Placing Humanity at the Heart of a Digitized and Electrified Global Transportation Network

Electrification and digitization are transforming aviation, rail, automotive and maritime sectors, promising efficiency and sustainability. However, issues like cybersecurity, labor disputes and environmental concerns loom large. Amid these challenges, human intervention remains crucial for guiding technological progress.

From the soaring heights of aviation to bustling freight rail, the landscape of transportation is driving toward a remarkable future — spurred by technological advancements and the increasing demand for safe, sustainable and efficient mobility.

While this innovation may stimulate markets and pique consumer interests, change isn’t without imperfections.

“In this pivotal moment, we must focus on what's next — the next frontier in transportation,” says Agnes Otto, director of transportation at Burns & McDonnell. “Our transportation infrastructure is not just vital; it’s the cornerstone of our global competitiveness and quality of life. Whether it’s the ease of commuting or the flow of goods, every aspect is intertwined with our prosperity. Now, more than ever, seamless and efficient transportation is the key to retaining a competitive edge in the global arena. It's about creating a connected environment where people thrive.”

Outlining the Global Transportation Network

The global transportation network is an interconnected system of infrastructure, modes and services facilitating the movement of goods, information and people across the world. From the skies where planes crisscross and drones take flight to maritime transport shaping the seas, to the thriving business of freight rail — each mode plays a vital role in this expansive network. The associated services supporting this network include information and communication systems, and logistics and supply chain management.

New and recent technologies — electric and autonomous vehicles, drones and Internet of Things (IoT) devices — will shape the transportation industry, and our quality of life, into the next decade. While most individuals residing in the United States don’t own an electric vehicle (EV), the progress of this technology is emblematic of the rise of digital technologies and the electrification of everything.

It was a century ago when car adoption was all the rage. Henry Ford pioneered mass-production techniques that later became industry standards. Between 1920 and 1930, the number of vehicles per 1,000 people grew from 86 to 217. While individuals and businesses aren’t converting from horse and buggy to steel on wheels, the transition to EVs and plug-in hybrids has gained considerable momentum in the past decade.

In 2023, approximately 1.2 million vehicle buyers in the United States opted for EVs, setting a new record. In the same year, EVs emerged as the fastest-growing segment in car sales, capturing 7.6% of the entire U.S. vehicle market, a notable rise from 5.9% in the preceding year. For comparison, in 2013, only 97,000 vehicles sold were plug-in EVs. The United States may be hovering around three EVs per every 1,000 people, but the growth rate has experienced only minor hiccups within the past decade.

The transformation of the automobile industry is one component of a dynamic transportation ecosystem that is rapidly changing. The promise — and perils — of innovation are transforming commerce, security and everyday human interactions.

Driving Forward: The Promise of Innovation

The transportation industry is on the cusp of transformative change. Autonomous vehicles (AVs), electrified ports and safety improvements for trains are all part of the push for faster, safer and more environmentally friendly movement of people and goods. The groundbreaking advancements across various sectors of transportation showcase how technology is revolutionizing operations, enhancing passenger experiences and addressing environmental concerns.

  • Trains. In September 2008, the collision of a Metrolink passenger train with a Union Pacific Railroad freight train resulted in the loss of 25 lives while 135 passengers were injured. This led to the passage of the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, and the integration of positive train control (PTC) in both freight and passenger rail.

    PTC represents the potential for technology to improve transportation. Specifically, this system incorporates GPS, wireless communication and onboard computers to continuously monitor train movement and automatically intervene to prevent accidents that would be caused by speeding, unauthorized train movements and other human errors.
  • Automobiles. While PTC has provided a technological solution to address train collisions, the automotive industry is looking toward AI and AVs for potential solutions to reduce fatalities while improving the flow of traffic.

    Modern partial autonomous systems (e.g., level 2 automation) incorporate key functions to assist with highway driving. Adaptive cruise control, for example, allows a vehicle to maintain a predetermined speed, autonomously adjusting speeds to account for surrounding vehicles. Lane-centering systems provide assistance so that the vehicle remains centered within its lane.

    The promise of AVs aligns well with the adoption of EVs. The simple reason is that both autonomous and electric vehicles are easy for computers to drive, especially when compared to an internal combustion engine vehicle. EVs typically incorporate drive-by-wire technology, replacing mechanical control systems with electronic ones. By-wire technology is structurally compatible with automated driving and offers greater flexibility in vehicle design. This type of integration is promising in metropolitan centers that can leverage robust charging infrastructure and increasing demand for ride-sharing services. With the reduction in emissions and increased accessibility for older adults or individuals with disabilities, AVs and EVs present unique opportunities to improve public health and mobility.
  • Planes and airports. While the spotlight may be on development of electrified aircraft, practical constraints dictate that electric planes will not be developed anytime soon. Airports, on the other hand, are at the forefront of a fundamental transformation. The spectrum of electrification initiatives includes ground support equipment as well as fleets. Battery-powered tugs and baggage handling equipment are the newest technologies to electrify airports, while minimizing carbon emissions.

    “The low-hanging fruit in airport electrification involves ground service equipment,” says Dan Eekhoff, aviation and fuel systems business development manager at Burns & McDonnell. “Virtually every airport is exploring this initiative due to its practicality and efficiency. This equipment operates during the day on short runs and can be charged overnight, making it a sensible solution.”

    In addition to electrifying ground support equipment, the aviation industry is harnessing new technologies to enhance physical security and operational efficiency worldwide. AI and automation have emerged as essential tools to optimize runway utilization and streamlining operational processes. Additionally, IoT devices such as temperature and occupancy sensors are enhancing operations and enabling smarter building management systems.

    “Airports are continually seeking ways to minimize stress and anxiety for passengers, leveraging technology to reduce wait times and enhance overall satisfaction,” says Stuart Garrett, aviation business development manager at Burns & McDonnell. “IoT devices are improving passenger experiences by providing real-time information and enhancing wayfinding within airport facilities. Wayfinding is now aided by technology, facilitating navigation for passengers, including those with disabilities or special needs.”

    Moreover, airports are proactively addressing irregular operations to minimize disruptions. Through the amalgamation of big data and video analytics, routine maintenance tasks are being streamlined and security protocols are being reinforced. Notably, the collaborative environment among various stakeholders — vendors, airlines and local government authorities managing airports — is crucial for success. Partnerships forged between and among airlines, airports, private contractors and vendors are essential for navigating the complexities of daily operations.

    “Unlike private industries where a single entity controls operations, airports involve a multitude of stakeholders,” Garrett says. “From airlines to retailers, and from TSA (Transportation Security Administration) to construction companies, various parties converge on airport campuses, each conducting their own business. This decentralized structure presents unique challenges in coordination and management but also underscores the need for collaboration among various stakeholders to address technological and security challenges.”

    By leveraging technology and fostering collaboration, the aviation industry is poised to deliver enhanced operational resilience, reliability and efficiency.
  • Ports and shipping. Autonomation and sustainability have been gaining traction in port operations globally. From supply chain optimization to real-time tracking of containers, AI promises to streamline operations and enhance overall efficiency.

    IoT solutions and advanced analytics have given rise to digital twins. A digital twin serves as a precise virtual representation of a physical object, process or system, continuously updating data with its real-world counterpart. Digital twins can facilitate improved planning and decision-making. This type of technology can provide intelligent insights on machine performance, crane operations, bunkering optimization and container traffic flow. By fine-tuning real-world operations and objectively simulating different scenarios, operators can reduce running costs, vet capital investments effectively, and enhance efficiency.

    This enhanced efficiency not only benefits supply chain networks and port operations but also has the potential to reduce emissions. The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 allocated $3 billion to port facilities for the acquisition or installation of zero-emission equipment, augmenting existing federal, state, local and utility funding sources.

    “There was a major need to upgrade and transform ports even before the infrastructure bills were introduced,” says Matt Wartian, ports and maritime national business development manager at Burns & McDonnell. “Ports have traditionally been industrial and, consequently, contribute to pollution and traffic burdens in neighboring communities.”

    To tackle environmental concerns, port authorities are embracing electrification projects to comply with state regulations while accessing federal funding. Advancements in shore power systems and battery technologies are making electrification technologically viable. However, port electrification presents operational, technical and financial challenges, requiring investments in new equipment, charging infrastructure, workforce training and utility capacity to support decarbonized operations. As ports electrify, efficiently maintaining and updating technology for fleet management will be crucial to facilitate compatibility with charging infrastructure and communication networks.

    What won’t be electrified in the near term are the actual ships moving cargo around the world.

    “Currently, oceangoing vessels cannot be electrified simply due to the size and energy needs of these ships,” Wartian says. “Alternatives like green methanol are gaining momentum as the shipping industry tries to reduce carbon emissions. However, one challenge lies in the lower energy density of methanol, especially when compared to diesel fuels, because methanol will require additional investment in green fueling and bunkering infrastructure at both ends of shipping corridors.”

    In comparison to traditional fuels, renewable methanol diminishes carbon dioxide emissions by a maximum of 95%, decreases nitrogen oxide emissions by up to 80%, and eradicates sulfur oxide and particulate matter emissions, according to the Methanol Institute.

    While the maritime industry is taking a measured approach toward autonomous ships, ports are integrating electrical assets to reduce their reliance on traditional energy sources.

Technology, Safety and the Paradox of Progress

Despite all of the promises of progress, efforts to advance electrification, digitization and sustainability in the transportation industry have tradeoffs, including cybersecurity threats and resources required for mining critical minerals to build the batteries that power EVs. In the 21st century, the biggest threats often feel intangible but the impacts extend beyond the digital to the real world.

  • Cybersecurity for rail and automobiles. For railroads, cyberattacks will remain the biggest threat. The introduction of positive train control technologies, while enhancing safety, has opened new vulnerabilities that demand vigilant attention. In response to escalating cyberthreats, the railroad industry is mobilizing efforts to fortify its defenses and mitigate potential risks. Additionally, regulatory directives from the TSA now mandate stringent measures such as network segmentation controls and access control policies.

    Cyberattacks are also a major threat to the automotive industry. The intricate web of interconnected platforms across EV supply equipment combined with the exchange of private data and grid connections forms an enticing target for bad actors and cyberthreats, potentially disrupting electric distribution systems while infecting vehicles with malicious software. Addressing these threats requires a strategic approach to cybersecurity throughout the life cycle of EV supply equipment. Interested parties can address some of these concerns by conducting risk assessments of vendors, championing secure-by-design principles and addressing liability concerns in supply contracts. Additionally, post-transaction services must be fortified with baseline cybersecurity measures.
  • Traffic fatalities. An issue of greater concern for drivers, pedestrians and the auto industry is traffic fatalities. While car makers see a future of autonomous vehicles, traffic fatalities haven’t fallen with the introduction of level 2 AVs. In fact, traffic fatalities dipped to a low of 32,479 in 2011. By the middle of the 2010s, level 2 autonomous features were prevalent in luxury vehicles and gradually permeated into more affordable mainstream models, but the number of traffic fatalities has zig zagged upward toward 42,939 in 2021, making the case for AVs a bit murkier.

    “With the advancements in AI technologies like AVs, one might expect a reduction in safety incidents and crash reports,” Otto says. “However, this hasn't been the case. Instead, the cases of distracted driving are increasing.”

    According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, nearly one-third of traffic fatalities during 2020 and 2021 were due to speed-related crashes. Other federal studies have found substance abuse, smartphone use while driving, and insufficient pedestrian infrastructure contributed to increased traffic deaths.
  • New technologies and unions. In the dynamic world of maritime commerce, dockworkers can participate in a variety of capacities, including as public servants at state-owned ports, hired employees at private terminals or members of dock labor programs. Numerous dock labor programs require registered dockworkers to execute work at the port. This obligation can be imposed by national or regional legislation and is often the outcome of collective bargaining agreements between port employers and trade unions.

    “The global trend toward automation aims to minimize manual labor in terminal operations to enhance efficiency and safety,” Wartian says. “Terminal operators may embrace the adoption of AI and automated systems to streamline processes, but this may face pushback from labor unions representing port workers.”

    Identifying solutions that consider union members while adopting new technologies is an emergent challenge for port operators.
  • Making trade-offs. There are numerous trade-offs facing the auto industry, regulatory agencies and consumers as individuals and businesses adopt EVs, especially concerning environmental and financial decisions. From an energy security perspective, oil and mineral reserves have significant differences. An oil crisis can drive up prices, hitting the wallets of consumers who use gasoline or diesel fuel. When there is a mineral shortage, the ramifications are felt primarily by consumers purchasing EVs. For individuals and companies that have already adopted EVs, disruptions to mineral supplies will seem distant if not inconsequential. Additionally, batteries of EVs can be recycled, but internal combustion engines continuously require new oil. This juxtaposition is emblematic of the evolving energy landscape — one in which sustainability and resilience are intertwined with the pursuit of innovation.

Engineering Infrastructure to Maintain a Human Network

The digitization and electrification of the global transportation network may enhance safety, efficiency and sustainability, but nestled within this progress lie nuanced challenges and trade-offs demanding careful consideration.

Cyberthreats loom large, impacting the safety of IoT devices in an interconnected world. Despite the introduction of cutting-edge technologies like AVs, rising traffic fatalities persist, raising questions about the true impact of innovation on road safety. Labor tensions could simmer in the maritime industry, where automation enhances efficiency but could eliminate livelihoods. Meanwhile, sustainability has been a driving factor for the electrification of automobiles, despite environmental concerns associated with the extraction of critical minerals, which add a layer of complexity to the energy transition. As humans hurtle forward into this brave new world of global transportation, navigating these challenges will require wisdom and foresight.  

“My grandfather was a man of another era, and he grew up driving a team of mules,” Otto says. “He hated to ride in cars and would only do it as a last resort. Were he to be alive today, one can only ponder how he might perceive our contemporary landscape. Perhaps, amid our struggles to embrace novel technologies, we ought to give ourselves a little bit of a break, recognizing the inherent complexities of human nature. Indeed, the marvels of our current age should inspire awe for the world we inhabit.”

Thought Leader

Dan Eekhoff

Business Development Manager
Burns & McDonnell

Stu Garrett

Project Manager, Aviation & Federal
Burns & McDonnell

Agnes Otto

Transportation Director
Burns & McDonnell

Matt Wartian

Ports & Maritime National Business Development Manager
Burns & McDonnell