Balancing technology with need

Back in 1954, when Elia Kazan celebrated the tradition-bound world of intercontinental goods movement in his Oscar-winning film “On the Waterfront,” few could have imagined that the world he depicted was on the verge of becoming as obsolete as the Marlon Brando character’s career. Today, surface transportation is in a similar place, thanks to an explosion of new technologies.

Two years after “On the Waterfront,” an entrepreneurial trucking magnate named Malcom McLean first arranged to pack hundreds of individual crates of goods into a few large steel containers that could quickly and efficiently be transferred by mechanical cranes between ocean-going ships and land-based trailer trucks without disturbing their contents. It was quite a change from the age-old tradition of having large crews of dockworkers slowly move each crate by hand from shops to trucks and vice versa.

This marked the birth of what we now call “containerization.” By slashing the costs of moving goods, it made possible the huge growth in global trade. Today, a person in Kansas City can buy consumer goods mass-produced in China for a fraction of what his or her grandparents paid. In the process, containerization totally transformed the infrastructure and operations of the shipping and port industries. It also accelerated global competition and technological change.

The same forces that allow American families to buy cheap goods make them fearful that their jobs will be eliminated by technology or performed more cheaply by armies of high-skilled, low-cost foreign workers. Consumers benefit from the low-cost products and services global competition provides, but that same competition may reduce both wages and buying power.

Containerization was conceived and developed by a visionary outsider who imposed it on reluctant ocean-shipping and port-operating firms that would have much preferred to keep doing the same old things in the same old ways. In other words, it became part of the external environment within which those tradition-bound industries had to function. They were forced to understand its implications for their businesses. We must do the same when it comes to the external environment within which transportation functions.

Surface transportation is awash with new technology that is transforming it just as containerization transformed ocean shipping and port operations. We already have technologies for collecting tolls without requiring motorists to slow down, for measuring the average speeds and densities of traffic flows on roadway lanes at any given moment, and for pinpointing the location of buses and other public transportation vehicles.

Just over the horizon are technologies that have the potential to make transportation much safer, more efficient and friendlier to the environment by providing instant communication between roadway operators and motor vehicles about bottlenecks; alternate routes; preventing accidents; minimizing deaths, injuries and collateral damage in accidents that can’t be avoided; and monitoring the contents of containers moving by road, rail and air without disrupting traffic flows.

But these new technologies will be as much a curse as a blessing unless we learn how to properly manage their transfer from the laboratory to the marketplace.

For example, we face the prospect of having to evaluate the pros and cons of implementing tolls on limited-access highways, and of entering into agreements with private firms to operate such highways. But how can we realistically do this if we don’t understand what the long-term impact of new technologies will be on these highways?

And let’s not forget that the design of any technological innovations must be customer-driven, not provider-driven- a fact that is so obvious, but so often overlooked.

Technology is as much a part of our lives today as eating and breathing. But in transportation as well as other areas, we need as much information as possible about what new technologies are, how they work, what they can do and what problems they pose so we can use it in devising policies that spur job creation, increase competitiveness and cushion the economic pain to workers by minimizing dislocation.

originally published: January 11, 2014



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