The Transportation Transformation

When you think about digital transformation in the transportation sector, I think the first thing that comes to mind for most people has been the introduction of rideshare apps like Uber and Lyft. In the past decade Uber and Lyft has completely revolutionized the way a lot of folks get around. Now we could spend an entire class discussing the pros and cons of rideshare apps but something we would all end up agreeing with is that rideshare apps were made possible through digital transformation. Uber and Lyft are just one example of how digital technology has impacted the transportations industry.

We can see these impacts right here locally with initiatives at the MBTA. Now I know the MBTA sure has its fair share of issues that we could also spend an entire class discussing, but let’s put that aside for the sake of this blog and take a look at some of the advancements it’s made through digital technology. First and foremost, you can track real time bus and subway information right on their website which can also be accessed from a mobile device. This is an extremely useful tool for riders. Picture yourself 15-20 years ago carrying around a paper schedule to keep track of when the bus will arrive. You get to the bus stop not knowing that the bus got a flat tire and is now 30 minutes behind schedule. To add insult to injury it’s a rainy day and your stuck standing in it waiting for a very late bus. Now picture yourself today being able to track that same bus real time. Now you have options. Maybe you stay out of the rain and post up in a coffee shop while you wait for the bus. Or perhaps you use the MBTA website again to determine if there is another route to get to your destination. The point of the matter is that digital technology has made the transportation experience better. Back in my city dwelling days I would use the technology to track the red line to time up when I would need to pick up my wife at the station.

Throwback from my UMASS days. Bus technology looks a bit different know than it did then

Speaking of my wife that brings up another digital innovation in transportation, navigation apps. While I would drive twice the distance in half the time to my job, my wife would be (and still is) navigating through backroads on her way into work here at Boston College. Her always changing commute is brought to you by Waze, an app developed by Google that uses real time satellite data to calculate and modify as needed the quickest route possible to a destination. Waze is just one of many digital innovations in the navigation sector that have influenced how we get around. I can remember the days when my parents would go online and print directions to places, we hadn’t been before like a sports field or arena in another town that myself or one of my siblings was playing a game at. A website like MapQuest.com is now the “Blockbuster” of transportation technologies. Todays consumers have access to navigation apps right within their smart phone. In a lot of cases these apps can be integrated within vehicles with technologies like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

Transportation is not limited to just how humans get around but also how we transport goods and services. Digital transformation has found its way to these sectors as well. For example, a big task for large trucking companies is maintaining their fleet. Anytime there is a vehicle offline there is a cost to the company beyond just the direct maintenance of the truck. Artificial intelligence technologies can be used to help predict issues with fleets before they become a problem. This could be as simple as creating a maintenance log to track and schedule routine maintenance for the fleet or could be the more complicated task for using AI to predict when things may break in the fleet or help determine problem vehicles. According to the US Department of Energy, a good predicative analytics program can reduce vehicle downtime by 35-45% and increase productivity by 20-25% (embed source 4). The United States Navy is actually using AI driven drones to help anticipate maintenance requirements within the fleet.

Source: https://www.simform.com/blog/fleet-vehicle-maintenance/

I suspect in the coming years digital transformation within the transportation sector will continue at a fast pace. Technologies like automated vehicles and delivery drones (just to name a couple) are going to require a vast amount of technology to implement. It’ll be important for the technology to adapt quickly support the changes of tomorrow.

10 comments

  1. Really enjoyed your blog. I am from the 2000s so I can’t imagine moving without Google Maps or Waze. As you said, I think we are going to see a huge advance in the field of transportation in the following years…
    The ultimate advance would be teleportation ;)

  2. I appreciate the personal examples to remind us all of what the world once used to be like. I, just turning 22, have lived in a time where navigating around has been fairly easy, but even I can say that I feel old when I see newer technology making it EVEN easier for kids younger than me. Taking the T last semester just about everywhere helped me realize how slow and inefficient public transportation can be. Most of the time I actually thought of ways the MBTA can improve the rider’s experience, and it’s now either being implemented or soon to be implemented. AI has the potential to change so much in our daily lives, but remember that humans must be involved in one way or another to ensure the user experience is actually enhanced and mistakes are kept to a minimum.

  3. Intriguing blog, I always think of transportation (especially public) being so outdated. One thing that I am interested in following up on is the rate at which infrastructure needs to also adapt so that it doesn’t hamper the transformation in technology. Batteries I know are a huge headache as the technology and infrastructure are just not as advanced as other components, but also even more simply, electric busses are great, but neighborhood values decline when they put 12 wires and poles up to hold the cable in front of your house.

  4. It turns out the MBTA is looking to innovate! Deep within their website they’re requesting proposals for innovation from both the public and from employees. I am sure as a class we could come up with a few ideas for them.

    https://www.mbta.com/business/innovation

    In the years to come I think we will see a lot of transformation to in terms of more environmentally friendly public transportation.

  5. As easy as it is to rag on the MBTA, I will say its clear that they’ve increased their emphasis on transforming digitally big time. I have a friend that works in IT for them and its pretty funny to hear peoples reactions when they find out what he does. I think public transit in a big city will always come with its quirks and inefficiencies but what I appreciate is the clear effort to move to digital solutions. I take the ferry across the harbor to work everyday and use the mTicket app to validate my pass daily. While its impressive that my transit pass can finally come in a digital form, what’s most impressive is how far the app has come just over the last two and a half years. They’ve added new security features and a bunch of links to information for riders. Even the delay alerts are useful now and come in a timely manner after years of being delayed by over an hour. The one problem I have is that they rely on two different apps for riders, the mTicket app and then the Transit map for subway and bus times. There’s no doubt that one day (hopefully soon) this will all be on a single app that can also be used to pay for subway access.

  6. Forgot about Mapquest; countless stories of when I was a kid visiting relatives 2 hours away and missing a highway exit then spending 30 minutes circling around. — The digital transformation of the transportation industry appears to be one of the biggest industries that’s still ripe with opportunities. Between theoretical applications like Elon Musk’s Hyperloop or emerging technologies like electric cars and trucks and self-driving capabilities, this industry appears to continue to innovate and adapt.

  7. As you all know, I lived and worked in Stockholm in the late 1990s. At that time, the city’s public bus system rolled out an update where all the buses communicated real-time tracking data which was then accessed at each station, so that one had an accurate “arriving in 6 minutes” or what have you. Remember, this was back in like 1997 and was unlike anything I was used to with the MBTA. Sweden was as enticed by the lure of technology for personal gadgets and the like as we Americans are but they also had a firm commitment to leverage technology in the more utilitarian aspects of life.

    I did a quick search to check in on Stockholm’s bus system and I’m not surprised to see that they are of course now testing autonomous vehicles:
    https://www.ericsson.com/en/news/2020/9/ericsson-enables-driverless-5g-minibus

  8. Great blog! The MBTA is the gift that keeps on giving. I have been to many cities, and I have seen many different commuter systems, but the MBTA is expensive, not safe, slow, unreliable, and dirty. I am so happy that they are trying to make some changes, but I believe this company needs to change more things to get people excited. I also can’t think that they still use the two different apps, but like you point out, it looks like they are going in the right direction, and they are trying to adopt new technologies to improve people’s life which I am all about.

  9. Interesting post, Rob! To me, the MBTA can be understood as an organism: open and interconnected through its diligence in transparency within the organization and with the public, and by using change as a process of adapting to environmental changes. Any company is bound to constantly face change, but the MBTA is among one of the types that must quickly adapt to its faster-paced environment. If the T running late, the MBTA cannot just chock that up as an error in process that will be corrected tomorrow, in a week, or in a year. Some companies have that luxury: a car Lexus puts on the market is not selling as quickly as anticipated. That does not mean that within the next hour executives and foot-workers alike are in a panic trying to correct the sales.

    To that end, I’ve seen transformation, albeit not exactly digital, in the ways in which the MBTA is contracting for work. They started doing these on-call construction services contracts where, just like they sound, have the lowest qualified bidder on-call to perform construction services for the T, which is in comparison to them needing to previously bid out every small construction project (and therefore get smaller, less qualified contractors on the job). This helped to address their bottleneck in project delivery.

    I wrote a paper on this in undergrad. If interested, see here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1kiwx9Kn66aWuvCVbXw8fiitrOCm7dJpD/edit?usp=sharing&ouid=108406621617687437061&rtpof=true&sd=true

  10. Great blog post! As a former MBTA employee, I had the unique opportunity to learn and work on numerous innovative projects and initiatives across the agency. For starters, as we discussed in class, the MBTA’s goal to move to a digital payment system was intended to accelerate the boarding process and improve on time bus performance. Before I left, however, no bus route across the service area was meeting its on time performance goals, which meant that both the agency and passengers needed to make an important trade off between addressing on-time performance or reduce crowded buses.

    Moreover, the MBTA purchased new trains to replace the red line and orange line from a vendor overseas, in which some of us may have had the chance to experience. The trains are supposed to come equipped with digital screens, advanced communication and tracking system, and so much more. However, the new trains were supposed to be fully deployed by now.

    Lastly, the MBTA also upgraded their PA system in the train station, which now makes announcements in both English and Spanish. For para-transit riders, the MBTA partnered with Uber and Lyft to transport people with disabilities from point A to point B. The MBTA is the 5th largest transit agency in the US, and it will inevitably suffer from bureaucracy and operational challenges. I can go on and on, but I think the MBTA and transportation in general is headed in the right direction.

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