Every aspect of supply chain and transportation is undergoing transformation, and the pandemic has only accelerated it

Debora Carley

© Reuters Amazon.com trucks are seen at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island in New York City. Reuters Every aspect of transportation and supply chain has been rapidly transforming over the past five years — including trucking, delivery, and automotive — a scale and pace of change that has never […]

a close up of a logo

a car is lined up in a parking lot: Amazon.com trucks are seen at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island in New York City. Reuters

© Reuters
Amazon.com trucks are seen at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island in New York City. Reuters

  • Every aspect of transportation and supply chain has been rapidly transforming over the past five years — including trucking, delivery, and automotive — a scale and pace of change that has never been seen before.
  • The pandemic upended the global supply chain, and the consequences of the disruption are still reverberating around the world. 
  • The next frontier is space, as affirmed by the successful SpaceX mission to the International Space Station.
  • 100 People Transforming Business is an annual list and series highlighting those across industries who are changing the way the world does business. Check out the full list for 2020.

In 2014, when General Motors CEO Mary Barra became the first woman to lead a major automaker, she said she expected the industry to change more in the next five years than it had in the previous 50.

If anything, she underestimated the pace of the transformation, which has now gone far beyond the car business to encompass trucking, logistics, shipping, aviation, rail, goods delivery, big data, manufacturing, and the final frontier, as SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Blue Origin have ushered in the age of private rocketry.

“We are a species that lives in the Space Age, but on a day-to-day basis, most people are unconnected with that,” Julia Hunter, senior vice president at Virgin Galactic, said. “Getting a large enough group of people off-world to see the world with their own eyes, and experiencing it, is what the human race needs.”

When you survey the transportation landscape — and skyscape, and seascape, and new virtual scapes where automobiles can talk to each other while driving themselves — it’s nearly impossible to find a business that isn’t being challenged or new technology that isn’t coming online. Bicycles have gone electric in a big way. Scooters are a common, if controversial, sight in cities large and small. Ride-hailing startups such as Uber and Lyft have undermined the longstanding taxi monopolies — whether they’ve replaced them with something better is debatable — and government regulators are struggling to keep up.

Supply chain faces coronavirus disruption 

The coronavirus pandemic has added a new level of complexity and a new shade of unpredictability to these swiftly moving developments. Business has never been better for Amazon — thanks to consumers who can’t leave their houses — but the challenges are tougher. 

“I am spending more time anticipating where new issues may surface, and trying to get ahead of them to the extent possible to ensure we continue to support our employees and customers,” said Alicia Boler Davis, Amazon’s VP of global customer fulfillment.

The entire global auto industry, first in China, then in Europe and North America, shut down for more than a month earlier this year. Carmakers and dealers scrambled to find new ways to reach customers and sell vehicles. So-called touchless deliveries and online purchasing, formerly a fringe idea, became mainstream.

In an age of just-in-time manufacturing, the global supply chain endured unprecedented stress. Chinese factories couldn’t make parts destined for US and European plants. Critical medical supplies were rapidly exhausted in the US, leading to calls to bring outsourced manufacturing back home. The aviation industry, dominated by the Boeing-Airbus duopoly, experienced a collapse of demand as airlines grounded flights and begged for government bailouts to avoid bankruptcies.

Before COVID-19, moving people and stuff around a crowded planet had never been easier. After, the entire system revealed the network was exceptionally fragile, elaborately interdependent, entirely multinational, often heavily indebted, and in need of near-constant supervision.

Cars might have been learning to drive themselves, thanks to the efforts of Alphabet’s Waymo and GM-affiliated Cruise, but global transportation showed that not everything can operate on autopilot. The ongoing crisis has shocked the system, but it has also presented an opportunity to build in better resistance to catastrophes. And that has to happen in several dimensions, in the physical environment but also on the financial and technological planes.

The process, to put it mildly, could be the most difficult since the resuscitation of the world economy after World War II. And for well-known giants, what lies ahead could be daunting.

“I’m not in favor of gargantuan businesses,” Hannah Kain, CEO of supply-chain specialist Alom Technologies, said. “They’re going to suffer from not being able to adjust to a new reality.”

Disruption and innovation at massive scale 

Amid the tragic chaos came some triumphs. SpaceX returned the US to crewed space flight with a capsule launched from American soil, sending astronauts to the International Space Station and safely returning them home. CEO Elon Musk’s other company, Tesla, surpassed every other automaker to become the world’s most valuable, a vindication of an electric future.

Trucking, with its hundreds of thousands of small owner-operators in the US, continues to be disproportionately exposed to economic fluctuations, in a near-permanent state of recession. At the same time, freight transport — on the road, in the skies, on the seas — became more important as consumers insisted on rapid deliveries to their homes. Several startups, as well as Waymo and Tesla, proposed to take truckers out of the equation altogether, creating robot drivers who could pilot trains of tractor-trailers across the highways.

The sheer amount of money at stake is staggering. The auto industry is worth at least $2 trillion; it could nearly quintuple by 2030, according to Statista. In the US, the Department of Transportation calculated that in 2018, transportation contributed 9% to a total GDP of more than $20 trillion. Cruise CEO Dan Ammann estimates autonomous ride-hailing services could address an $8 trillion market. With a pandemic-spurred surge in online shopping, Amazon expects to increase its physical footprint by half in 2020. Morgan Stanley has pegged the nascent space industry at $1 trillion.

It’s exceptionally rare for so much money to be subjected to so much prospective disruption to business as usual, in so many different industries at the same time. Some observers might characterize the transformation underway as unprecedented. After all, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, automobiles were mainly displacing horses, a form of mobility that had endured for millennia. A hundred years later, and every advanced transportation technology from the 20th century is being rethought, dismantled, reinvented, and revalued.

The entrepreneurial appetite for innovation is ravenous, but of course, funding change at scale in 2020 is drastically more expensive than it was in 1900. Ultimately, it could be impossible for private enterprise to fund everything that’s already happening, much less what needs to happen to deal with looming threats, especially global warming.

Citizens will have to be involved, as critical stakeholders. And the way they approach an uncertain future could be the most significant disruption of all.

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