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Uber Freight’s Ambitious Aim

38th Annual Patterson Lecture

Lior Ron has spent the last dozen year of his professional life imagining new realties.

As a member of Google’s mapping division, he helped scale Google Maps from 10 million users to more than 1 billion. Later, he co-founded Otto, a self-driving trucking company Uber acquired in 2016. Now, Ron is taking on the centuries-old logistics market as the head of Uber Freight, shepherding the enterprise’s daring aim to bring the offline logistics universe online.

“We fundamentally believe there’s a new era of opportunity in logistics,” Ron said at the 38th annual William A. Patterson Transportation Lecture hosted by the Northwestern University Transportation Center on May 15. “Technology streamlines things, connects things and that builds trust in physical networks.”

Each spring, the Patterson Lecture brings a recognized leader from the transportation field to the Northwestern campus to explore contemporary topics in a dynamic, fast-changing industry. Past speakers have included Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg, American Airlines Group CEO Doug Parker and Ford Motor Company CEO Alan Mulally.

Titled “Uberizing Logistics and the Future of Freight,” Ron devoted his Patterson Lecture to detailing the ongoing evolution of logistics before a crowd of some 150 faculty members, students and industry personnel a mere five days after Uber’s ballyhooed IPO.

Understanding the past and the pain points

Ron began his 75-minute program traveling back thousands of years to the earliest eras of trade. He reviewed game-changing innovations and highlighted Uber Freight’s vision for a more efficient logistics landscape.

As trade became more commonplace in early civilizations, Ron called roads the first technological breakthrough – “the initial unlock,” he labeled it. Later innovations such as currency and containerization, a 20th century development, ushered in new levels of trade growth and logistics, while digital-age advancements like Google Maps and warehousing software have propelled new growth opportunities.

With the logistics market currently representing 12 percent of global GDP, Ron said there’s an even greater need for solutions that bring value to industry stakeholders besieged by rising costs, a 98 percent driver turnover rate and a litany of inefficiencies ranging from long delays at facilities to “empty” miles in which trucks run with vacant trailers.

“[Logistics] is running in the wrong direction … and the entire ecosystem is struggling,” Ron said.

Imagining a better future

According to Ron, recent technological developments such as a mobile-enabled workforce, fully connected assets and an intelligent, self-learning network have created “a perfect storm” for improvements. Leveraging these technological advancements, Uber Freight’s business-to-business app – clutching many of the same user friendly, supply-and-demand tenets of its ubiquitous consumer ride-share platform – matches carriers and shippers to create logistics on demand.

“We want to connect the right truck at the right time with the right shipper at the right price, and make this entire process as streamlined as possible,” he said.

Ron also noted the viability of self-driving trucks. Showing a brief animated video to illustrate the potential of autonomous trucking, Ron said a driver could begin a trip at an origin facility and then transfer that load to a self-driving truck for ramp-to-ramp highway haul before another local driver receives the load and delivers it to the final destination.

“Those first and last miles remain critical,” Ron said.

Ending his Patterson Lecture with a lively and transparent Q&A session, Ron addressed a range of audience questions around issues such as barriers to working with shippers, Uber Freight’s plans for international expansion and the feasibility of truck platooning. He also touched on innovations in warehousing and loading trucks and said technology continues “stepping up the requirements to run a business efficiently.”

“Never say never [to anything], but I love the experimentation going on in the market today,” Ron said. “This is going to be a long game to play and there’s plenty of room for numerous players.”

Especially for those who dare to imagine new realities.
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