Look Who’s Talking: Why Whole-System Transportation Efficiency and Connectedness Can Trump MPG

"WalmartWith 2011’s first-ever heavy-duty truck fuel economy standards, 2012’s new 54.5 mpg fuel economy standard for cars and light trucks by 2025, and no shortage of discussion surrounding hybrids and EVs, mpg and MPGe have been much ballyhooed of late. But is mpg, for now, all it’s cracked up to be?

Despite such standards and positive progress in some venues, improved fuel efficiency has been frustratingly slow to come in others. For example, truck gas mileage has not moved very much—certainly not as much as some anticipated over the last decade—because of the need to fix some long-needed emissions problems, which led to a focus on newer, cleaner engines for a few years, rather than efficiency. Similarly, consider the ubiquitous yellow school buses, which shuttle hundreds of thousands—even millions—of children to and from school each day. There are only three primary U.S. school bus manufacturers, a cozy arrangement not likely to drive serious innovation any time soon that would drive up mpg and drive down fuel consumption.

Fortunately, there’s another major player in the transportation efficiency game: connectedness and whole-system efficiency. Transportation is about much more than simply mpg. Let’s explore what happens when “things start talking to things” in a connected transportation system. At RMI, we believe it’s a powerful force to help the planet and save huge amounts of transportation fuel and cost; more powerful, at times, than more efficient vehicles.

The story starts with information: who has it, where, and when. Everyone has heard of great connectivity examples involving people and information-driven businesses—the farmer in India who now has price, market, and weather data, all over a mobile phone; the trader who lives in Crested Butte in the heart of the Rockies, who no longer needs to commute anywhere, much less to Manhattan.

"BigBut consider one of our favorite design innovations from the last few years: a trashcan that in essence talks to the garbage truck, to tell it when it’s full. Deployed originally in Philadelphia, BigBelly Solar’s waste and recycling receptacles both compact the trash to reduce trips and signal when it’s worth the trip to empty them.

Coca-Cola has mimicked this, and now has intelligent vending machines that tell the distribution system when they are running out, and of what, and help the system to learn what that machine’s customers like and when … sports drinks for the weekends, ultra-caffeinated drinks for studious weeknights. This saves trips—and costs—not to mention moving too many heavy bottles around to be sure to have the right product, visiting the machine at the wrong time, and making lots of the wrong stuff. All big energy wasters.

What happens when we fail to implement such connectivity? Every weekday a reminder drives by my house … six of them, in fact. School buses. Each day three drive by my suburban house in the morning, and three drive by again in the afternoon. All are empty, or nearly so. That’s because the kids aren’t “talking” to the school buses, telling them not to come when they don’t need a ride to school. The buses drive miles and miles, whether there are students to pick up or not. At our local high school, volunteers once counted, for several days, the kids getting on and off the buses, to prove to the school district that change should be considered. Being generous, there were two buses worth of kids, and more than 20 actual buses.

How could this change? Modern logistic tools could help dynamically plan routes. Each day, riders could alert the system by a certain time that they’ll need a bus ride. A system of “last minute” rides could handle one-off issues. The capital savings (in number of buses needed and maintained) would be enormous, and would counterbalance the cost to set up a new system and educate the rider community. The operating savings (fuel, wages for drivers) would be similarly enormous, and spending those dollars on educational offerings would help persuade those unhappy with change and eliminating the waste.

Admittedly, there would be fewer bus drivers and shop mechanics. But there would be a few more jobs for folks thinking about how to design and best use the new intelligent systems. And of course, the fossil fuel savings, carbon emissions and pollution savings, and health impacts (diesel fumes are implicated in kid’s asthma and other issues) would be enormous, too.

"CocaHow far can this go? Lets look at a large, sophisticated, high-volume network: Walmart. The company is arguably the biggest shipper of them all, and is well known for setting a target of doubling freight efficiency (essentially, the number of boxes delivered to stores per gallon of fuel used). Walmart will likely meet that target, and if it does, it will be because—like Big Belly and (we hope) Coca-Cola—it reduced the trips made, timed them right, packed trucks better, and ensured that exactly the right products were delivered at exactly the right time, and when possible ensuring the right-size truck made the trip.

These are not new ideas in the cost-sensitive world of logistics. But human creativity and a constant push to meet aggressive goals continue to create more great ideas. When it comes to transportation systems and networks, there are a lot of variables, and lots of ways for well-laid plans to fail—traffic, weather, human failures, you name it. That makes ensuring that things talk to things a great way forward.

If things talk to things, we will save. A lot. Those savings could—and in many cases, do—trump mpg efficiency. Connectedness is a major enabler for driving up productivity while driving down waste. We, like Walmart, can really move the needle on reducing our oil dependency.

And the relatively straightforward efficiencies described in this post are just the start. This article addressed what is already possibly today, just through connecting the transport provider and the “customer” to get rid of unnecessary trips and to optimize productivity. But there are other possibilities, such as making things much closer to where they are needed. Ultimately, it can be the information about what to make when and how to make it that travels, not the goods themselves. When things talk to things, when the system starts talking, we can all save and we can all win.

This post originally appeared on EarthTechling.

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First image courtesy Walmart. Second image courtesy BigBelly Solar. Third image courtesy SIA Interactive.