The Future of Transportation and Its Effects on the Supply Chain

The Future of Transportation and Its Effects on the Supply Chain

Highway transportation is an ever-growing field not only in the United States but also throughout the world. It is the main form of transportation for cars, buses, and tractor-trailers that carry goods and products to eventually be used by consumers. The highway has been around for a long time, however, like anything else in this world, there are always ways to improve the existing systems with new technologies. The future of highway transportation looks promising, with technological innovations and Fortune 500 companies leading the way in developing our highway systems.

One major innovation in the past few years has been the emergence of autonomous vehicles.  Driverless vehicles are a prominent and controversial topic in society today. Tesla, Google and Uber are leading the way to get self-driving cars to be the norm in society.  Ever since Google started developing their self-driving car program called Waymo in 2009, many mainstream car companies, like Ford, BMW, and GM to name a few, have jumped on this trend.  

Since 2009 there have been major advances but also several setbacks with autonomous vehicles.  Whenever there is a crash or fatality, the debate about driverless cars stirs up again. The first company to have a fatality with a driverless vehicle was Tesla.  Joshua Brown, a Florida native, was killed in a crash while using the Autopilot feature in his Tesla Model S. After an investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board said that the Autopilot tech was not to blame in the crash, which killed the 40-year-old, who let his Model S drive itself in Florida last year when a large truck turned in front of it. It was the first known fatal crash that took place while Tesla’s Autopilot was in use.

Although, in the end it was determined that the autopilot was not to blame, many people use this as proof that autonomous vehicles should not be on the roads.  At the scene of the crash, investigators found that the autopilot could not see the white truck and distinguish it from the bright sky. The yearlong investigation also determined that the autopilot was not defective and that it warned the driver to take control of the wheel, which he ignored.  In the minutes before the crash the autopilot system warned the driver to take control of the wheel seven times. Each time Joshua Brown, the driver, failed to follow this command letting the car drive itself for most of the 41 minutes it was on the road.

Even though it was determined in this case that the autopilot system was not to blame for the accident, there is still room for improvement with this technology, and to this day, there are still crashes that continue the debate surrounding the safety of driverless cars.  In March 2018, Uber had to halt its self-driving tests after a pedestrian was killed in Arizona during an autonomous vehicle test drive.  This was one of the first known deaths involving a self-driving car. Just this past November 2018, a Waymo (subsidiary of Alphabet) safety driver, in one of its autonomous vehicles, got into an accident with a motorcyclist. Waymo’s CEO, John Krafcik, claims that if the driver had left the car in autonomous mode, that the technology would have avoided the collision by taking a safer course of action.    

Companies are continuing to improve and invest in their driverless technologies, which could make driving safer and more efficient for people everywhere.  Although there is currently backlash, companies are committed to making this the norm for the future. As the technology continues to improve and people realize that this is a safer alternative than actually driving, more people will come around to the idea.  Once this becomes the norm, companies will start to use this technology to improve their supply chain. Autonomous vehicles will help cut down on accidents, which can cause delays in the supply chain and reduce profits if products are damaged or destroyed. Driverless vehicles will also affect how a supply chain is managed because managers will be managing robots and vehicles instead of actual humans. However, these supply chain effects depend on how quickly companies can change public perception and when the technology will be perfected.            

Another emerging transportation technology is synchronized traffic signals. Synchronized traffic signals are coming to fruition in urban areas on the west coast and will continue to expand throughout the country. This technology uses magnetic sensors in the road and cameras in a centralized computer system that measure the flow of traffic throughout a particular area and decide the timing of the traffic lights. Adaptive traffic signals use a series of wires embedded in city streets that tell the signals how much traffic is moving through the intersection. When traffic is heavier, the green lights stay on longer. Less traffic means shorter greens. During peak traffic periods, nearby intersections sync their lights to allow long stretches of green. When there are fewer cars on the road, those intersections revert to their own cycles.  

The west coast seems to be the first area truly adapting this type of technology. Cities in California were the first to implement this technology to help with the major congestion problems they face, especially in the Los Angeles area.  Currently there is a small amount of traffic lights that use this technology, but overall usage continues to rise. According to Time Magazine, “only 3% of the nation’s traffic signals are currently adaptive, but the number of smart signals in the U.S. has jumped from 4,500 in 2009 to 6,500 in 2014”.

One problem with synchronized traffic lights is that the implementation of this technology is done by the local governments.  Since the government has bureaucracy, major changes are generally slowed down to appease constituents.. Many of these new traffic systems can cost local governments millions of dollars to install.  Just look at Baltimore as an example. Baltimore is attempting to fix some of the major traffic issues it is having and found out it will cost them tens of millions of dollars to update their current system. Officials say at least $30 million is needed to overhaul signal connections and other technological aspects of the system covering the downtown core. But a substantially larger amount would be required for a broader overhaul involving new hardware, light poles, and other physical structures citywide.  

These major costs can easily overwhelm many cities’ budgets for new traffic light systems and repairs.  However, it could be an investment worth making. Making these changes creates a more efficient environment for people in the communities as well as generates revenues for local businesses.  These investments in new traffic light technology will also cut down on transportation time between various parts of a supply chain. If time is cut down for transportation, customers can get their products more quickly, yielding higher customer satisfaction with a firm.  Although these traffic systems are a substantial cost to local governments, it seems that more cities are heading towards implementing this technology. As additional cities across the country start to budget for and update their traffic systems, transportation time and costs will decrease, which will improve companies’  supply chains.

The continued implementations of driverless vehicles, solar roadways, and synchronized traffic signals will help progress the future of the highway as well as change the way the supply chain will be managed. These new and innovative technologies will lead the way in improving the transportation processes within each supply chain as well as overall transportation in the United States in general.  Although these technologies still have some ways to go until they become a norm in society, there are many companies that are committed and continuously working to improve them. These new technologies will soon become more common in society and will transform supply chain management as we know it.


Works Cited
Hawkins, Andrew.  “Uber halts self-driving tests after pedestrian killed in Arizona”.  The Verge. (https://www.theverge.com/2018/3/19/17139518/uber-self-driving-car-fatal-crash-tempe-arizona)
Mogg, Trevor. “Safety Driver in Waymo Autonomous Car Causes Collision with Biker”. Digital Trends Daily. (https://www.digitaltrends.com/cars/safety-driver-in-one-of-waymos-autonomous-cars-causes-accident/)
Rector, Kevin. “Why is Traffic So Congested In Baltimore? Officials Blame ‘Antiquated’ Signal System”.  The Baltimore Sun. (https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/baltimore-city/bs-md-synchronize-lights-20180424-story.html)
Roberson, Bill.  “NTSB: Autopilot system repeatedly warned driver before fatal Tesla Model S crash”.  Digital Trends Daily. (https://www.digitaltrends.com/dt-daily/ntsb-autopilot-system-repeatedly-warned-driver-fatal-tesla-model-s-crash/)
Sanburn, Josh.  “How Smart Traffic Lights Could Transform Your Commute”.  Time Magazine. (http://time.com/3845445/commuting-times-adaptive-traffic-lights/)

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