What do Uber, Tesla and Global Logistics Have in Common?

We expect historic changes to be a bit dramatic. We think of “Evrika!” moments when inventors discover new technologies that make our lives better.

The reality, however, seems to sneak up on us. We now know how important the Internet is but few would have guessed it when it was used to exchange short bits of information between academics. Same for Google – it is now easy to see how important having the global stream of information at your fingertips actually is. But it was a lot harder when the concept was still in its infancy.

Not even Steve Jobs could have predicted the impact the iPhone would have on the world. And I believe Elon Musk will look back on these days and be surprised by the changes Tesla brought to the world.

When Elon Musk announced the Powerwall, the world shook a little bit. Its beautiful design and promise of energy independence seemed almost dreamlike. But the Powerwall shows a far larger vision than just making the home energy independent.

Powerwall 2 & Solar Roof Launch from Tesla, Inc on Vimeo.

It is a promise that we could harness the virtually unlimited energy of the Sun and store it. Storage, you see, is the real problem. The complex systems we use are powered by energy that is consumed almost instantly. Our cars, our electronics, our planes – they feed on streams of energy as it is formed. Even the best energy storage systems fail after a short while.

The batteries that can save the world

The promise that one day a company (could it be Tesla?) can find a way to harness and store the sun’s energy (or any type of green energy for that matter) has an impact we can hardly predict.

The implications range from pollution reduction to geopolitics to economics. Especially economics. To understand how much we could save by switching to green energy, have a look at this estimate for an average Tesla car compared to one running on fossil fuel:

Think that’s a lot? That car “only” logs 120 000 miles. Compare that to the 397.8 billion miles logged by all trucks used for business purposes (excluding government and farm)In the US alone.

Now mix the numbers and add the savings Tesla’s technology can bring.

Add something else: sun-powered electricity. Think of trucks and ships that can move goods around without any need for refueling.

Because that’s where the real change comes in. When products are manufactured and shipped at a tiny fraction of what they are today, everything changes.

When we take out the distribution costs, the energy costs and any other costs associated with energy from our current commerce paradigm, everything changes in the world.

The products we buy would have costs that would be driven to the ground. Without costs associated with energy consumption and storage, goods would be manufactured cheaper and faster (instant energy), shipped cheaper and faster and consumed by more. We could have cheaper products, consumed by more and believe it or not, more profitable to sell.

But how could the system change?

There is only one thing stopping this: the current transportation and energy system. Musk’s vision has already stirred things a bit with car dealers. What happens when the company will go against the global leaders in energy and transport companies, the ones still relying on fossil fuels? These companies would have to change or fight the change. The former is what one might expect.

That’s where the Uber concept comes in. Uber connects, as you know, smaller professionals that provide transportation services. Right now this is limited to personal transportation. Uber, today’s Uber, acts as a glorified cab dispatcher.

But tomorrow’s Uber may have bigger ambitions. Somewhere behind the scenes, investors know that there’s more to Uber than meets the eye. The reason the company landed a $41 billion valuation is that it has the potential to change the global transportation system. Not just personal transportation but all kinds of transportation.

That includes making sure goods are quickly moved from manufacturing to storage to the consumer. Don’t take my word for it. Uber has been experimenting time and again with logistics. And if Uber won’t, there are other companies that will.

So you have virtually unlimited power. You have storage. You have the a system that makes sure goods are sent to the right destination by the optimum freight. This means the kind of change we now can’t fully comprehend.

It means that good is now in motion.

4 Companies That are Disrupting Logistics

There is no shortage of logistics needs in the world. As the world gets smaller, more products have to be moved. Recent changes in consumer behavior helped increase the volume of moved goods. Almost $19 trillion worth of goods were imported and exported in 2013, 5 times as much as in 1990.

This 19 trillion market is stuck for the moment with two very big problems leading to ineffectiveness. The first one is technology infrastructure. As goods move to and from very different countries and cultures, there is no unified backbone for making shipments happen. As such, logistics are somewhat slow, compared to other areas in the commerce landscape.

The second big problem is the last-mile delivery. The likes of FedEx and UPS are great at moving goods from New York to Shanghai and the other way around. They’re not really that great at building local delivery networks, able to ship goods fast and cheap. As you might notice, this is a bit of a problem for ambitious retail companies such as Amazon, Walmart or Alibaba, aiming for global dominance.

But worry not.

Investors have picked up on the opportunity to disrupt the $19 trillion market and have turned their investments to logistics companies. According to Crunchbase, investments in logistics startups went from 0.1% of total investments in 2012, to 1.37% in 2014. The total amount invested in 2014 in logistics startups ($1.8 billions) means an increase of 1370%. That is a sure sign that something big is really just around the corner.

As the market is ripe for disruption and investors are generously tapping into logistics, a lot of companies will be showing up on the logistics radar.

Among all these, here are 5 companies that might be the model these investors are looking for:

No.4: Amazon is trying to ship goods with drones

Amazon Fresh, one of the companies logistics challenges.
Amazon Fresh, one of the companies logistics challenges.

After Jeff Bezos announced Amazon is building a drone-delivery service, a lot of people (me included) were questioning whether this could be real or just a PR stunt. It seems that not only is Amazon serious about the drones, but it is also very focused on building the model for the next generation of logistics operations. It has invested more than $14 billions since 2010 in its warehouses.

It has invested in robotic fulfillment operations, purchasing and integrating Kiva Systems. Becoming one of the most automated fulfillment and shipping company, it leads the way in large scale ecommerce logistics. As a result, the company is improved its operations vastly. In 2012 it managed to ship 10 million products per day, leading to 1.05 billion products shipped in the last quarter of 2012.

No. 3: Freightos takes a shot at a trillion dollar market: the cargo industry

The Freightos network
The Freightos network

It may come a shock to those reading this but the cargo industry is really in need of some technology updating. A lot of work in the freight (cargo) industry is done with the help of emails, spreadsheets and … fax machines.

Freightos aims to change all that with a SaaS product that connects those in need and those offering freight services. Unlike the previous way of managing shipping costs, Freightos provides a cloud application that can allow for real-time responses.

No.2: GoGoVan connects vans, delivers the last mile

gogovan

Remember the thing about the last mile the likes of FedEx just can’t handle? It turns out they really don’t want to handle that last mile. Large logistics companies in Hong Kong outsource 70% of their local operations, estimates Gabriel Fong, CEO of Hong Kong GoGoVan.

The company employs Uber’s taxi-hailing model to connect van drivers and those in need of moving goods. They basically replace the old and ineffective call center with a mobile app.

GoGoVan estimated that 35 000 of Hong Kong’s vans are owned by freelancers. These freelancers usually subscribe to a call center which can forward requests and lease radio communication equipment. It’s usually ineffective for both the van-driver and the customer so GoGoVan decided there is a market there.

Right now GoGoVan has 18 000 vans registered with their service so things are going great.

No.1: Uber has transformed the cab industry, it can go further

uber

Uber started as a car-sharing service but soon turned into a multi-billion company, available in 45 countries and 200 cities. It has done that by allowing those with an acceptable vehicle play cab-driver for anyone willing to pay.

The company so far successfully dodged cab regulations and managed to change the way people move in the urban environment.

Lately they have figured out that if they can move people from point A to point B they can also do that with merchandise. After experimenting with a fast delivery service called UberRUSH, trying on a Corner Store service and shipping Christmas Trees, Uber got it: It can do logistics.

Specifically – urban logistics. After all – it really is not that hard to adapt the model to minivans (see GoGoVan above).

I can’t wait to get my online orders delivered in a black luxury sedan. Hear that, Uber?