We could have had efficient rail for long haul, small trucks for short haul. Instead we have big trucks everywhere.
At the 1967 International Container Conference in Genoa, Italy, Gabriel Alter (my late dad) outlined what he called a "land bridge" for moving goods in containers from ship to rail to truck for freight distribution across the country. With the development of the interstate highway system, the launch of the Boeing 747 and of course, the dawn of the shipping container era, he saw the transportation world changing.
He would tell me that "freight belongs on rails, and people belong in planes and cars, it is crazy to mix them up on the roads." He projected terrible congestion on the highways and in the ports if transport trailers kept taking more of the freight that the railways used to carry in their old boxcars. He was certain that many would die in crashes between cars and trucks, that it was a fundamentally dangerous mix.
My dad never got to see his vision take hold; while a few companies tried out his lightweight aluminum urban containers that could go from rail to truck to store, the American railways were losing money by the bucketload and didn't invest in the technology that was needed.
They couldn't fight against the multi-billion dollar investment in the interstate highway system that gave truckers such a vast subsidy. The transport trailer came to dominate freight in North America and we got to where we are today, with tiny cars sharing space with giant transport trailers, tragic crashes, congestion and pollution.
Which brings me to Elon Musk and Tesla and his shiny new rig. (See Sami's post Tesla unveils electric, 500 mile-range semi truck) He is a genius and a visionary, but he is, I believe, fundamentally blind to the fact that his cars are still cars, and now, his trucks are still trucks. They are still 80,000 pounds of inertia pounding on the asphalt and bridges.
I have been here before; see Why we don't need electric cars, but need to get rid of cars
The "enhanced autopilot" may prevent crashes like the recent north of Toronto, where the truck driver plowed right into the rear of a pile of cars, but there will still be crashes, this thing cannot stop on a dime. It is a little bit cheaper to operate than a diesel truck, but in the end, doesn't change much; his truck is still a truck. Rail still costs a fifth as much per ton-mile carried. My dad was right; it's crazy to mix cars and freight on the roads. Every day, people die because of this madness.
It's also not the optimum use of electric drives; our biggest problems with diesels happen in cities, because of the particulates and pollution. Alex Davies writes in Wired:
“Your best application is a vehicle that doesn’t travel a great deal of distance and has an awful lot of stop-start maneuvers,” [Navistar's Darren] Gosbee says. Meaning trucks that wander cities, making deliveries and pickups. These wouldn’t benefit from the current, highway-focused iteration of Tesla’s self-driving tech, but they have lots of benefits for electric propulsion: They don’t go that far, they can charge at the same place every night, they stop constantly to can recoup lots of energy, and the diesel trucks doing that work now do their polluting where the most people live.
My dad was right; it's crazy to mix cars and freight on the roads.
Musk is building a fancy truck that carries about 80,000 pounds or 40 tons. A single train carrying double-stack containers can carry 20 thousand tons. Of course, trains right now can't do everything trucks do; the system needs fixing. We need lots of small electric trucks to take goods from the rail terminals to the stores. They might even be the light aluminum containers that were more like truck bodies that my father proposed. That's where we need genius and investment. Because we don't need fancy electric transport trucks, we need to get rid of transport trucks.