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9/13/2017 - Express Cargo's Technological Future

It did not receive much fanfare, but on September 6, Congress approved legislation that could jumpstart next-generation technology, which ultimately would change the express air cargo landscape.

The House of Representatives passed a bill titled “The Self Drive Act”, which would permit companies that are building self-driving cars to apply for exemptions from both federal and state regulations to deploy driverless automobiles. Specifically, it would allow car companies and tech firms to deploy cars that navigate themselves by providing an exemption from existing regulations that govern both safety and design standards.

Especially noteworthy is the bill calls on the Department of Transportation to review its own regulations, many of which define a car with references to steering wheels, brake pedals, etc. And under this legislation, automakers could eventually add as many as 100,000 driverless cars to US roads every year. This is more than Congress just putting a toe in the water. It removes a large government impediment towards automated vehicles.

Urban planners see a future where consumers pay a regular subscription fee for access to self-driving vehicles that are owned and maintained by third parties. Companies such as Google have begun to explore this approach by partnering with Avis on future rental agreements.

And there is also new momentum for driverless trucks as well. The Senate Commerce Committee announced that it will soon hold hearings on accelerating the testing of self-driving trucks on our nation’s highways. This is a critical first step by the government towards in what could result in a 5-10 year period, a complete revamp of the $725 billion a year trucking industry. 

This brings us next to the most critical part of the express cargo logistics chain – planes. Again, momentum for pilotless planes is significantly picking up.

Boeing, the world’s largest commercial airline manufacturer recently announced a major research effort towards development of a self- flying plane. At the Paris Air Show in June, Mike Sinnent, former chief systems engineer for the 787 Dreamliner and Boeings VP for technology, said that “the basic building blocks of technology are clearly available” citing the boom in drone deployment throughout the world. And keep in mind that presently, a great deal of flying commercial jets is done by automated pilot – including the landing.

Also keep in mind that there are real financial incentives for airlines to push this forward. First it is estimated that the aviation industry could save up to $35 billion per year with pilotless planes. That figure is easy to see as airlines typically employ 10 pilots per aircraft. On top of that there is a growing shortage of pilots. With passenger and cargo airlines expected to purchase 41,000 new planes between 2017 and 2036 according to industry studies, they will have to find and train 637,000 new pilots to fly them.

Now there are certainly some huge obstacles to overcome with driverless cars, trucks and planes. Obviously, regulators have to be convinced the safety standards are tested, documented and proven to be extraordinarily high. And on the passenger plane side, a recent UBS study found that only 17% of folks surveyed said that they would fly on a pilotless plane – so there is a lot of convincing on the consumer side to be done.

If we could fast forward to the year 2037, the express air cargo shipment logistics could very well look like the following: An IAC sends a driverless vehicle to the airport with a pre-screened shipment. A TSA certified individual, using facial recognition built into the vehicle, removes the shipment. It is then loaded on a pilotless plane which later lands at its destination airport. Similarly, that shipment is placed in a driverless truck/van/car to its final destination.

Sure, there are many security issues that will have to be addressed but many in the industry believe that the less human handling of cargo, the better. Two things are for certain, our industry will be revolutionized by technology and those ahead of the curve and prepared for these changes will fare best.


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