Hitching a ride through the physical internet.

  • 28. April 2016
  • Mobility Concept
  • Illustration: Daimler
  • Text: Ernesto Singer

What if we were to transport goods following the model of the internet, with the individual items spread across multiple packages for the journey from A to B, each taking the optimum route via an existing transport network. A futurologist explores the idea.

A Monday morning in the year 2050. In its leafy surroundings far from the city, the logistics centre is a buzz of activity. This is where all kinds of goods begin their journey. With the packages having only just finished loading themselves onto an aerodynamically optimised trailer using a type of self-steering roller skate, the truck sets off for the motorway – in the outside lane reserved exclusively for autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles. Car-to-X communication connects the state-of-the-art Mercedes-Benz towing vehicle with other road users and the smart infrastructure. The driver is given early warnings of certain ‘events’ such as new roadworks and is able to take control at any time.

The principle of the Russian doll

In the trailer the goods are spread across containers of different sizes. This packaging method adopts the scalability principle of the Russian matryoshka doll. The main advantage of these ‘moduluschka’ containers is that they are standardized, are compatible with all forms of transport and can be unloaded en route either individually or as a whole.

Steffen Kaup, Head of the Transport and Logistics Future Research team in Daimler's Group Research unit

“By 2050 the volume of goods that are transported will have increased by around 55 percent. That just wouldn’t be possible with the traffic infrastructure as we know it today,” explains Steffen Kaup, Head of the Transport and Logistics Future Research team in Daimler’s Group Research unit. “We are therefore investing a great deal of time and effort in thinking about how we can make the physical transport of goods much more efficient.”

Following the internet’s lead: a logistics network for greater efficiency

One idea proposed by the futurologists is to cater for the growing volume of goods by switching to a ‘synchromodal’ transport system. Synchromodal is a portmanteau of ‘syncro’, meaning occurring at the same time, and ‘intermodal’, referring to multiple means of transport. The model for this system, in which goods are split up into smaller units and transported via different routes, is one of the greatest technological achievement of the past 50 years: the internet and its forerunners.

Most traffic over the internet uses packet switching, which works on the following principle: before being sent, a message is split into different sub-messages, each of which is given a sequential number so that they can be put back together again at the end of the process for the recipient of the message. Along the way, a network of interconnected nodes or ‘hubs’ route the sub-messages to the intended address. “A similar solution might also be conceivable for the transport of physical goods – which is why, in the world of transportation, we talk about the physical internet,” says futurologist Kaup when explaining his model of synchromodal transport. The more vehicles, goods and road users that are integrated into the system, the better it will work.

' By 2050 the volume of goods that are transported will have increased by around 55 percent. That just wouldn't be possible with today's traffic infrastructure. '

Steffen Kaup, Head of the Transport and Logistics Future Research team in Daimler's Group Research unit

Shareconomy: an intermodal matching agency for the transport of goods

It won’t just be professional courier services that are targeted, but also private individuals who will be travelling on a particular route anyway. By taking goods and packages with them, they can help prevent the volume of traffic increasing even further. “The whole system works like an intermodal matching agency for the movement of goods,” says Kaup. “This method blurs the lines between the transport of people and goods much more than today: private individuals who are able to take something with them on their journey will be compensated accordingly.”

The positive effects for the environment are obvious: a functioning synchromodal transport system could help all of us to reduce our carbon footprint as we take parcels and packages with us on journeys that we would be making anyway. Electric vehicles would be the ideal choice for realising this concept within low-emission zones.

New processes: cloudrouting, decomposition and composition

The location and type of transport requirements and the transport options that are available to meet these needs would be matched using ‘cloudrouting’. This transport data cloud would contain up-to-the-minute, transparent information about the volume of traffic on all parts of the route. And the package itself would provide details of its shipping conditions, such as maximum budget and delivery deadline, as well as the address of its final destination. This information would then be used to calculate the most efficient route using the existing transport network. It would happen in the traffic cloud, a giant database in which all intelligence pertaining to the current traffic situation would be collated.

Different parts of the route could be completed with different means of transport. This intermodal system would require goods to be transferred at a network of hubs. As soon as a suitable route was found, the capacity of the vehicle or other means of transport would be reserved. Additional transport options could be called upon where necessary, such as a fleet of self-driving electric vehicles that would be temporarily deployed on high-demand routes.

Vast transfer depots would by no means be the only conceivable format for the hubs needed for the seamless switching of goods. Filling stations or mobile parcel stations could also double as transfer points. The further a delivery penetrates into the city centre, the smaller the individual containers would become.

For example, a wardrobe that has been ordered online is dispatched overnight – but not as before in one large package on a single truck, but in containers of various sizes that are transported by vehicles of different sizes via multiple overlapping subroutes. While the large sliding doors are transported on one part of the route, the screws and mountings make their way to the recipient in a suitcase carried on an electric scooter. “The goods are split up either right at the beginning of the transport chain or along the way – and are only brought back together at the final destination.”

Experts are calling these processes decomposition and composition. Some components of the delivery could even be substituted with 3D printouts that are collected at print-enabled hubs. This would ideally happen as close to the final destination as possible. The switching of packages and the splitting up and bringing together of goods would happen without you even noticing and would be almost completely automated.

' A similar solution might also be conceivable for the transport of physical goods – which is why, in the world of transportation, we talk about the physical internet. '

Steffen Kaup, Head of the Transport and Logistics Future Research team in Daimler's Group Research unit

The future starts here: all systems go for synchromodal transport

Just a pipe dream? Maybe, but in individual cases it is already a reality and some of the processes described here could be with us well before 2050. Logistics companies such as DHL are already forging ahead with plans to have their parcels delivered by private vehicles, while buses in Argentina have begun carrying packages along with their passengers – and in Germany’s Uckermark region, buses are delivering food.

The first steps towards an intermodal system that brings together the transport of people and goods have clearly already been taken. Just one provider offering an intelligent cloudrouting solution as well as orientation for a growing infrastructure could be all we need to accelerate the trend.

It will still be quite some time before transport drones are delivering urgently needed medication by air or self-driving electric vans are buzzing around the city dropping off parcels. The challenges on the product side will be much quicker to solve, however: How can goods be transferred seamlessly from an electric scooter to the boot of a car? How will authentication and authorization for this work? Who will I allow to access to the inside of my car and how will I do this? And how will the goods then be switched to a van for the onward journey?

' This method blurs the lines between people and goods transport much more than today. '

Steffen Kaup, Head of the Transport and Logistics Future Research team in Daimler's Group Research unit

Futurologist Steffen Kaup sees the company in a pioneering role: “The whole project is of interest to us: For one, we offer all kinds of vehicles – from smart cars to coaches to Mercedes-Benz Actros trucks – and we also have a great deal of expertise in navigation systems. In future, every vehicle will be fitted with sensors that will be used to continually update and optimise their own maps. We are also well versed in the intelligent networking of vehicles. A comparison of the existing transport options on the roads with the current transport requirements in the cloud would lead to an optimum deployment of transport products provided by Mercedes-Benz.”

Kaup says that with moovel, car2go, myTaxi, FleetBoard and CAR2SHARE cargo, Daimler has already brought numerous innovative transport solutions to the market. He paints a realistic vision of the future: “The synchromodal transport system is predicated on swarm intelligence and the participation of a large number of actors – this ecosystem would be orchestrated by Daimler but would ideally be compatible with all manufacturers. Because of its broad range of products and services, Daimler is the ideal candidate to take the lead in transport logistics.”

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