and, further, I would be signing leases with relatively painless exit clauses."

At other times and places, I have mentioned inflection points I have experienced in my career, beginning in 1970. The first was the calculator. Next came the Personal Computer (Apple II+). Next, spreadsheet software. Then, CAD software.

After that, or near the same time, we saw our first cell phones (called car phones at first because they were so big, they were mounted in your car). Then hand held cell phones. Then the Internet followed fairly closely by WiFi and on and on.

All of these technologies are about to be wrapped up to an extent they have never been before into transportation devices, used in your mills or over-the-road.

Pundits will tell you truly autonomous vehicles are just around the corner, others will tell you they are ten years away. Personally, I think the answer is somewhere in between, but I am biased towards sooner rather than later. The big driver (no pun intended?): the cost of human operators and the risks of liability human operators bring along with them.

Of course, these technologies will proceed at different paces in different applications. And as we go, we will learn lessons, good and bad, about them.

For instance, the Times of London reported on 9 February 2019 that a fire in a warehouse in Hampshire, England, caused by a faulty robot, left 300 firefighters dodging 600 other robots as they attempted to extinguish the flames. Obviously, safety professionals from several specialty areas will be dissecting what happened here in order to implement changes in design philosophy.

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Internal robots operating on batteries will cause an upgrade in mill power supplies. Widely adopted autonomous vehicles, powered by batteries (which seems to be the way these systems are going) will cause an upgrade in the entire national grid. Won't it be ironic if our creaky old grid becomes the bottleneck in rolling out such vehicles?

Over-the-road autonomous vehicles may cause a complete change in the way we think about logistics. We have been attempting to pile as much weight as we can behind each driver, for the human driver, and their limits on hours worked, have been the (again, no pun intended) driving force behind over-the-road transportation design for one hundred years. It just may be that smaller autonomous vehicles traveling point-to-point will make the most sense for speed and economy in the future. However, if this happens, what new traffic congestion issues will develop? Will such changes make the interstate built for heavy trucks obsolete?

We are at an inflection point and like most such technological inflection points, what may seem obvious today may not be the way things turn out as we gather actual on the road data.

As I have been saying, when it is all sorted out, we should have a safer overall transportation system. Unfortunately, like the fire in England, we may have some tragic bumps in the road before we get there.

Be safe and we will talk next week.

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