“Freight shipments are becoming increasingly autonomous, compartmentalized and spontaneous”
© Jörg Greuel/Getty
September 2022

“Freight shipments are becoming increasingly autonomous, compartmentalized and spontaneous”

By Lars Krone
Freight haulage offers plenty of potential for greater sustainability. In an interview, transportation expert Professor Gernot Liedtke explains what needs to be improved, what technologies lend themselves to such improvements and what role the government should play in that regard.

What do you currently see as the major challenges in commercial transportation?
The challenges are massive and diverse. In particular, the working conditions of drivers and the serious accidents involving trucks come to mind. But the major problem is CO₂ emissions. It can be assumed that, in Germany for instance, about 40 per­cent of transportation-related CO₂ emissions, including transit traffic, emanate from road haulage. The big problem is that, at the moment, no one knows exactly what pathway should be pursued to reduce them. With trucks, for example, the outcome of the technology competition between the hydrogen fuel cell and battery-electric powertrains or perhaps even catenary systems is not yet in sight. Moreover, it’s not clear what role biofuels, synthetic methane or so-called e-fuels from renewable electricity will play in the truck sector. Such uncertainties inhibit investments on the part of vehicle and component manufacturers as well as by providers and users of freight haulage services. Clear impetus from industry, which is already offering medium-sized battery-electric trucks for regional distribution today and planning 40-ton (44-short ton) trucks with battery-electric powertrains for long-distance haulage, can establish facts and thus point the way in the discourse.

“Freight shipments are becoming increasingly autonomous, compartmentalized and spontaneous”
Gernot Liedtke, Transportation Expert at the Technical University Berlin (see info box below)
© TU Berlin

„Autonomous trucks can be waiting in industrial parks or at highway rest stops for hauling jobs to turn up and be activated as needed because no driver would have to receive continuing pay during such waits."

Irrespective of the propulsion energy, do you see any potential for trucks to become more sustainable?
Test operations of trucks with a length of up to 25 meters (82 feet) – so-called longliners – in ­Germany have resulted in an efficiency gain of 15 to 25 percent, according to the Federal Ministry for Digital and Transport. Even more could be achieved by consistent aerodynamic optimization to reduce drag, for instance with a cabin that’s similar to that of an ICE high-speed train, aerodynamically optimized vehicle trim and a sloping rear that reduces eddies.

How can Rail take away market share from truck haulage?
As far as the service characteristics are concerned trucks are currently simply the benchmark because they allow for easy and fast scheduling and can haul between one and 30 pallets – that’s what most customers want. It will be difficult to re­educate customers and get them to use something that’s less in line with their needs. That’s why Rail needs to become more attractive in the areas I mentioned to capture market share – and, above all, do a better job of displaying its strengths. Take speed, for example. A truck is usually bound to one driver and therefore to rest periods. A train can travel through Europe day and night. Even at 80 km/h (50 miles) and more! Unfortunately, Rail is hampered by few, albeit decisive transportation hubs in metropolitan areas, where freight trains must yield priority to passenger trains. As a result, scheduled travel times are becoming longer and freight train delays accumulate.

Why does it always have to be Rail OR Truck? Wouldn’t combined rail and road transportation be a particularly good solution?
Absolutely. But that would also presuppose fast reloading of cargo or loading units from one means of transportation to the other. There are long waiting and collection periods before a train can depart because, sequentially, one truck is dispatched after another. That’s far too time- and cost-intensive.

“Freight shipments are becoming increasingly autonomous, compartmentalized and spontaneous”
Airships could be used to haul goods directly from ships to metropolitan areas© Flying Whales

Let’s talk about digitalization: What potential does that offer for more sustainable movement of goods?
A look at developments in recent years shows that the systems, not least due to digitalization, have already become clearly more efficient and economical. However, most of the potential in that area has by now been fully exploited – especially in terms of long-distance hauling. We’ve generated statistics showing that the efficiency-related potential of today’s systems – such as the share of empty runs or levels of capacity utilization – has remained constant. There is not a lot of room for improvement in that area anymore even though digitalization has developed further in recent years and is increasingly being used in freight hauling. Digitalization makes an important contribution but in and of itself will not be sufficient to reduce CO₂ emissions significantly.

What role are autonomous vehicles going to play in future freight hauling?
For one, they can counteract staff shortage. Plus, they can enable new ways of using trucks. Today, freight carriers looking for hauling contracts are often on the road with large trucks whose capacities are not fully utilized or that are even empty. Such trips will no longer be necessary because smaller, autonomous trucks can be waiting in industrial parks or at highway rest stops for hauling jobs to turn up and be activated as needed because no driver would have to receive continuing pay during such waits. That would also make it less expensive for companies to spontaneously request trucks because the need for long transfer trips is eliminated. In the future, companies will be able to reduce their planning windows and carry out shipments in more compartmentalized ways.

So far, we’ve primarily been talking about long-distance freight hauling. How can transportation develop more sustainably also on the last mile?
There are many ideas in that area as well. In my view, a multi-level distribution concept should be pursued that would always use the vehicle which in terms of its hauling volume is optimally suited for the respective level. Cargo bikes, for instance, can solve many but not all problems of urban transportation. They provide an answer to the density stress in cities and move from A to B without CO₂ emissions. They can circumvent traffic jams and are more agile, which enables faster delivery of goods to consumers than a van stopping 50 meters away from the recipient’s doorstep with flashing warning lights. Plus, cargo bikes make speed-parcel and time-window-based deliveries possible because they operate in a radius of roughly one kilometer (0.62 miles) around a micro depot from where they can flexibly pick up new parcels for timely distribution. That meets the wishes particularly of digital consumers. By contrast, when using vans, dispatchers plan in the morning what the vehicles are supposed to deliver. Speed-parcel deliveries cannot be achieved in that way. There’s one problem, though, that cargo bikes cannot solve: the shortage of personnel because cargo bikes have to be operated too. In densely populated areas, automated deliveries or alternative vehicle concepts such as very large cargo bikes carrying small shipping containers might be conceivable. UPS, for instance, is already testing something like that in Munich. Aircraft, for instance, might be used in healthcare such as for express deliveries of medications or for deliveries of spare parts. In that area, small zeppelins are highly promising because they practically require no resources to generate lift and comparatively few for propulsion. By contrast, the energy efficiency of multicopters such as drones is relatively low.

“Freight shipments are becoming increasingly autonomous, compartmentalized and spontaneous”
Tesla has announced a range of up to 800 kilometers (500 miles) for its new electric truck. Will it disrupt the market in the same way as Tesla passenger cars did?© Tesla

Where is sustainability currently positioned in the logistics requirements ranking between costs, speed and reliability?
There’s a strange asymmetry in that regard. Actually, almost all major manufacturing companies have CO₂ reduction programs, CO₂ audits or internal incentives for saving energy. These companies by now are in a really good position for reducing their environmental footprint on a strategic level, which also includes freight hauling. There’s a clear correlation here: the larger the company the more it has embarked on that journey. There are several reasons for that. It’s a question of ­resources, strategic corporate management as well as of the company’s reputation and preparation for future frameworks. Such large corporations need to brace themselves for rising energy costs or CO₂ taxation early on. Because such companies are like huge tankers, they must change tack in time. On the other hand, we’ve found out that the smaller the company the lower its strategic approach to dealing with sustainability. Small manufacturing companies, as well as most transportation companies, have no market power with their suppliers. For instance, a freight carrier with, say, 20 ­vehicles cannot simply go to a truck manufacturer saying that it would like to have a totally different truck.

What role should the government assume in order to enhance sustainability in freight hauling, in other words, to specify a framework, use subsidies or improve infrastructure?
When you’re dealing with innovations it’s always good to have an unbiased view of technologies because that allows the best technology to win out. However, once it becomes apparent which technology is going to win the race an unbiased view of technology is no longer helpful. That’s when the government has to support the development of the favored technology by establishing guard rails and provide all the players with planning certainty. Specific developments should occur in parallel in that regard. For instance, it doesn’t make sense if power companies establish charging stations but no electric cars are being produced and vice versa. It’s important to develop joint strategies and the government can assist by establishing frameworks or by acting as a moderator.

The expert
“Freight shipments are becoming increasingly autonomous, compartmentalized and spontaneous”© TU Berlin

Since 2014 Gernot Liedtke has been head of the Commercial Transport department at the DLR Institute of Transport Research and of the same-named department at the Institute of Land and Sea Transport Systems at Technical University Berlin. His research interests include multi-agent simulation of the freight transportation demand, spatial interaction models and infrastructure pricing. In these areas, he has published several articles in international scientific journals such as “Transportation,” “Transportation Research” and “Journal of Transport Economics and Policy.” In addition, he was involved in more than 15 research projects as a member or project leader.