Big Data & Automobiles: Crowdsourcing the Supply Chain

A company called Inrix really, really wants the data from your vehicle's windshield wipers. And traction control systems. And as many other subsystems as it can sweep into its cloud. 

The goal is not a performance tweak. In fact, it hardly has anything to do with your individual vehicle. Rather the Kirkland, WA-based company's goal is a crowd sourced form of navigation that could have huge positive benefits for shipping, as well as our own cars. Sent to the cloud, aggregated, and analysed with hundreds or thousands of additional data points, mashed up with weather predictions, and it has the potential to give drivers a very good idea of what is coming– where to expect black ice, let's say, or storm fronts moving through.

Source; Inrix

Source; Inrix

Google's Waze GPS app, on the other hand, uses more familiar crowdsourcing. It allows Waze GPS users to input weather, traffic, parking and other data along their journey. The data is run through an algorithm and made available in turn to Waze users.

The IBM and Continental AG Connected eHorizon project has its own take on the connected car vision. It will draw on a vast array of data sources including crowd sourced data, and its own sensors and radars to predict the road ahead. An API would allow vehicle-makers to feed this predictive data into cruise control, brake assistance, and more advanced driving automation systems.

The results for commercial vehicles: routing and fuel efficiency far beyond what we have today.

We are accustomed to thinking of the phenomenon of crowdsourcing, the sharing economy, as one devoted to consumers.  Emblematic of the model are flag bearers like AirBnB and Über, ecosystems (and billion dollar companies) where services are contributed and consumed by a large peer-to-peer network. And all solidly B2C.

Even the crowdsourcing initiatives at giants like Coca-Cola–co-creating of marketing content–or General Mills Idea Connection are marketing/consumer oriented.

However, the question remains: can something like this happen in the B2B realm, and more to the point of this post, to the supply chain?  Even given the sharp differences in risk, liability, scale and in other ways, the answer has to be a definitive yes. Crowdsourcing for the supply chain in one form or another is already a trend in the making.

In recent months, the headline-grabber has been in Last Mile delivery.  On June 16, Amazon announced it was testing a program called “On my Way,” connecting individuals for delivery of Amazon goods. The apps Deliv and Postmates have operated such a service for several companies since early 2014, using networks of individuals with smart phones to connect them with contracting companies. UberCargo is operating as a beta in Hong Kong.

True, these services live where supply chain meets consumer. But optimizing the Last Mile of delivery is clearly as important to servicing B2B.  The Last Mile is often said to be the most expensive step in logistics overall, sometimes, according to researcher CAP Gemini, as much as 40% to 50% of logistics cost. 

Then there is the service Cargomatic, which aims to crowdsource local trucking.  The Venice Beach, CA-based company connects shippers with qualified carriers who have unutilized capacity on their trucks. Truckers carrying smart phones give the system speed and transparency: “We introduce transparency and real-time efficiency into the market, while enabling local carriers to turn their capacity into meaningful business,” the company said.

The crowdsourcer Flexe makes its business in warehousing. Companies with temporary warehouse capacity may monetize this surplus space by renting it out short term. Retailers and others in turn can book space on demand for varying times without signing long-term leases. 

It would be unwise to predict that any of these companies will emerge as the AirBnB or Uber for logistics. There is far too much to work out. But it would be equally unwise to ignore the crowdsourcing model, the sharing economy, as it continues to impact logistics, especially as it combines with the IoT.    

The companies that grasp this new paradigm will be interesting to watch indeed.

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