In business terms, the transportation industry is enjoying something of a "rock and roll" moment. The advent of e-commerce and digitalization, and the emergence of new, 'disruptive' technologies have given the industry more media airtime in recent years than it has arguably ever enjoyed before. Major companies from other industries have begun to dip their toes into the market: Amazon started its own logistics operations in India and Uber is testing crowdsourced deliveries in Hong Kong. Bold start-ups such as Cannes Lions winner what3words have appeared to exploit new technologies and tackle problems such as missing address systems in developing countries and last-mile delivery. Not to be outdone, established players, such as the global integrators DHL, FedEx and UPS are also piloting various new technologies.
Five innovations that are making a play to change 'traditional' transportation today are:
1) 3D printing -As close as you're going to get to a teleporter in the real world... The ability to print parts or products anywhere in the world without the need to ship them from a manufacturer or distribution center could theoretically turn tomorrow's supply chains upside down.
2) Drones - Unmanned aerial vehicles have been commercially tested by a number of transport companies and are already actively being used in other industries. Having run the first commercial pilot for deliveries, we see some possible long-term use of drones. For remote or emergency deliveries, for example.
3) Self-driving vehicles - They're coming soon to a street near all of us, and many companies are looking at how they could be used for a range of purposes in the logistics business, from port or warehouse operations to actual delivery runs. Self-driving vehicles, if successful, could reduce costs, errors, accidents and delivery times in the logistics industry.
4) Crowd-sourcing - The popularity of Uber for passenger transport is leading many to ask whether software could have the same impact on freight transportation. Crowd-sourcing is seen by some as a potential way of increasing efficiency (by reducing total travel distances and connecting loads on the same routes) or offering more flexible service options. If it can attract enough customers and achieve enough scale to be economical, it could at some point disrupt traditional transport networks.
5) Augmented reality - Searching a warehouse through the eyes of Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator may not be the most reassuring way to describe the workings of augmented reality to a customer, but "vision picking", using technologies such as Google Glass to speed up warehouse operations can give 'ordinary' workers superhuman powers. Or at least, significantly improve their efficiency...
The DHL Blue Sky Transport Design Award, inspired by our partnership with the FIA Formula E fully-electric racing championship, was designed to tap into the current wave of public interest in transportation and to see what other disruptive ideas might be out there. Among the entries that came in from around the world, here are five that the esteemed jury of engineers, designers and logistics experts felt had the potential to join the list above:
1) Cargo-passenger airship (by Sanal Galushkin, Russia): an airship powered by solar panels, which could even generate additional energy from the wind. The airship could carry 500 tons of cargo or passengers at a speed of up to 250 km/h.
2) Nature express (by Songwei Teo, Singapore): an idea that integrates transport into urban landscapes, Nature Express was based on single-person pods that travel on electric monorails through a city's tree infrastructure
3) Urban vehicle of 2065 (Maximilian Bakalowits, Austria): a transport solution that would totally eliminate private cars from city roads; instead modules would steer themselves intelligently around city centers to carry passengers or cargo, with routes viewed by apps.
4) Light commercial vehicle (Svetlanda Tkachenko, Ukraine): A micro two-seater delivery car powered by in-wheel electric motors, the car is an ecologically-friendly option for small, inner-city deliveries with a range of 120 km and a payload of 500 kg.
5) Water Strider (by Philippe Hohlfeld, Luxembourg, and Oliver Lehtonen, Finland): the winner of the Blue Sky Transport Design Award - an automated, electric-powered hydrofoil that can carry a standard delivery van's cargo volume on a city's waterways or the ocean. The Water Strider makes better use of existing, under-utilized water infrastructure with new, clean technologies, reducing congestion and speeding up deliveries.
Could the Water Strider or any of the other entries to the Blue Sky Transport Design Award take off, generate headlines and make waves in the way that drones and self-driving vehicles have in recent years? The honest answer is that we don't know. But they provided a strong hint as to how the world of transport will further develop in the future: through simple ideas that make better use of the world around us with the help of new technologies. More importantly, they showed that the transport industry has plenty more "rock and roll" (or maybe that should be "techno") days still to come.