The Internet of ‘transportation things’

In May, I attended the ALK Transportation Technology Summit, which focused a great deal of attention on mobility, connectivity, Big Data and “The Internet of Things.” The IoT, as it’s called, is that growing network of devices connected through the Internet, from the smart thermostat in your home to handheld RFID readers at warehouses and retail outlets.

Research firm Gartner estimates the IoT — excluding desktop and laptop computers and smartphones — will include 26 billion discrete pieces of technology by 2020 — up from about 900 million in 2009. Some of those 26 billion units will be sensors on tractor-trailers, containers and even pallets. In fact, we can foresee an Internet of Transportation Things, or “IoTT.”

“By 2020, component costs will have come down to the point that connectivity will become a standard feature, even for processors costing less than $1,” Peter Middleton, research director at Gartner, said last December. “This opens up the possibility of connecting just about anything, from the very simple to the very complex, to offer remote control, monitoring and sensing.”

Our main story in this year’s Guide to Trucking explores what that might mean for trucking and the broader transportation world. That’s such a big topic (26 billion units, remember?) we can only brush the surface in one article. But we can go deep enough to see how big a deal this IoTT could be for everyone in the supply chain, from the truck driver to the logistics manager.

Whenever new technology is introduced — whether the combustion engine or the desktop computer — it takes some time before the real value of the technology is realized. That’s because new technology typically is applied as a “Band-Aid,” slapped on an existing process to solve an immediate problem. Quite often, the initial solution is seen as shockingly costly, because new (and more expensive) technology is coupled with an old process that doesn’t utilize the power of the new technology to its full advantage. Once we learn to change the process, not just the technology, floodgates can open that deliver value in ways that weren’t even imagined initially — think of the advent of distributed computing and the PC, or how the motor truck gradually replaced the horse-drawn wagon between 1910 and, say, 1930.

This IoT (and our own IoTT) will bring big changes, too. The key is that devices in the IoT can talk to each other, what’s called machine-to-machine or M2M communications. At the ALK summit, Mark Botticelli, chief technology officer for PeopleNet, called the IoTT “a game changer.”

“Connecting vehicles and devices within vehicles using a Cloud-based vehicle network will change the landscape of what’s possible,” Botticelli said. “All the connected vehicles will be able to distribute data in a very easy, generic way. That will allow for faster innovation cycles, providing more value and increased interoperability. Vehicles could autonomously communicate with one another.” In fact, they can already do so, as you’ll read in our cover story.

Craig Montgomery of Orbcomm sees great opportunity for improved supply chain efficiency. In fact, shippers are driving the IoTT. “You’re seeing demand from players in the industry that own the goods but don’t necessarily own the trailer or container or railcar for visibility,” Montgomery told me. “Trucks aren’t really trucks anymore; they’re becoming beacons of data.”

The key to using that data to improve trucking productivity, help truck drivers earn bigger paychecks and manage international shipments smoothly across multiple modes is taking that data from the truck, container or railcar and turning it into usable business intelligence.

For now, at least, that still requires good old-fashioned human brainpower.

Contact William B. Cassidy at wcassidy@joc.com and follow him on Twitter: @wbcassidy_joc.

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