Supply Chain technologies and the Hype around them

Roger OakdenLogistics Management, Operations Planning, Procurement1 Comment

Trucks at a distribution centre

What has happened to self driving vehicles?

An article in the New York Times of late 2018 argued that autonomous, self-driving vehicles were “a technology in search of a purpose”. But the media promotion continued, often highlighting the ‘obvious’ acceptance of the technology by ‘leading’ transport companies.

The factor that can often pass us by when reading about new technologies is that promoters have a current or future product they need to sell. It is therefore in their interests to ‘blow the trumpet’ about the technology and their product. The same applies to consultants, who improve their credibility with potential clients if they promote the technology in what appear to be authoritative articles that endorse the technology and its potential. But, while there is impressive technology associated with the autonomous vehicle concept, no company in the sector has yet succeeded commercially.

So, there were major vehicle producers making statements in 2014 such as “the future of transportation is connected, autonomous, and electric”. Or that by 2015 vehicles would drive 90 percent of a distance in autonomous mode and be fully self-driving by 2017. Or that self-driving vehicles would be common by 2018.

This is Hype, which means (as a noun): extravagant or intensive publicity; or (as a verb): promote or publicize (a product or idea) intensively, often exaggerating its benefits (Cambridge Dictionary). Much promotion has its basis in building on the ‘fear, uncertainty and doubt’ (FUD) sales technique, which is used to enhance the ‘fear of missing out’ (FOMO), among potential customers and clients.

Challenges for the new technology

From a market viewpoint, most developers chose open roads as their preferred market. But if there must be a driver sitting in the cab with their hands off the steering wheel, what are the benefits? In the market development phase it could have been an advantage for some to aim for a smaller market, such as provided at closed and defined environments, such as mine sites, seaports, airports, university campus and military barracks.

It has also been reported that Tesla is finding it difficult to produce its autonomous electric ‘Cybertruck’. The owner, Elon Musk, states that the company has ‘dug its own grave’ by constructing a model with ‘tremendous production challenges’.

An indication of the time taken for reality to occur is that six years after the hype, in 2020 transport industry surveys, did potential users indicate that fully automated and driverless vehicles (Level 5) were about10 years away from commercial acceptance. Even in 2030, the majority of truck routes will be operated by people, but in vehicles equipped with more advanced ‘automated driving assistance systems’ (ADAS) technologies, that help increase visibility, reduce distractions, improve handling and enhance braking, such as Lidar technology, which incorporates the advantages camera and radar.

The start-up newsletter Crunchbase recently identified 10 publicly traded start-ups in road transport. Seven of the businesses were identified as providing autonomous transport vehicles, of which three are now shut; the CEO of one said in its early days that it would deploy an autonomous truck “within five years”. The valuation of the 10 businesses has dropped by 78 percent from their highpoint, or US$97billion; with much of the original valuation built on optimism (or hype) about the new technology’s potential.

In a similar vein, a Learn About Logistics blogpost early in 2017 about the delivery of parcels noted that providers were promoting the imminent arrival of unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) and autonomous, driverless road vehicles. These technologies would provide very quick deliveries at no cost to the buyer. Six years later, we are still waiting for these technologies to appear on a commercial scale in Australia.

The Gartner Hype Cycle and AI

An elapsed time of about 20 years for a new technology or technique to become mainstream is not a definitive figure, but it indicates that acceptance by users is not instantaneous. This is illustrated by the well known Hype Cycle, produced by the Gartner Research Group in 2009, which follows the process for a new technology (often referred to as ‘disruptive’):

  • The trigger is an announcement or product launch that generates attention in the media, including ‘future’ (and always positive) scenarios for the technology
  • The peak of inflated expectation is the increasing unrealistic expectations with more implementation failures than successes, some receiving negative media attention
  • The trough of disillusionment when the technology is abandoned by a substantial percentage of new entrants and initial users and the media lose attention
  • The slope of enlightenment when the remaining businesses with a belief in the technology, persevere to understand the practical applications of the technology and the implementation challenges
  • The plateau of productivity as the technology becomes stable and the benefits are accepted and used within a wider or niche user community

Given the familiar barriers against adoption of new technologies: no justifiable business case or lack of a budget; lack of resources and lack of suitable employees to handle the new technology, the majority of logistics service providers will need to be convinced of the benefits from a new technology before taking the risk of investing.

And so we arrive at Artificial Intelligence (AI) – the most recent hype. If 20 years is the approximate timeline for a technology, from hype to commercial reality – that is ‘adopt, accept then utilise’, why should AI be different?. But, as an indication of the hype, Crunchbase reports that 25 percent of global start-up investment in 2023 has gone to businesses that promote themselves as being in AI.

Since 2013, there has been nearly 8700 AI companies registered across the top 10 AI investment countries. Of these, the US has nearly 4700 registered companies in the space. That is a lot of companies trying to sell, based on a similar core presumption – their AI software or AI enhanced application or data centre will provide a high return on investment for the buyer. Based on these numbers and previous industry shakeouts (remember Procurement Hubs?), there will be many disappointed investors and purchasers in the future – will your organisation be one of them?

As a supply chain professional your writer is a positive sceptic. That is, very interested in new developments, but at the same time questioning what is being promoted – the approach of asking ‘why’ five times of any pronouncement is a good starting point.

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About the Author

Roger Oakden

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With my background as a practitioner, consultant and educator, I am uniquely qualified to provide practical learning in supply chains and logistics. I have co-authored a book on these subjects, published by McGraw-Hill. As the program Manager at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, I developed and presented the largest supply chain post-graduate program in the Asia Pacific region, with centres in Melbourne, Singapore and Hong Kong. Read More...

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