My day begins sitting atop a 36’ Hunter sailboat listening to Channel 16 radio chatter from the iconic San Francisco Bay. It was a bluebird day with a light breeze – a perfect day for writing. As we near one of the most active commercial shipping zones on the West Coast several gargantuan cargo ships steadily make their way into port to be unloaded. Small sailboats weave around them, careful to avoid their tremendous wake. Overhead, the faint buzz of jets can be heard; their bodies full with passengers and cargo as they crisscrossed the sky.
We live in a technology enhanced world. Our cargo ships and cruise liners pilot themselves over vast swaths of seas, our planes fly themselves once airborne, and we’re all walking around with miniature supercomputers in our pockets. Commerce is bustling. The world is growing, evolving.
I get back to my motorcycle and make the drive back to a friend's place across the bay. Hopping on the freeway I pass a congestion of yawning, day dreaming, phone checking cars and long-haul trucks, everyone eager to reach their destinations and be done with the monotony of their commute.
I reflect and then ask the question: In an era in which planes carry hundreds of passengers through the sky, and cargo ships transport tens of millions of dollars worth of precious cargo through choppy seas, both relying heavily on autonomous piloting for expansive stretches of their journeys, why are our road systems still plagued with a driver system not remarkably different than that of the early 1920’s?
The Story of Suzanne & Jennifer:
Our fictional truck driving character, we’ll call her Suzanne, is tired. She’s been on the road for weeks, each day logging just under 11 hours, the maximum permitted by federal law before she’s required to rest for 10 hours. Her eyelids sag heavily, her jaw is slack. The road undulates in front of her; thousands of miles of sameness blur in the front of her mind. The rumble strips scream to life as she drifts slightly off to the side for the hundredth time. The brakes flash red. She shakes herself a bit, polishes off the final few sips of burnt gas station coffee and presses the gas pedal. Afraid to be penalized for going over hours, she pulls off into the next truck stop to get some rest. She drifts off to sleep under the familiar neon glow of the truck stop thinking about her family and wondering whether or not she’ll have a load to haul on her long journey home.
Not everyone makes it to the truck stop. In 2013, 95,000 people were injured in accidents involving commercial trucks, with 3,964 fatalities. But Suzanne is not our villain here. Antiquated driver technology is.
Our fictional supply chain executive is Jennifer. Jennifer’s 2014 Company Charter is to move their goods faster, for less, and to materially improve the company’s environmental footprint. Each year she’s responsible for coordinating the movement of their goods across state highways, an effort which collectively racks up hundreds of millions of human-driven miles per year. In the face of growing consumer demands and radical eCommerce growth, Jennifer’s fictional employer MallMart has put the hammer down on Jennifer and her team, asking her to squeeze any and all juice out of their existing logistics program. More trucks, more hours, more routes, more efficiency. Each request making less sense than the last.
She thinks through their asks and her options:
- “More Trucks,” presents a huge upfront cost, coupled with increased ongoing maintenance and insurance costs.
- “More Hours,” are not possible as federal regulation (the FMCSA) strictly mandates drivers to a maximum 11 hours of consecutive driving before a requisite 10-hour break.
- “More Drivers,” are increasingly hard to come by, with a national shortage of over 30,000 driver jobs, as reported last year by the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals’ State of Logistics Report.
As it stands, both driver and employer are hard pressed to make progress; stuck in a stagnant, technology starved industry.
Enter the Case for Autonomous Commercial Commerce:
- Big Business is hungry for a more efficient, safe, and modern means of overland logistics.
- Drivers are hungry for their profession to be brought into the 21st century – for them, this would mean fewer empty loads (technology-enabled logistics), and a much safer working environment (autonomous rigs).
- Technology has been empowering other key modes of autonomous commercial transit safely by both Sea and Air for years.
Who will step up to the plate? Will it be the technology giants like Google or Apple, or will the automakers themselves be the first to take the leap?
If I was a betting man (and generally startup biased), I’d say we’ll first see something like this arrive out a garage somewhere, and see it catch on from there.
Either way, the time is now.
This post is an expression of my own personal thoughts and is in no way related to that of my employer, Glider.