Freight in the digital age

Blog Post | July 24, 2014 - 11:39 am

Efforts to reduce energy consumption in the transport of goods often run up against the demand for speed, convenience, flexibility, and security. Send a shipment by energy-intensive air or truck if it is valuable or time-sensitive – rail or water will do if it’s not. The fundamental tension in moving goods today is between individualized treatment for each shipment and the efficiency of the system as a whole. But information and communications technologies (ICT) are increasingly offering ways to avoid that tradeoff.

ACEEE’s new white paper, Smart Freight: Applications of Information and Communications Technologies to Freight System Efficiency, explores how ICT can help meet today’s freight performance demands and improve energy efficiency simultaneously. Strategies range from placing freight trucks into electronically controlled platoons, which reduces aerodynamic drag and controls acceleration events, to transmitting product specifications to distributed manufacturing facilities close to the point of use, which can reduce ton-miles traveled and material waste. Other examples demonstrate the vastly increased potential to optimize freight movements by combining shipments of different types from multiple shippers. This means fewer partial loads and empty backhauls, and more opportunities to use intermodal freight services. All of these strategies rely upon greatly increased data availability, enhanced predictive capabilities, and dynamic decision-making.

These examples suggest that the energy savings potential of technology-enabled freight strategies is substantial, and that further investigation is warranted to quantify that potential. Barriers to adoption of ICT solutions are also significant, however. These include lack of standardization of data protocols and equipment to ensure interoperability of subsystems, stovepiping of businesses’ operational decisions relating to transportation and warehousing, and the tendency to make incremental changes to existing systems, even when an entirely new system is called for. A combination of astute public policy and leadership from the business community will be required to seize the opportunities for freight efficiency arising in the digital age.