The Green Mile

After travelling hundreds or thousands of miles by planes, trains, boats, and trucks, cargo can get stuck in city traffic. Advances in connectivity aim to solve this problem and are fundamentally changing the way goods and services flow to urban areas and navigate once inside them.  

More than three billion people are currently connected to the internet. Increasing numbers of consumers and businesses use it to order all kinds of commodities from around the world. All of which have to be delivered to their doorstep. With connectivity comes increasing customer expectations (the status of deliveries is available 24/7) and so the dependence on the transportation system also grows. 

Implementing the same connectivity can improve fleet functionality. Google and Amazon are already working on the driverless cars and drones that will one day be responsible for last-mile delivery of goods and services (or even the miles leading up to that final one).

According to Hani Mahmassani, professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and director of the Northwestern University Transportation Center in Illinois, drones will probably see serious use “as early as two to three years”. 

Driverless cars however are not there yet, Mahmassani explains. And not just because of regulatory issues. “Certainly there is the potential to dramatically increase the safety of long-haul trucking and eventually to run fast closely-spaced platoons on dedicated facilities. In urban environments the need to negotiate stops and parking to complete the delivery will limit the immediate adoption of fully autonomous vehicles.  But we will see greater adoption because that is part of the trend of reducing the labor input into the provision of logistics and transportation services, the same way many industries have gone.”

At The Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) in Eindhoven great strides are being made in the field of truck platooning–a novel, semi-autonomous logistic solution to make the supply chain more efficient. 

The goals of the research is getting vehicles to last mile distribution hubs more efficiently, explains TNO Program Manager for Automated Driving Bastiaan Krosse. The lead truck, which is driven by a human driver, communicates data such as GPS-position, speed and acceleration to the trailing automated trucks. 

“When the vehicle at the front slows down, the following truck directly responds. By knowing exactly and directly what the car in front of you does, the trucks can drive closer to each other,” Krosse says, adding that this serves to make transportation more efficient. “There is less air drag, less fuel consumption and it frees up traffic capacity”.

Using platooning for last mile delivery (within urban areas) is theoretically possible, says Krosse. But it is more realistic to start in relatively less complex environments such as a highway. It can however make the miles before entering the city much easier. 

Although Dutch government officials recently boarded a truck platoon near the town of Zwolle ( Krosse thinks commercial implementation of the technology is still at least more than five years away.

Other Cooperative Intelligent Transport Systems currently being tested in several European cities including Copenhagen, Newcastle, Bordeaux, Verona and Helmond might be the start of a perfect symbiosis of connectivity and last mile delivery. 

The FREILOT-program started as a pilot in the Dutch town of Helmond four years ago. It links data from heavyweight delivery trucks and emergency vehicles to traffic lights, ensuring fewer stops and thus reducing fuel consumption and emissions. The test yielded a more than ten percent reduction in emissions of carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxides, with no negative impact on traffic network performance. 

As such FREILOT and programmes like it could prove to be very useful in urban areas that have imposed restrictions on emissions. Although this might also encourage third-party logistics providers to switch to other means of transportation for last mile delivery such as bikes, electric scooters or electric cars using online services like ZipCar and Car2Go. 

“These are eco-friendly and you lose the economy of scale”, explains Alison Conway, a Civil Engineering professor at the University Transportation Research Center in New York. Conway recently wrapped up a study on cargo cycles for last mile delivery versus motorized vehicles. “On the downside when you are considering bikes or electric vehicles you are limited by speed and range from distribution or consolidation centers”. 

The traditional supply chain in urban areas is being altered by easily available online services emerging from the shared economy such as GoGoVan and UberRush, albeit for small local businesses rather than large companies.

Connectivity seems key to solving last mile delivery. Expect more third-party logistics providers to integrate technology like wearables and apps to better coordinate deliveries in cities regardless of the transportation type. 

Getting to that final mile can only be done by good transport planning. The Dutch TNO section in The Hague is currently experimenting with an innovative platform that combines the data from third-party logistics providers, distribution terminals and transport planners. Business director Michiel Jak oversees the development and testing of Intrepid. This platform collects and combines the real-time data of the carrier (position and route planning), distribution terminals (estimated queuing time) and situational awareness (weather conditions and urban congestion). 

“The goal of our trial with Intrepid was to try and predict the queuing time for the Europe Container Terminals in Rotterdam by utilizing the data of three carrier companies,” explains Jak. “We studied how to combine the data estimating the arrival time of each truck and work time at the terminal to best distribute the loading process”.

A hundred cargo trucks were involved in the testing of Intrepid, says Jak. According to him it is too soon to predict how much time can be saved by utilizing the platform: “We believe Intrepid can prevent queuing times of an hour or so. By anticipating queues in the terminal, drivers can plan small repairs or resting time accordingly.” 

The next goal for the innovative platform is to shorten the work time at the terminal by better aligning the stream of cargo trucks with the availability of containers. “The terminal might prefer a certain order in which cargo is loaded”. Jak is also seeking to have more trucks using smartphones and apps to deliver an even better stream of real-time data. 

This innovative model using connectivity and data integration can be applied to different logistical processes. At TNO a similar experiment with Intrepid was undertaken with barges and locks. “But this model can also be easily applied to city distribution”, Jak explains. “There are a lot of suppliers who deliver their cargo at a single urban distribution hub. From there trucks or vans are involved in the last mile delivery process. For reasons of practicality and efficiency these companies will want these carriers to return with new cargo – like packages or packing material”. 

According to Jak, Intrepid can be used there to efficiently manage the outgoing supply chain. While TNO is developing this platform, application in the European sector will be dependent on a commercial third party. 

The work at TNO is exemplary for the innovative research being done around the world by Microsoft, Cisco Systems or MIT. Connectivity is becoming an essential component of transportation systems, says Northwestern University’s Mahmassani. “It becomes natural to try and capture the existence and capabilities of connected vehicle systems and also to increasingly rely on them as an effective source of data on the state of the transportation system”.

To find out how automakers are reinventing transport for the 21st century, take a look at TU-Automotive Detroit 2015 (June 3-4).


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