The Open Road Ahead: Anticipating the Future of Auto Transport

Submitted by Jonathan Schouest
on 03/06/18

There really is no more proper word for it than revolution. The seemingly relentless advance of technology, the advent of an urban generation more happy to ride in shared vehicles through an app than own one themselves, and the slowly building wave toward more efficient, even electric vehicles and automation. The revolution currently unfolding in the personal transport industry will change and challenge all the participants in this field, beyond even what we can imagine on this day. Supply chains may become more complex, skillsets may need to change, and who knows? vehicles may even deliver themselves one day. But the future is not about confusion or even dread, in fact, exactly the opposite. I believe the personal transport industry today is on the cusp of a hugely beneficial series of changes that can raise the wages of many participants, reduce traffic accidents and deaths dramatically, and go further than any other sector in limiting climate change and saving the environment for future generations. There is a Chinese proverb often cited for perspective in generational debates on the environment: “We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, rather we borrow it from our children.”

The pace of change wasn’t always like this though. The history of the personal transport industry goes essentially all the way back to the wheel and the first time an ancient human placed two of them on an axel. There was no internal combustion, no mass production, and very little in the way of logistical planning and supply chain management. Fast forwarding through the early industrial revolution and the first European prototypes of automobiles came into existence with an impressive top speed of 10 mph, one arrives at the second true revolution in the industry (the first being the internal combustion engine itself): Henry Ford and his eponymous Ford Motor Company. What set Ford apart, what truly made him revolutionary was his management of the processes of production of the automobile. Bringing mass production to the table of the industry truly brought automobiles to the masses, in addition to creating an equally industrial-scale supply chain and auto transport and delivery industry.

Such monumental developments in society saw the establishment of the modern middle class in millions of unionized auto workers, suppliers and dealers across the country and eventually, the world.

The same technological development, however, that made American cars a sight seen around the world has now begun to change the entire industry in ways that are nearly impossible to predict and will continue to accelerate in the near future. For instance, the development and maturity of the global market today means that supply chains have become much more complex than they once were, and the trend doesn’t seem to be reversing any time soon. There was a time, back in the day that Henry Ford walked the production line in Detroit, that nearly all materials used to produce his Model-T were sourced from the greater Michigan area. In the near future, automobile companies will be able to design a new vehicle entirely digitally (including simulated collisions and safety metrics, aerodynamics, etc.) and, once they have decided upon a design, instantly transmit the specifications to a production factory where 3D printers will be reconfigured to produce the new parts in a fraction of the time it would have taken to build new robots or machinery specifically to produce those parts, as is done today. Such facilities capable of this type of production could even be distributed throughout the country, reducing the necessary distance to ship and transport finished products, and ensuring that there is redundancy in manufacturing when regional natural disasters or other events occur which could impact the availability of the product.

As much as 3D printing will change the manufacturing of automobiles and the make-up of supply chains, the electrification and automation of vehicles will fundamentally change the way vehicles are interacted with, and the way they interact with the road and environment around them. Self-driving cars and trucks are already a reality, and an increasingly safe one, with as many as 90% of traffic fatalities being attributed to human error or miscalculation. With the eventual advent of next-generation 5G wireless networks, millions of vehicles delivering all manner of products and people will be able to be controlled wirelessly perhaps by computer systems themselves, but more likely, by a combination of human logistics experts with computer assistance. Vehicle transport itself, in which cars and trucks are driven individually or transported together on carrier trucks to dealerships and individuals will likely change drastically in the face of these developments. Although “non-smart” classic cars and exotic or valuable vehicles or those with special cargo should never be driving themselves across country, one could envision self-driving vehicles with a degree of artificial intelligence (AI) taking off from the production factory, driving 1000 miles or so and arriving at the customers driveway, awaiting a fingerprint or retinal scan of the customer to take possession, with the customer had already test driven the vehicle in virtual reality (VR) and ordered it online, never setting foot in a true dealership.

In much the same way, the electrification of vehicles could fundamentally change how much pollution is created by personal transport (its largest single source) and do more than any other intervention in reducing atmospheric pollution. Several countries such as China and England have already passed limited future bans (starting in the 2020s-2040s, respectively) on the purchase of new internal combustion engine vehicles. With the ageing out of the existing vehicles, there may finally be a day when those poorly maintained, oil burning and smoke spewing trucks and older sedans I often see on my commute will be taken off the road, to the benefit of all of our descendants.

Finally, we come to the real question of this entire Op-Ed: In such a turbulent time, what is a perpetually job-needing human to do? The answer is hard but encompasses the same experiences all of our previous generations have had to overcome. When times change, we almost have no choice but to change in equal measure with them. Workers who currently drive a truck each day, coordinate delivery of vehicles, or are involved in other aspects of the supply chain would be extremely well served to begin now in learning more advanced concepts and pursue future work in the field of software-assisted logistics, including the cliché but always useful skill of coding. Some types of workers currently logging long and irregular road hours and time away from their families could actually have a more predictable quality of life if they accomplished such a transition. Another growing future field for current auto dealers and logistics experts could lie in a more customer service oriented experience with high value and luxury vehicles and long distance or secure transport of special cargo.

Ultimately, the development and implications of new technology can rarely, if ever, be anticipated and adjusted for in society. In the late 1700s for example, Benjamin Franklin and really all of his colleagues simply thought of electricity as a curiosity, thinking that it would never have practical applications in anything. But if we remain open to change and development, not only as an industry, but as individuals, we will always have meaningful work that makes people’s lives easier or better, and there is little higher of a calling in life than that.

Submitted by Jonathan Schouest
on 03/06/18

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