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Charting a New Route: Digital Disruption in Transportation

Perpectives — July 14, 2017

As 3G and 4G access become more widespread around the country, and as mobile devices have grown more ubiquitous, many industries have been dramatically transformed. Connectivity, mobile technology and the cloud have made doing businesses faster, more efficient and less expensive.

A Highly Technical Industry

It's no wonder that the transportation industry has seen particularly positive effects. Outsiders to the industry may think transportation is just moving objects from point A to point B, but professionals know there's a dizzying amount of logistics that goes on behind the scenes.

The unique problems posed by transportation companies, and the lucrative prospects of solving them, have drawn the attention of many tech developers. Now, many business and high-tech publications, like the Verge, VentureBeat, Fortune, Recode and WIRED, all regularly cover how the tech world intersects with transportation.

Why Transformation Matters

Efficiency is vital in transportation: It's founded on the principles of moving cargo rapidly and safely, with minimal waste. And connectivity and high-speed communication are vital to efficiency. Even in the most remote areas, transportation companies need accurate information to make decisions with, and they need to be able to relay that information to professionals in the field.

Some of the problems transportation poses, as well as how companies have solved these, include:

Awareness. Companies need to know where all of their assets (such as trucks, trains, ships, etc.) are at all times. They should also know where all their cargo is as well. Early solutions to this problem involved keeping in touch with truckers via radio dispatch, or scanning all packages as they entered or left a destination. More modern innovations include harnessing the Internet of Things to track a container or gauge how full a truck is.

Routing and logistics. Transportation companies have always been on the lookout for better ways to handle optimizing their routes. They were at the forefront of civilian applications for GPS technology for a very long time, which has gone a long way toward streamlining their operations. Transportation companies are constantly looking for more routing solutions, especially to deal with high-capacity or emergency situations, or to handle intermodal transport.

Automation. While humans provide the critical thinking often needed to make complex decisions, they’re also one of the most expensive costs to an organization. As many of today’s drivers age out, there is also the challenge of a driver shortage in the trucking industry. However, that does present the opportunity to enable the newcomers with automated solutions to make them more efficient at their jobs. From digital travel logs to advanced driver assistance systems, today’s drivers, captains and conductors are equipped with tools that streamline historically manual processes.

It's no wonder transportation companies have been at the forefront of researching and funding automated vehicle solutions. Automation also promises to reduce the wear and tear on vehicles, as well as other operating costs.

Fuel efficiency. Shipping takes a lot of fuel, which jacks up shipping prices. And as consumers become more educated about climate-related issues, they're more likely to patronize companies that focus on fuel efficiency. To cut costs and go green, many transportation companies have focused on researching, developing and funding options like hybrid or electric vehicles. Automation and efficient routing also go a long way toward improving a company's overall fuel efficiency.

Safety. Safety's a serious concern, especially for rail shipping. Companies continue to research the causes of past crashes. For instance, one area of research involves improving monitoring on lines to alert conductors of reasons to slow or stop earlier.

What's Next?

Perhaps the most exciting of these developments, with the longest way still to go, is automated vehicles. But these have substantial obstacles before they're adopted: Different states have radically different laws surrounding autonomous vehicles, especially cars.

High-tech companies are working to make these laws looser so their products can take off, and they're often approaching regulatory issues on the federal level to affect all 50 states. But traditional auto companies are sensing a threat and are looking for ways to lock out their high-tech competition -- or keep up. It remains to be seen how the regulatory fight shakes out, but if the competition keeps up, transportation companies will definitely benefit.


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