Of the elements involved in construction, transportation seems the most ripe for technological disruption in the near future. Jason Traff, cofounder of Shipwell, and Brian Webb, senior vice president of business development at J.B. Hunt, spoke about the present reality of technology’s impact on the transportation sector and the possible future impacts of innovations, including automation as part of a panel at the ProSales 100 Conference, moderated by Jennifer Castenson, vice president of programming at Hanley Wood.
Platforms such as Shipwell, a software company which manages trucking logistics, are the most imminent technological innovations for the trucking sector, according to Webb. The platform can connect drivers and truck lines together and drive efficiency where it was previously lacking. Traff said the trucking industry is becoming more approachable than ever with digital platforms that provide tracking and connectivity. The availability of more information, particularly on the consumer side, is making shipping a more important part of buying decisions, which could spill over to impact business-to-business shipping. Additionally, the shipping industry is increasingly influenced by the business-to-consumer market, where customer expectations about speed of delivery and transparency of information are putting pressure on the business-to-business segment to offer the same type of information.
“The Amazon effect [means] the experience that you and your customers are having in the consumer environment where they can place an order and moments later ask Alexa where the product is and when it ships is putting a lot of pressure on B2B providers,” Webb said. “That’s raising the bar really for everyone. It’s an eroding lack of logistic sympathy created because customers have this great experience with Amazon in their consumer life and they’re expecting you to deliver a flatbed of product in the same amount of time.”
In the long-term future, autonomous trucking is looming to disrupt and innovate the transportation segment. Both Traff and Webb projected the transportation segment is 10 years away from autonomous trucking but made the caveat that multiple regulatory and social hurdles must be cleared to reach that point. Socially, most individuals are not yet at the point where they are comfortable driving on the same highway as an 80,000 pound truck with no visible driver, Webb said.
Additionally, in the construction sector, the most difficult part of the process to automate is the first mile and last mile of a delivery, given the difficult navigation of lumberyards and job sites and the difficulty pinpointing addresses for deliveries.
These challenges may delay the adoption of autonomous trucking. Regulatory hurdles for autonomous trucking include how driverless trucks impact drivers’ active hours on the road and liability in the case of accidents. An alternative to fully autonomous trucking may be remote trucking, where drivers operate trucks via remote controls from their homes, however this practice is contingent on the nation developing a more widespread 5G system, Webb said. Traff said the most likely first step in autonomous trucking is a practice called platooning.
“The practical way that autonomous driving shows up [in the future] is first with some version of driver assist and it may allow for some version of platooning. Where maybe there’s a human driver in the front and the back and maybe the truck in the middle is just following along,” Traff said. “By in large the people that have been involved in these tests is that autonomous trucking is harder than autonomous taxis simply because lumberyards are hard to navigate.”
Innovations including natural gas transportation and electric trucks also remain possibilities in the near future, however results are mixed on natural gas trucks, according to Webb, and electric trucks still lack the sufficient capacity and charge to make long-haul electric trucking a realistic possibility.