In 1861, the fastest way to get a package from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California was on horseback. The Pony Express maintained a series of relay stations stretching across the Great Plains, the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada that saved 10 days of transportation time and delivered 35,000 letters during its service. It’s an indelible part of American culture – Pony Express t-shirts, shows, books and movies live on, telling a romantic tale of adventure in the Old West. It’s the first example of American transportation seen in a rosy light.
This is fortunate because popular culture is the only place the Pony Express was a success. In nearly every business category, it was a massive failure. Pony Express riders were able to carry letters quickly but the high cost of the route meant that the enterprise suffered a net loss of $110,000 (almost $3,000,000 in today’s currency.) It cost the equivalent of $130 to send a letter. Riders traveled through the country’s most inhospitable terrain. Founded with the idea of creating a profitable business, the Pony Express survived a mere nineteen months before the transcontinental railroad made it obsolete. An idea went from groundbreaking to meaningless in less than two years.
Today, the notion of moving goods by horseback is preposterous. The transcontinental railroad pushed out the Pony Express; one hundred years later, airplanes and trucks have removed businesses’ reliance on the railroad. In the technology world, this is natural and inevitable.
An industry’s mainstay can become outdated overnight. It happens again and again in transportation. The industry today faces a similar change with electronic logging devices (ELDs). For years, paper logs ruled when and how drivers worked. ELDs represent a step forward. The hesitation and criticism facing these products are a natural part of change. To be sure, ELDs are not the end the story. Engineers are working on the next phase of transportation, one that includes driverless vehicles and automated deliveries. When that happens, the world will have to again adjust. Businesses will become absorbed with fleet management technology, ensuring their assets are safe and properly maintained. Until then, businesses have to keep up or risk being left behind, like the Pony Express stations that are still scattered across the American West.