Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Move over rail intermodal. Meet the autonomous transporter

Last Friday, Texas A&M University rolled out the Freight Shuttle System, a new freight moving

scheme they call simply FSS. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott was there to talk it up. A Port of Houston representative said the port may be the first to put the idea to work. 

FSS is a cross between an old-fashioned New York or Chicago elevated line, or “El,” and a Disney World monorail. Like the monorail, FSS is up in the air supported by single pillars. Like a city elevated line, it moves vehicles in both directions at once. FSS requires little real estate and can presumably be built along existing rights of way, even on Interstate medians. The vehicles themselves are autonomous.

At one end, a dedicated crane plucks trailers from power units or containers from chassis and plops them on FSS flatbed-type units. I think of them as pods. The process is reversed at the other end. 

The front and back of an FSS unit look alike. Each resembles the front of a European or Japanese bullet train – very aerodynamic. A single box up to 53 feet long fits between them for the ride. An FSS pod can zip along at speeds up to 70 mph and consume two-thirds less energy than a truck.

The Port of Houston folks are considering FSS to move freight between dockside yards and a location about five miles away to relieve congestion at the port itself. Carriers could pick up and drop containers at the outside location where there is room for expansion. 

Texas A&M University and the state of Texas have also proposed FSS to move freight across the Rio Grande between El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico. There the idea is to eliminate long lines of trucks at the U.S. Customs station. 

The FSS is designed to speed freight along defined corridors with dense truck traffic. But carriers shouldn’t worry about FSS taking business away, its boosters say. In fact, FSS will make things better for truckers by easing infamous delays. 

If they ever actually build an FSS, it may do exactly that – at least in the beginning. But the FSS designers say their system will work for distances up to 600 miles. 

That’s a lot more miles than you need to cross the Rio Grande. In fact, it’s more than enough miles to reach from Boston to Baltimore with New York City and Philadelphia in between. It's more than enough to connect San Francisco and Los Angeles or Atlanta and Indianapolis.

And who’s to say dedicated FSS corridors could not evolve into switched networks that route those pods from point to point like data packets on the Internet?

No definitive word on the cost to build FSS. It may be way too expensive to build.

But what if FSS is built? 

Will we see driverless trucks competing with truckless freight systems? 

It might not matter. If we keep losing jobs to computers and machines, there may be precious little to deliver to a consumer-less society.