Convergence Examines How Technology is Transforming Freight Transportation

At the Eno Center’s Convergence conference on March 24, a panel discussion entitled “Using Technology to Optimize Freight Shipment” was moderated by Adie Tomer from the Brookings Institution, and had the presence of Dan Harman (Cargomatic), Allison Yoh (Port of Long Beach), Marc Gorlin (Roadie), and Steve Boyd (Peloton Technology).

While the Brookings Institution (a century-old think tank) and the Port of Long Beach (one of the major U.S. deep-water seaports) are well-known, the companies represented by the other panelists might not be. Cargomatic is a company that connects shippers with carriers over the Internet, allowing shippers to more easily ship goods, while carriers can use their fleets more efficiently. Roadie offers a similar service, but for individuals: people who want to ship something (be it a piece of furniture, a laptop, or a guitar) can connect with individuals that are going in the same general direction and are willing to pick up and deliver the item. Finally, Peloton Technology is a technology company that is developing a system to connect two heavy trucks on the road, allowing them to drive closer together and semi- autonomously in a “platoon,” saving fuel in the process.

The discussion started around the issue of congestion, and how technology could be used to ameliorate the problem. Yoh replied to that question, by mentioning that although much data exists, there is no type of information that is visible to the public throughout the entire supply chain, rendering many efforts to use technology to tackle congestion more difficult. The moderator then asked the panel what policies could be created to enable better sharing of freight transportation data, but the panel agreed that this is a difficult issue to tackle.

Autonomous vehicles were another area of discussion. Harman said that in theory they are an interesting concept, but for now at least, Cargomatic’s business model requires a person to operate the vehicle and coordinate with shippers, and that on the there should be more opportunities sooner on long-haul routes. Boyd added to that, saying that automation will on the short term enhance the driver experience and the capabilities of the driver. Where ports are concerned, Yoh said, many functions are already fully or almost fully automated, and the Port of Long Beach is investing $3 billion on all-electrified, fully automated new terminal.

During the Q&A period, the panelists were questioned on how their companies were handling security issues. Gorlin replied that while using Roadie, its customers, both the shipper and the one doing carrier, have to disclose a large number of details that are visible each way to augment security; additionally, the person who’s shipping something has to take pictures of the item. Harman said that for Cargomatic, all carriers need to carry their own insurance which is augmented by Cargomatic’s insurance, and all drivers need to have appropriate credentials and clean records. For Boyd’s Peloton Technology, cybersecurity and encryption are crucial components of their business model (in this case, security equals safety). Finally, Yoh mentioned that security is extremely important at ports, and there are several layers of it, involving a number of governmental agencies as well as the port’s own procedures.

Panelists were then asked if and how these technologies are being used in the developing world. The panelists agreed that their technologies are not getting a great deal of use in the developing world at the moment, but there is great interest, and there is an opportunity to democratize the delivery of goods. Also, it is possible that these new freight delivery technologies can help developing countries to leapfrog several generations of technology, much like happened with cellular communications, which became the standard while landlines were never fully implemented in many of these countries. Boyd added that deliveries made by drones will probably have a significant impact in this part of the world.

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