Could we soon be tearing up the rail tracks and using the rail corridors for platooning trucks?

Last week I was invited to a seminar on Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) presented by MoT in Auckland. Incidentally the seminar was held at 9am on a Monday morning on Queens Street in Auckland, meaning that what should have been a 90 minute drive for me, turned into a 3 hour slog taking 1.5 hours to get from Drury to the central city. There are so many things I could have better spent that time doing, and I had plenty of time to contemplate driverless cars whilst I was locked in the commuter traffic; The motorway being the ideal place to give over control of the car to an all seeing eye whilst I planned my week, or sorted some calls or emails.

So, Intelligent Transport Systems? The use of data to optimise the flow of goods and people from A to B. Note, that this isn’t about optimising traffic flows – more trying to ensure everything and everyone get to where they are going as efficiently as possible.

As Henry Ford said: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse”

Statistics show that the next generations are not so car hungry as we are. Fewer are buying cars, and increasingly, many are putting off even getting a driving license. Transport for many of them is a service to be subscribed to when they need it – a bus service, a taxi, even car sharing is being talked about again. Great timing then for the introduction of automated cars. In 9 out of 10 models, traffic over the next 30 years is projected to reduce, and this means that investment in roads needs to be reviewed with this in mind.

ITS is about using the data we have about our existing travel patterns and using that to design a system that meets our needs.

Nobody NEEDS transport. Everybody NEEDS food in their cupboards. Trucks are the way we get things to the supermarket at the moment, and for most of us, cars are the way we get those goods to our houses. But transport isn’t the end game, it is the enabler.

Platooning trucks have been in the news these last few months – multiple trucks locked together under their own control. But where would these trucks bring benefit in NZ’s road system? In Europe, my university studies suggested rail wasn’t viable over distances of less than 250 miles (400kms) due to the handling at each end. Platooning trucks must have a similar business case in NZ. Given the small amount of true motorways we have that would otherwise be ideal for this technology, SH1 isn’t a realistic prospect, but it was suggested that the current rail corridors would be ideal for plattooning trucks to get from Auckland to Wellington and Picton to Christchurch, because really, it’s not like the rail business case stands up any more is it? (Their words not mine!)

When it costs more to move goods across Sydney than it does to transport them from China, its time for another go at this. We have so much data on who will be where, what goods are needed where and what travel times and weather are looking like now, tomorrow, next week. Google alone, knows what 50% of people are doing at any one time – they know more than the transport authorities. Think about all of that GPS data being gathered from your trucks. How useful it will be to pull all of that together from all trucks to get the travel patterns, directions, volumes and use that to plan a network that works.

One of the biggest challenges facing researchers is that heavy transport companies are reluctant to get on board with any trials for this data. If we are going to have a supply chain that works, we need some fact based decision making. So first, we need some facts. If you are given the opportunity to share your GPS data anonymously, aggregated via your GPS supplier (i.e. they won’t know it is your trucks or data) for this sort of modelling, I urge you to do so.