A fleet of black self-driving electric semi trucks driving on highway. 3D rendering image.

New Concepts for Moving Freight Gain Ground

Better, cheaper, smarter ways to move freight will likely change the way first-mile to last-mile deliveries are made. Putting these concepts into widespread use, however, may still be years off due to obsolete rules and government regulations. Robert T. Dunphy, transportation consultant; adjunct professor, Georgetown University real estate and planning programs; and emeritus fellow, Transportation Research Board, wrote about six of these promising freight-moving ideas in the Winter 2017-2018 issue of Development magazine, which are updated here.

  1. Truck platooning. Truck platooning, the linking of two or more trucks using connectivity technology and automated support systems that allows the vehicles to travel as close as 20 feet apart on highways, is here and ready for use. This fuel-saving method for moving freight, however, is probably five years away from being fully adopted across the U.S. as the industry awaits regulation at the state level to catch up. So far, 16 states have authorized truck platooning, which means that there are 34 other states that need to change the rules.
  2. Autonomous trucks. The technology for autonomous [driverless] trucks already exists, but the critical issue is old-style liability laws that have not yet adapted to this new technology. It is estimated that the autonomous truck will become the norm early in the next decade, and it will save the industry an incredible $300 billion.
  3. Hyperloops. Hyperloops, those giant vacuum tubes made famous by Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, are probably years away from being constructed for use to carry freight. Although there is a lot of interest in building hyperloops, the high cost of these projects between major cities like New York and Washington, D.C. or Los Angeles and San Francisco are slowing the pace. There is, however, growing interest and a lot of activity in the field.
  4. Floating warehouses. The floating warehouse is a freight-moving concept whose time may be coming in the near future. In late August 2018, Amazon received a patent  for a distribution warehouse that floats in the sky, held aloft by massive blimps. Amazon wants to make more deliveries from floating warehouse to consumer by drone.
  5. Drones. More than one million drone operators have registered with the U.S. government with most of these registrations from hobbyists. With drones ubiquitous today, can freight-carry drones be far behind? Estimates are that freight-carrying drones may still be seven to 13 years off, even though Amazon and others are making news with some small package deliveries by drone. Boeing recently introduced a working prototype of a cargo drone that is 15 feet long, 18 feet wide and 4 feet high. The machine weighs 750 pounds and could carry 500 pounds of cargo. The company estimates that this cargo drone could fly in a 9- to 18-mile radius to deliver packages.
  6. Autonomous ships. There are numerous benefits to operating a fleet of autonomous ships, such as fewer salaries to pay, no living space on ships for humans and a reduced chance of piracy. Rolls-Royce reports short runs with autonomous ships to begin by 2020, which should be oceangoing by 2025. The first autonomous ship, named the Yara Birkeland, is currently being constructed and will be tested in 2019.

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