Revolutions Per Minute

Revolutions Per Minute

Transportation in Indiana is like a wheel set to make a pretty big revolution soon, according to the organizations at the forefront of the industry. For a state that prides itself on being the “Crossroads of America,” it’s looking like the entire paradigm of mobility could be about to undergo a major evolution and in turn produce a big impact on how commerce moves throughout Indiana’s economy.

Just a few weeks ago, the Energy Systems Network (ESN) published a report about emerging mobility technology and trends that described quite a few game-changing topics. ESN is an Indianapolis-based nonprofit initiative focused on the development of the advanced energy technology and transportation sectors. The network is partnered with numerous leading companies and organizations, including Toyota, Toshiba, Purdue University, Cummins, Inc., Duke Energy, Bolloré Group, the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership, and several other public and private entities.

As the report described the level of change coming to the industry today, it drew a parallel between the way transportation developed from horse-drawn times to the motorized vehicle era today. It also described several key aspects of business that are expected to be among the first affected.


Basic Trucking Automation has Near-Term ROI

One form of trucking automation, currently among the closest to market, is already showing potential to generate savings for transportation firms. Called “platooning,” the technology enables vehicles to follow one another very closely to offset wind resistance. Think of it like a chain of trucks working together as they move down the highway, generating fuel savings through aerodynamics.

  • In testing conducted by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), platooning demonstrated fuel savings up to 5.3 percent in the lead truck while the trailing truck saved up to 9.7 percent.
  • Over a truck engine’s typical lifespan of 700,000 to 1 million miles, savings between 5.3 and 9.7 percent add up to significant fuel cost savings.
  • Trucks able to engage in higher levels of automation are estimated to save about $1.67 per mile compared to standard trucks.

The report noted that technologies required to enable platooning are simpler and less costly than those required to address higher levels of automation. Highway operations can be easier to manage and require less sophisticated sensor technology and programming than urban vehicles would require.

“A combination of vehicle-to-vehicle communications, radar, and ultrasonic sensors can be sufficient to enable trucks to platoon and reap the financial rewards that come along with saving fuel,” ESN said.


In 10 Years, Robots will Make 80% of Deliveries

Most of the freight deliveries that pass through urban environments are currently transported by trucks and vans. By 2050, urban freight delivery is expected to grow by 40 percent, making the issue of what to do about all of the additional traffic a major concern for city planners.

There’s a great potential for profit in the soon-to-be-increased freight traffic, so companies are getting innovative. The report described ways in which mobility technologies are being applied to vehicles without passengers that ferry goods in urban settings. Early versions of such vehicles are already in use in over 100 cities around the world in the form of small automated personal delivery devices (PDDs) designed primarily for last-mile logistics using sidewalks and driveways, rather than public roads and highways. Every objective is satisfied by this scenario; increased freight without increasing roadway congestion.

The best part is, these robots are cheap and lightweight. This helps lower delivery costs for customers by “10 to 15 times per shipment.”

Another interesting version of this kind of technology also mentioned in the report was a totally new approach to last-mile fulfillment. A $13 million partnership between Starship Technologies and Mercedes-Benz is currently developing a “mothership” concept of vehicles that can deploy smaller delivery robots. Imagine a single delivery van pulling up to a neighborhood and parking, then sending out eight delivery robots to distribute parcels to individual addresses.


Light Freight Vehicles Are Getting Lots of Attention

Package shipment companies, including ones like DHL, UPS, TNT, and others, are reportedly paying attention to the potential of light electric freight vehicles (LEFVs) as another new method of fulfilling urban deliveries more efficiently. These are basically electric bicycles with cargo capacities, or “cargobikes,” that can be attached to or stored within larger cargo storage capacities like a truck. They’re cheap, easy to store, and have electric propulsion, which makes them great for deliveries in already congested areas. According to the report, prototyping is taking place currently and several pilot projects have launched to determine commercial viability.


Infrastructure and Vehicles Can Work Together

What if transportation infrastructure actually worked with vehicles to improve transit efficiency? Currently things like roads, bridges, intersections, signage, junctions, and sidewalks already essentially govern the ways our vehicles are able to move through the system, but technology can take this interaction much further.

The report described a new trend of Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) that have the ability to produce a range of benefits. The concept involves a blend of the old with a whole lot of the new, combining “high technology information systems, communication, sensors, controllers, and advanced mathematical methods with the conventional world of transportation infrastructure.” In doing so, significant improvements could be made to traffic safety and control, mobility, efficiency, and even sustainability.

One of the interesting ways in which ITS is gaining traction is in the realm of traffic management. Today, we have monitoring and manually operated control centers. Soon, closed loop systems will be able to share targeted traffic data sourced from every vehicle using the system. This will enable a much more active response management.

As an example, the report described situations where predictive algorithms are being used to determine things like when traffic lights will change colors. Information can be delivered to drivers via their phone, or soon directly to the vehicle, and motorists can sync their speed with waves of green lights. Essentially, drivers could travel without having to stop at all. Researchers noted this could “improve fuel efficiency by up to 15 percent and reduce red-light crashes by 25 percent.”


Much, Much More on the Way

The examples of innovative logistics trends mentioned in the above sections are just a few of the big things headed our way. The report outlines many more, including consumer-level trends in “micro-mobility” that could one day eliminate the need for personal vehicle ownership, and entire new conceptualizations of land use and city planning resulting from the changes that will one day occur in the ways we travel.

If it all seems too mind-blowing to believe, know that’s exactly the sentiment shared by the person in the horse-drawn cart as they approached their first paved road. Things are going to start moving very fast.

Category Cover Story, Features