How Technology Is Driving The Transportation Industry Toward A Sustainable Future

By Daragh Mahon, Forbes

Every industry contributes to the impact of greenhouse gas emissions, and trucking is no exception. For decades, we have worked to improve sustainability by increasing fuel efficiency and reducing carbon impact.

Fortunately, the world has reached a technical maturity where we can—and must—start taking steps toward a more sustainable future. Ideas that have been around for years, such as alternative fuels and autonomous vehicles, are now within reach. If we act fast enough and invest in the necessary resources, the transportation industry can harness technology in never-before-seen ways.

Logistics And Maintenance

Technology is driving the most sustainable impact through supply chain optimization. For example, empty miles, or when a truck drives with no freight, is an issue the transportation and logistics industry has been improving upon for years. Now, developments in machine learning and AI represent an opportunity to make even larger reductions. Continued improvements to route optimization, including incorporating real-time data for weather and accidents, help reduce idle time and increase route efficiency.

Maintenance efficiency is another area where technology is making an impact. Predictive maintenance systems use IoT devices and onboard sensors to monitor vehicle equipment and alert drivers when there is a potential mechanical problem or the truck is due for routine maintenance. This keeps vehicles operating at peak fuel efficiency and reduces the likelihood of a roadside breakdown, saving the additional emissions from towing.

Alternative Fuels

Vehicle emissions have improved tremendously over the past few decades, especially diesel. Exhaust technology and fuel-refining processes mean fossil fuels are burning cleaner than ever. But as usage only continues to grow, it’s clear that we must diversify our fuel sources to meet future demand.

The idea of alternative fuels has been around for decades, but now it’s time to act and get honest about the viability of each. Transportation companies should have conversations with startups, emerging brands and partner brands to help find viable, alternative solutions that support the trucking ecosystem.

Though we feel that a long-term solution has not yet been identified, there are a few fuel alternatives we have been keeping a close eye on as they develop—electricity, hydrogen and natural gas.

Electric vehicles (EVs) run on a renewable resource and produce no tailpipe emissions; however, this is one energy source that we need to get real about. For trucks alone, three unique challenges need to be solved.

  • The U.S. needs the electrical grid to deliver or produce the electricity required to support an EV-driven nation. An American Transportation Research Institute study finds that the national demand for an all-EV U.S. vehicle fleet would require over 40% of the power currently generated.
  • Currently, there is no battery that can withstand long, over-the-road distances and has a weight that can work on trucks and trailers. Most importantly, the millions of tons of raw materials needed to produce these batteries require extraction from the ground. The environmental damage is not fully understood, but we know that mining and processing these materials produces considerable CO2 and causes pollution issues. Coupled with other problems like water usage and labor exploitation, we should rethink if this is a viable alternative.
  • The charging infrastructure is problematic—what will the cost be to create it and for the trucker to use it? Where do we add charging stations? How will we develop long-term parking to accommodate 8–12 hours of charging?

Hydrogen is a flexible fuel that can be used in both fuel-cell technology and internal combustion engines. Currently, hydrogen engines burn more energy than they create, making them unviable for implementation across a large fleet. Evidence suggests that this can and will change, but it’s far from being a realistic alternative.

Natural gas is an abundant resource that burns cleaner than gas and is more affordable. It is a viable option to reduce emissions as more infrastructure supports the country’s transportation needs. However, testing and resources are required to make this attainable for the industry.

These issues do not mean a future powered by alternative fuels is impossible. Their use has been prominent in progressing toward carbon reduction goals; however, we need to recognize the issue’s complexity to plan for our energy future appropriately. Transportation companies are responsible for testing and piloting new options, as we have a front seat to help drive innovation.

Autonomous Vehicles

Beyond alternative fuels and supply chain optimization, autonomous vehicles (AVs) could support the industry’s impact on climate change. Advanced AI models can calculate operations for maximum efficiency and optimize routes continuously using real-time navigation data, keeping fuel consumption at the lowest levels.

From a technical perspective, AVs are entirely possible. However, perception issues around safety and liability need to be addressed before wide-scale adoption can occur.

Realistically, we are likely looking at a hybrid transportation model with a mix of human and machine drivers. Features like breaking assist and parking assistance, known as advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), are already used in vehicles today. We will continue to build upon these types of systems, slowly shifting responsibility over to the computer while keeping human drivers present to monitor and ensure all technology is working as intended.

Further down the line, we could have driverless vehicles in limited circumstances. Long-haul routes could become autonomous, traveling between a national network of transportation hubs built outside large population areas. There, loads could be transferred to human drivers for shorter routes that require more skillful driving. A model like this would allow drivers to return home most nights while utilizing the carbon-reducing efforts of autonomous vehicles for the long haul.

Investors In Change And Industry-Wide Buy-In

The industry is at a turning point. We can see a sustainable future on the horizon, but there is still work to do. In the meantime, companies can implement existing technologies that help optimize their operations and maintain equipment efficiency. Future tech requires the investment of industry leaders to fast-track innovation and reduce the cost of industry-wide adoption.