Logistics is a dirty business. Trucks account for only about 1% of vehicles on the road, but generate about one-quarter of all road pollution. The good news is that trucking isn’t nearly as "dirty" as it used to be. Improvements in truck transportation, which account for 70 percent of consumer goods movements, have been spectacular. In fact, it would take 70 trucks manufactured in 2016 to equal the emissions of a single rig made in 2002. The corporate bottom line has benefited along the way. Walmart, for example, reduced its trucking carbon footprint by 50% between 2005 and 2015, and saved one billion dollars in the process.
Here are three factors that have powered the improved environmental performance of trucking:
Early efforts two decades ago focused on reducing pollution. The evolution of low-sulfur diesel, cleaner running engines and aggressive emission controls made a huge impact in air quality, although adding hardship for truck owners, pushing upward the price of new vehicles and increasing operating costs.
While regulatory compliance drove the industry’s emission improvement efforts, opportunities for fuel reduction and the associated cost saving opportunity continue to be actively pursued by operators. This has been made possible by technology improvements in areas such as engine programing, transmissions, and aerodynamic design. Some of the gain has also resulted from improved driving technique. Increasing attention to best practices such as controlled stopping and starting or avoiding excess speed and idling has bolstered mileage.
Strategies to create fewer loads and to reduce shipping distances have been effective in reducing overall mileage. Efforts to increase the cube utilization of containers and trucks is helping to take trucks off the road. This is accomplished by product and packaging redesign (think of concentrated formula products, or the use of RPCs to fully cube out retail delivery), the aid of load optimization software, and better inventory management, which is reducing the need for expedited emergency shipments. Total distance is reduced through technologies such as GPS and other telematics that optimize truck routes. These approaches are complemented by other initiatives such as local sourcing and the strategic relocation of distribution centers.
While important strides have been made, commercial trucks still account for 20% of greenhouse gas emissions, including problematic nitrous oxide (NOx) emissions. Last August, the EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration introduced new standards aimed at reducing carbon emissions from commercial trucks, buses and cargo vans, starting with model year 2021. By the model year 2027, trucks will burn 25% less fuel than 2018 models. While there is some uncertainty about what will happen to the standards under the new federal administration, some experts believe that the efficiency gains included in the standards would be "no brainers" for major freight operators to implement even in the absence of regulatory requirements.
Other efficiency innovations to watch in the near future include electric powered rigs such as the Mercedes-Benz Urban eTruck, autonomous vehicles, as well as platooning, an approach that reduces wind resistance and fuel consumption by having a convoy of trucks closely and safely follow each other in a line with the aid of sophisticated driver support. If the savings from such technologies prove to be compelling, operators will line up to take advantage.