Facing the future

From the October 2017 issue.

The digitisation of modern transport equipment has progressed rapidly since Freightliner unleashed the Inspiration Truck on the industry two-and-a-half years ago. Now, even Hollywood is getting involved.

In the spring of 2015, US truck company Freightliner made headlines with the presentation of the first road-registered autonomous heavy vehicle in the history of commercial road transport.

The OEM’s Inspiration Truck had received official clearance to operate on a public highway in the US state of Nevada and made the whole world pause for a moment and marvel at the ingenuity of 21st-century trucking.

What followed was a tidal wave of new design concepts aiming to reinterpret or expand upon Freightliner’s ambitious project, which had swallowed some US$4.3 billion (€3.69 billion) over a decade of intense research and development.

The company’s European cousin, Mercedes-Benz, for example, went on to operate the world’s first autonomous production truck on a public highway less than half year after the US presentation, and a range of established truck OEMs in the US and Japan – from Scania through to Isuzu and Hino – also started exploring the idea of self-managed transportation systems.

But Freightliner’s history-making reveal didn’t only stir up incumbent businesses; it also introduced a new, less predictable variable to the US$8.1-trillion (€6.9 trillion)* global transport and logistics market – Silicon Valley. Inspired by the opportunity to fundamentally reinvent a century-old business model, a new breed of small, highly responsive start-up businesses jumped on the bandwagon, with the goal of disrupting the heavy vehicle space in the same way Tesla shook up the automotive one.

San Francisco company Otto, for example, entered the scene in January 2016 with the idea of developing an autonomous aftermarket kit for heavy vehicles. Founded by former Google staff, it was acquired by Uber only eight months after launching and completed the world’s first autonomous shipment – a load of 51,744 cans of beer – in October 2016.

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