The business model behind Roadie sounds simple enough: fill all that unused cargo space in commuter cars with goods for delivery. But look a bit deeper and it is potentially transformative.
Digital technology became transformative when bits escaped their devices and began traversing networks. A house-sized computer that had to be fed and read in person, with inputs and outputs physically carted to and away in supply lines of lab-coated technicians resembling so many ants was revolutionary, no doubt. But connect dozens of remote machines together on the ARPA Net and within 50 years it is networks that define the digital world more so than any specific device. But this is no surprise to anyone with half a brain and half a map because whether the network consists of waterways, railways, highways or walkways, human culture has always reflected the topology of the networks transporting artifacts of value, whether those were physical products or information. Take any map devoid of human artifacts and the concentration of human settlements is predictable by the presence of water and passable routes from A to B.
But even as the digital world transformed information transport, the physical world of logistics remained largely tied to geographic topology and sparse networks with a very few, very large central hubs. The revolution delivered by containerized shipping allows goods to more easily bridge those physical topological networks, hopping as they do from boats, to trains to trucks, but transport remains tied to central hubs – container ports, rail hubs, warehouses, and airports.
I am ashamed to admit that I do not remember the author but many years ago I read a story in which letters and packages in a crowded urban setting were delivered by a packet-switching network composed entirely of street traffic. Anyone moving about on the street might be handed a parcel if they looked like they might be headed generally in the right direction. Given sufficient population density, stuff just got to its destination.
Roadie might be described as a robust, longer distance version of that cyberpunk physical packet-switched network. Except that Rodie is real and operating today in the Southeastern US. I believe it blurs the line between atoms and bits because it borrows so much from classic digital networking, including their implementation of the routing hub, which I will get to in a bit.
Transport agnostic – Roadie is geared around automobile transport, but the concept only requires a human carrier with access to transportation. If you live in the suburbs, someone on the afternoon commuter train could deliver the laptop power brick you left at the office. Like any digital network, Rodie can potentially use whatever transport is available. Unlike shipping containers which are constrained to planes, trains and tractor-trailers. (Seriously, you didn’t expect me to write automobiles there, did you?)
Redundancy – The more dense the local Roadie network, the more robustly it can route around damage. Someone who moves or takes a day off does not cause a system outage. A regional event like an ice storm need not cause a system outage, although surely a noticeable delay. Compare this to the outage caused by loss of a single rail hub, container yard, or your local Amazon or Netflix warehouse.
Scalability – Shipping containers require considerable infrastructure. Don’t expect to see container yards popping up adjacent to your local grocery store. The network nodes used by Roadie are, in fact, probably located somewhere near the local grocery store. And the Interstate exit. And the mall. The first partner announced by Roadie to act as Roadie nodes is, and you are going to love this, Waffle House. Rather than have the Roadie driver come to your house, you can meet them at the local Waffle House. This provides enhanced privacy and security for the service and Waffle House provides free food for the drivers. Seriously. Since Roadie can partner with any business that has local presence at scale, the network scales with human population density. Not only does adding nodes not add cost, it actually adds value by driving traffic to the host businesses, and does so a lot more effectively than that FedEx drop box in the lobby of your local office supply store ever did.
Digital data processing improved on the network designs from the physical world and in doing so transformed commerce. Roadie is round-tripping that by taking lessons learned from digital network design and feeding those back into physical logistics network design. This application of digital architecture to physical systems, and a corresponding increase in reliability, responsiveness and resilience is what the Internet of Things was supposed to deliver. Unfortunately, the IoT was implemented as a sensor platform for the extraction of valuable personal information to be refined into an income stream, and the benefits to ordinary people all but lost in the ensuing gold rush as each vendor staked a new claim to their share of your intimate private life.
If Roadie keeps adding value by delivering actual, physical people to businesses instead of intimate personal information about those people, it could be come the reference example of how to do IoT the right way. It is early yet and the pendulum could swing either way, but so far it is looking good.
Roadie – Where your personal logistics are scattered, smothered and covered. And it’s awesome.