Electric, automated vehicles continue to evolve; technology revolution in ‘opening credits’

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 630 views 

Craig Harper, chief operating officer of Lowell-based carrier J.B. Hunt Transport Services, speaks in his keynote address at Northwest Arkansas Technology Summit.

Craig Harper, chief operating officer of Lowell-based carrier J.B. Hunt Transport Services, explained the advantages of electric vehicles and how automated technology has improved vehicle safety in his keynote address at the Northwest Arkansas Technology Summit in Rogers. He also discussed energy, emissions improvements in diesel engines and the Tesla Semi the carrier ordered in 2017.

“One thing you have to keep in mind is 80% of the energy that we consume in the U.S. is based off of fossil fuels, so we have a lot of work to do,” Harper said. “Diesel, one of the largest sources of our energy, especially in transportation, has made a ton of progress. Since 1988, if you look at NOx (nitrogen oxide) emissions, if you look at the particulates that come out of the exhaust pipe, they’ve been reduced by 98%.”

Harper was a featured speaker at the fifth annual summit held Tuesday (Oct. 23) and followed Rachel Mushahwar, general manager, head of U.S. sales and marketing at Intel. About 3,000 people attended the summit, hosted by the Greater Bentonville Area Chamber of Commerce at the John Q. Hammons Center, and it took place after the second annual Women in Tech conference and the first MedTech conference, both on Monday (Oct. 22).

While vehicle fuel efficiency is expected to rise, Harper said improvements continue to be made in electric vehicles. Harper said 15 years ago an electric big rig would need the battery about half the size of its trailer to haul a load. However, the weight and cost of batteries have fallen, and the speed at which batteries can be charged has risen. Since 2016, the cost of batteries have fallen 24% to $200 per kilowatt hour, and the cost might fall to less than $100 per kilowatt hour in a few years.

At off-peak hours during the night, the company could charge electric vehicles for up to 10 times less the cost. Rapid charging could allow batteries to be charged within 30 to 90 minutes. In some facilities, the carrier has up to 600 trucks coming in and out of operation daily, and for 10 trucks to be rapid charged to 80% power, it would consume the same amount of energy to power 2,000 homes.

“Is electric better for the climate or not?” Harper asked. “There’s big debates on that, because where does the electricity come from? If it comes from a coal burning power plant, is it cleaner or not? With a coal burning power plant you have all the particulates and emissions coming out of one stack, and you can address that versus millions of tailpipes.”

Electric vehicles are not as noisy, and he joked they might be too quiet. Also, an electric vehicle has 20-50 moving parts, compared to 2,000 for internal combustion engines, and this is expected to reduce maintenance costs.

In November, Tesla unveiled a big rig with a 500-mile range, and J.B. Hunt ordered an undisclosed number of the Tesla Semi trucks for its intermodal and dedicated segments on the West Coast. Bentonville-based retailer Walmart has ordered 45. The 300-mile and 500-mile range trucks are expected to cost between $150,000 and $180,000.

While the trucks are expected to cost more upfront than diesel trucks, Tesla expects the trucks will last 1 million miles. Electric trucks have an 80% efficiency, compared to 40% efficiency for diesel. And, the total cost of ownership is expected to be less than diesel, according to Tesla. The trucks are expected to be delivered in 2019.

Also, Harper said J.B. Hunt recently purchased five all-electric Mitsubishi Fuso eCanter light trucks for home delivery of goods. After the presentation, Harper said two will be used in the area and the other three in California.

Along with improvements to electric vehicles, autonomous technology has improved and is impacting vehicle safety, reducing crashes by 60%. Some of the technology includes collision mitigation, automated lane control and sensors that uses lasers to detect people, trees or other vehicles. The cost of latter, known as lidar, has fallen from $70,000 to about $5,000 in about five years.

Harper explained the six levels of vehicle automation, starting from zero, with no automation to level 5, in which the vehicle is self-driving, without human interaction. He showed a Waymo video that gives an example of level 4 autonomy in Phoenix in which people sit in the back seat of vans as the vehicle drives itself. The company operates 600 of the vehicles in the city, and is soon expected to have more than 60,000 of the vehicles.

A timeframe for when self-driving trucks will be available depends on legislation, he said, but the first pilot might be between 2023 and 2030. However, predicting the future of technology has not been easy. In 1990, the projection was for 900,000 people to use cell phone by 2000, but by then, there were 109 million users.

“Things are changing so fast, and we’ve said it for years, but now you can really see that things are coming about,” Harper said. “When you see that money being poured in every week, you know things are going to happen fast. I don’t know any other technology that’s getting that kind of attention and money.”

When asked about the investment J.B. Hunt is making into its corporate offices and a four-story Training and Technology Center that’s under construction, Harper said the company is short on space and needs to expand. He was told construction on the center is ahead of schedule. The 132,883-square-foot building with a capacity for 1,000 occupants was expected to be completed in October 2019

When asked about how hiring has been going for the center, he said executives speak to new hires each week, and in one week, between 60 and 80 people were hired. Other weeks it can range between 10 and 15 people.

Mushahwar spoke on the technology revolution underway across the world. While industry has been using machines for decades, she said this latest tech wave is still very early.

“If we were a movie, we would still be in the opening credits,” Mushahwar said in her morning keynote. She highlighted several companies pushing the needle by adopting technology to radically change their business.

John Deere is much more than tractor company. She said they are now a major seller of cloud storage and they are using machine learning and internet of things (IoT) developing autonomous tractors that drive within a one centimeter of accuracy. L’Oreal is using 3-D technology to print skin on which they can test cosmetics. She said Walmart is the third largest bank in Mexico and 60% of surgeries today can be done unassisted via robots.

Disruptors she highlighted also included Atalift, a 3-year-old cosmetic company that has grown to $100 million in sales. The company is owned by Fujifilm and took its 70 years of photography expertise and applied that to create an anti-aging skincare brand.

“I bet L’Oreal didn’t see that coming,” Mushahwar said.

She said United Parcel Service invested heavily on sensors for its massive truck fleet. The company found if every driver traveled one extra mile a day the cost to the company was $30 million per day.

“In this case UPS is using IoT technology to drive big dollars straight to the bottom line,” Mushahwar said.

The construction industry is finding it can save $50 million a year from fewer back injuries when workers wear wearable technology that notifies them ahead of back strain. She said wearable tech has grown to $60 billion industry.

Mushahwar said 5G next generation networking is pervasive connectivity in real time and this has the potential to totally transform the world in which we live. She said smart cars, smart homes and smart cities will become the norm in just a few years as 66% of cities have invested in some type of smart city technology.

Also at the summit, William Groves, chief data officer at Walmart, spoke about the shortage of data scientists in the world, and during lunch, he discussed some strategies to help fill the gap. He said there are 1.5 million unfilled jobs in the U.S. for data scientists. He said the shortage is only going to get worse.

Groves said it’s imperative that businesses work with universities to source talent, but it’s equally as important to collaborate with other businesses in the region to share talent in some cases and host work-a-thons and other events to draw in tech expertise.

In connection with this year’s event, Rogers-based Food Loops received the Innovator of the Year award. The sustainable mission of this company is to take commercial food waste in Benton and Washington counties compost that material into a fertilizer which can be sold back to local residents thereby closing the food loop. The company said food waste is a huge problem as it would fill 3,600 big rig trailers annually.

The company is working with technology from the University of Arkansas that uses bio inoculants which help to break down the waste more quickly. It will use IoT probes to monitor the condition of the compost pile through its various stages.

Talk Business & Politics Senior analyst Kim Souza contributed to this article.

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