Behind the Wheel
with Randy Mullett
Almost 50 years ago, in 1965, Intel co-founder Gordon E. Moore put forth the now-famous prediction that every 18 months to two years, technology would allow the number of transistors on a given computer chip to double. To this day, his prediction has proven true, accurately forecasting an overall growth curve of technological advancement that has come to resemble a hockey stick.
Moore’s Law means everything to the semiconductor field, but its implications also mean something to every industry where advantage can be gained by early adoption of new technologies. In the transportation sector, this high speed of innovation has produced an array of new products promising to improve safety, efficiency, sustainability, and profitability on the roads. There are, however, some limiting factors for companies to consider as they strive to keep up with Moore’s Law.
Available bandwidth. With its mobile labor force, the transportation industry consumes a heavy amount of broadband spectrum — the government-regulated cellular data network that devices tap into on the go — using it for everything from asset management, to route optimization, to safety technology like lane departure and proximity warning systems. Federal, state and local governments also tap into the network. States now use mobile technology for roadside inspection and road enforcement, and weigh stations are doing the same.
At some point, the increased quantity and intensity of mobile data users will reach the limits of available spectrum. As Internet-use authority Jakob Nielsen accurately forecasted in 1998, advances in bandwidth over the past decade and a half have trailed behind advances in processing power. Nielsen’s Law raises the relevant point that practical advantages gained by Moore’s Law are limited by the level of available bandwidth. And now, with over 48 percent of cellular users sharing data with smartphones, that practical advantage is further limited by the constraints of broadband spectrum.
Temporal disconnect. The standardization of mobile networking across our industry puts pressure on available broadband spectrum, but it also presents an opportunity to make us safer and more efficient. For years, telecommunications groups have used highway safety as a main tenet of their case to Congress for increasing the percentage of bandwidth spectrum allocated for commercial use while developing efficiencies around the government’s remaining portion. The idea is that a reallocation could carve out enough wireless bandwidth for a nationwide, interoperable public safety network, which would allow the enforcement community to easily exchange huge data files including reports, photos, and video across departmental and state lines.
If the government partnered with private industry on the project, we could effectively fuse the many individual services, networks, and components operating on our roads today into one interdependent bundle. Mobile safety features within trucks could alert highway patrol in real time as traffic patterns or driver behaviors display red flags, allowing intervention that could save lives, not to mention enhance Lean operations across the industry by improving abilities to interface with customers and other players in the supply chain.
The problem is that the creation of such a system must overcome a prohibitive temporal disconnect among the necessary players: companies, government, and the technology itself. While the government works on 30-year plans, companies are working on three-year plans. And at the current pace of innovation, a new technology considered in a boardroom or congressional committee can be outmoded by the time decision-makers are ready to vote.
Defending an undefined ROI. One certainty over the next decade is that companies’ IT and hardware expenses will continue to consume larger percentages of overall budgets. And as technology-related line items grow, there will be pressure to measure or quantify the results of such investments. Sometimes, like in the case of investments in safety features, this can be a challenge. In our industry, safety has always been the No. 1 goal, but we have never had so many opportunities to invest in it. Since it is difficult for a company to put a measurable ROI on each life saved by safety technology, they must approach that monetary investment from an entirely different angle. The same logic can follow when considering investments in alternative fuels or other moves toward environmental sustainability. Instead of from a proven ROI model, companies may have to make these purchase decisions from their core value system — and hope investors and stakeholders agree that they are apt.
The human factor. With so much pressure to make wise, swift decisions in uncharted areas, the best way to adopt new systems is slowly, yet decisively — one step at a time. For many companies, that first step is to implement Lean tools like Value Stream Mapping, which provides a common system for looking at the hundreds of projects that an enterprise is managing at any given time. This cross-project view allows project managers to see where common gaps exist across the organization and prioritize how they should be filled. From there, a company can build an informed road map to pace its investments — something that says: here’s what we’re going to do now, here’s what we’re going to start next, and here’s when we want to have this done.
And as we move further along with technology, we may find that the real limiting factor is the human one — our own ability as private organizations not only to justify paying for and implementing new tools, but also to really learn and take advantage of them in meaningful ways — ways that fit a company’s culture and work for its people. Because after all, technology makes progress possible, but it does not provide direction. The roadmap to prosperity will always be drawn by human hands.
Mullett is vice president of government relations and public affairs at Con-way Inc. He can be reached by email.