One of the Keys to Sustainable Freight: Full Trucks

I’m serving on a small working group that is trying to develop some high-level ideas for how the City of Portland could encourage more sustainable freight.

It’s a little bit of a mind-bender, because all of my urban design sensibilities push for smaller vehicles.

But in fact from a fuel efficiency perspective, there is a very strong inducement toward larger trucks and keeping them full. Fuel per pound of cargo goes down as trucks get bigger (regardless of what vehicle technology improvements you make like electric or biodiesel).

The other half of the question is reducing vehicle miles traveled (VMT). Obviously from this point of view it’s better to send out a full truck and let it deliver until it’s empty.

The problem is, many customers want their deliveries at the same time (7-10am is typical). This can result in running many partially empty trucks at the same time, because you can only fill the truck with what it can deliver during that window.

Some of the keys to making this more efficient would include:

  • Getting customers (with some kind of financial inducement?) to accept night-time deliveries or deliveries over a wider time span during the day
  • Getting customers to hold more inventory so they get larger, less frequent deliveries (doesn’t work for perishable goods)

It’s a very interesting set of tradeoffs.


8 responses to “One of the Keys to Sustainable Freight: Full Trucks”

  1. Yes, it’s essentially a congestion pricing problem, but probably with very different solution mechanisms, since the person driving the scheduling isn’t sitting in the vehicle!

  2. Convincing businesses to stock larger inventories will be tricky also, especially with tight credit at the moment. Taking deliveries later in the day might work, but overnight would be a problem for any place that isn’t already staffed 24 hours a day.

    I’m curious how much freight is effected by only having two routes across the Columbia? Long distance freight it shouldn’t matter for, but for local deliveries unless a business has distribution centers on both sides of the river it seems like the lack of access across the river would add to VMT significantly. I guess this also applies to things like the Willamette River bridges (or lack of in some areas) or the West Hills.

  3. The focus of this discussion is the central city, so the CRC is not a big issue. Most of these trucks leave their depots at 5am and get into the city before rush hour.

  4. What is the depth of “sustainable freight”? Just CO2? Reducing VMT while allowing for same/more ton-miles? What external costs are included?

    Smaller and lighter freight vehicles might work depending on your criteria. Of course smaller vehicles use more fuel/cargo and emit more CO2/cargo. But lighter axles mean significantly less road damage and less roadway maintenance costs. How do agency/infrastructure costs compare to the fuel savings? Are larger and fuller freight vehicles simply moving the cost to the taxpayers?

  5. How to encourage more fuel efficient trucks must be part of the mix.

    As a former Freightliner employee, I know that large numbers of trucks (both medium and heavy duty) do not have the most fuel efficient options, even when you make allowances for rough service, special user needs, etc. Sometimes the reason is the trucks do not look “cool” to truck drivers. Other times companies do not want the slightly higher upfront cost of a more fuel efficient truck. Some of the fuel efficient options are easy to see, such as fairings, but others are only apparent if you have access to the design information, such as choosing aluminum instead of steel or cast iron for certain components.

    The other big thing is idling. While engines have changed since I left the industry a few years ago, all the engine manufactures then recommended idling a maximum of 5 minutes. Any longer is only causing wear to the engine. So enforcement of existing laws on idling (see noise ordinances) and possibly stricter new laws would help make trucking more sustainable. There are a number of idle reduction technologies available that reduce or eliminate idling for the cases where power or equipment operation is needed when the truck is stopped for more than a few minutes.

  6. What are the idle reduction technologies you refer to, Tom? Batteries?

    I notice police cars idling for hours to keep the lights running all the time. You’d think even with gas as cheap as it was, sticking a few extra batteries in there so you can run some accessories without running the engine would be something that got sorted out by the 80s.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *