Modern Transportation: Embracing Innovation and Sustainable Practice

Developments today are reshaping how goods are transported, aiming to enhance efficiency, reduce environmental impact and meet the ever-growing demands of global commerce.

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The transportation sector in supply chain has been a whirlwind over the past few years, driven largely by advances in autonomous capabilities, sustainable practices supported by innovative technologies. These developments are now reshaping how goods are transported, aiming to enhance efficiency, reduce environmental impact and meet the ever-growing demands of global commerce today.

Autonomous Capabilities and the Future

Autonomous transportation technologies are rapidly gaining traction, promising to revolutionize supply chain logistics. Self-driving trucks and drones are at the forefront of this transformation. Toni Ann Careccio, chief customer officer and board member at PortPro, says autonomous trucks, while making some strides, are still a future goal.

"Autonomous trucks use sensors, GPS, cameras, IoT systems, and AI to operate without human intervention, but we’re not seeing trucks fully automated today. Some have a semi-autonomous mode where trucks still have a driver, while others have a human operator leading a group of autonomous trucks," explains Careccio."McKinsey & Company’s predictions are far rosier than mine. They claim that adoption of some vehicles will occur at scale around 2026, with the first applications likely involving autonomous parking, followed by highway driving. More complex applications, such as driving in an urban environment, will require longer timelines for at-scale deployment."

According to Debbie Sparks, executive director at the National Motor Freight Association (NMFTA), once commercialized, autonomous trucks will bring improvements in asset utilization, efficiency and roadway safety. A number of trucking companies are currently testing autonomous trucks, with safety drivers behind the wheel, in their networks. Sparks also says autonomous trucks will bring lifestyle improvements for professional truck drivers.

As for the regulatory scene, Careccio says, the biggest challenge for autonomous vehicles? Determining liability from accidents. Traditionally accident liability is assigned to the driver who was at fault but, with self-driving cars, it’s not as clear and each state is applying their own regulation— where 29 states have already implemented their own autonomous standards.

Currently, there is no federal regulatory framework that directly applies to autonomous trucks. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is in the rulemaking process to establish a framework, but the process has been slow. "Many states have adopted laws and regulations that permit autonomous trucks, and currently no state has prohibited autonomous trucks. The industry would benefit from the federal regulators establishing a federal framework regulating autonomous trucks," describes Sparks, a nod towards what we may see coming in the near future.

Sustainable Practices and Regulations

Sustainability is becoming a core focus in transportation logistics as companies strive to reduce their carbon footprint and comply with environmental regulations.

"The industry has made tremendous progress in sustainability and being a good steward of the environment. What a single truck produced in emissions in the 1980s is the equivalent to 60 trucks today. In that same time frame, trucks have eliminated nitrous oxide and particulate-matter emissions by over 98%. This significant achievement came with substantial financial costs and posed challenges for fleet networks during the transition," explains Sparks.

Regulations expand on the emphasis for sustainable outcomes. The U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and California Air Resources Board (CARB) have both set forth emission standards and timelines for zero-emission trucks that the vast majority of the industry believes are unattainable. The EPA Greenhouse Gas Emissions Regulations for Heavy-Duty Vehicles-Phase 3 rule requires that 40% of daycabs and 25% of sleeper berth tractors sold in 2032 be zero emission. Under CARB’s Clean Truck and Clean Fleets regulations, all trucks sold after 2035 must be zero emission and all trucks in operation starting in 2042 must be zero emission. Keep in mind that there are approximately 1,000 Class 8 battery electric trucks in operation today.        

"The industry embraces policies that promote the transition to a zero-emission future, but the transition must be sustainable and affordable and must not jeopardize the supply chain. Fleets remain committed to adopting cleaner trucks but are deeply concerned that the regulations may severely impact the supply chain and, in the near term, could have counterproductive effects on the environment," says Sparks.

Sustainable transportation practices referring to low- and zero-emission, energy-efficient and affordable modes of transport, including electric and alternative-fuel vehicles. At PortPro, Careccio says the biggest impact for customers has come from the efficiencies saved by automating manual processes and making sure that every truck is operating at optimum capacity.

"Many of our drayage carriers are reporting fewer carbon emissions as a direct result of the efficiency they gain from using our system. By having better visibility over their containers and the ability to more efficiently plan their driver's schedule they can optimize their drivers' routes and itineraries," says Careccio, connecting the push towards sustainability in step with the new technologies on the rise to grow efficient operations. 

Innovative Options and the Consequences

Technological innovation is a driving force behind the modernization of transportation in supply chains. As technology advances, it provides a path for digitalization and freight visibility. Sparks points out: What used to be 30-minute updates, can now be 15-second updates.

"Shippers and carriers can watch cargo on a map as it moves throughout the world. In addition, whether it be final mile or long haul in trucking, technology has allowed for better routing of products and goods. This has led to improved efficiency and decreased environmental impact. NMFTA is collaborating with all modes of transportation to establish digital standards. As the supply chain increasingly adopts digital solutions, this transition enhances workflow efficiency and provides real-time visibility to a wider range of stakeholders," says Sparks.

The Electronic Logging Device (ELD) Rule, a federal mandate, is a great example of a technology that has completely changed how truckers work, explains Careccio.

"ELDs were established to help create a safer work environment for drivers and safer roads for all – stemming from Government reports of truck accidents attributed to drivers exceeding the number of hours they were legally allowed to operate. The technology also makes it simpler to track truck drivers’ hours of service; and easier to share these records with law enforcement," says Careccio. "This has forced truckers to be more digital. Prior to ELDs, many truck drivers were still using flip phones. ELDs forced them to use smartphones as a lot of ELDs paired with mobile applications via bluetooth. This made drivers become more tech-enabled and pushed them to adapt and evolve."

As with all great progress comes enevitable pitfalls. Cybersecurity threats and privacy concerns are among the top with technology in the field. What's being done? Sparks says, not enough. 

"Cybersecurity needs to be a team sport. We must work together to discuss best practices and known vulnerabilities. When someone is hacked, discuss how and lessons learned. We have seen improved security tools, user training, focus, and budget on cybersecurity. In the past, cyber was considered an additional function of IT or an afterthought, now we are seeing it as a larger point of focus," explains Sparks. "We are seeing increase spends on cyber which allows for proactive training such as pen testing, business continuity planning, the creation of cyber departments, improved hardware and software to prevent and detect attacks. Finally, improved partnerships with governmental agencies like the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) that are helping us be proactive against cyberattacks and NMFTA who is helping with the education within the trucking industry."

The state of transportation in supply chain logistics is characterized by rapid advancements and significant shifts. Autonomous vehicles promise increased efficiency, while sustainable practices are essential for reducing the glaring environmental impact. Technological innovations are enhancing the overall effectiveness and transparency of supply chains, but the need for safety measures still looms. As all of these trends continue to take shape, the transportation sector will play a crucial role in propelling global logistics more intelligently than ever before.