In today's world, diesel-fueled transportation is one of the significant contributors to carbon emissions. So, finding sustainable ways to reduce carbon emissions and create a cleaner environment is essential. While there are many options, from electric or alternate-fuel trucks, few provide immediate large reductions in Scope 3 emissions — the emissions caused by moving product from manufacturing to distribution centers and onto the final customer. 

What can be done today?

  • Ship fewer trucks: Major food producers like Unilever and even smaller ones like Riviana (a rice manufacturer) have already implemented load optimization to increase shipment size. More products on each truck mean they ship with fewer trucks. Shipping fewer trucks is a sustainable practice that can significantly reduce carbon emissions. Fewer trucks on the road mean less fuel consumption, less pollution and a better life for you and me. 
  • Eliminate the miles trucks drive empty. Kimberly-Clark revealed its successful deployment of a transportation scheduling system that effectively allows carriers to eliminate some of the miles trucks travel empty. This, known as deadhead miles, often occurs when a truck travels to pick up a load after delivering it elsewhere. Deadhead miles significantly cause carbon emissions, as trucks consume fuel even when empty. While less effective than load optimization, combining this with load optimization, as Kimberly-Clark has done, is doubly powerful.  

This article discusses to do this later, but first, we will look at the other options that are more long-term in nature.  

Alternate fuels — a slow burn

While electrification of trucking is a possible solution, it is still a long way from becoming a reality. The main reasons are the need for more infrastructure and the reduced payload capacity of electric trucks. It will take some time to get the electric infrastructure in place.  

  • Supply needs to catch up to demand, which takes a long time to implement. Projections of electrical demand have historically been conservative, and demand growth estimates have increased markedly in the last year. According to the Wall Street Journal, Georgia Power recently increased 17-fold its winter power demand forecast for 2031, citing growth in new industries such as EV and battery factories. AEP Ohio says new data centers and Intel’s $20 billion planned chip plant will increase strain on the transmission grid. Chip factories and data centers can consume 100 times more power than a typical industrial business.  
  • At the same time, as subsidies for renewables put fossil fuel and nuclear plants at a disadvantage, they are being retired.
  • This increase in demand strains the electric grid, which may not be able to sustain the growing need for power. Another concern is the need for transmission infrastructure. Many people want something other than a power tower in their backyard, so building electrical transmission infrastructure can be a slow task.
  • Moreover, the political climate does not support even "light-touch" fossil fuels like natural gas for directly powering trucks or generating electric power. The Northeast moratoriums on pipelines mean that some states need to import liquefied natural gas (LNG). The 1920 Jones Act forbids the movement of products between U.S. ports, not on a U.S.-made ship and with a U.S. crew, causing LNG to be purchased from Kuwait rather than the much closer Texas. 

Compressed natural gas (CNG) is available but needs more infrastructure. One driver complained that “CNG lacks the pulling power of diesel.”  Hydrogen is another alternative truck fuel, but it is still far from being a prime-time option.

A quicker solution:  Shipping fewer trucks

To ship with fewer trucks, products need to be more compact, or more product needs to be carried on each vehicle. Procter & Gamble has made strides in product compaction. Over the past years, they have reduced the fluid content of Liquid Tide. Compaction has enabled doubling the loads of laundry done with each truckload. The brand's latest Tide “Evo” detergent contains no water — and not as a powder. Evo leverages tens of thousands of minuscule fibers, creating layers of soap without unnecessary liquid and fillers. This will enable many more loads of laundry detergent on each vehicle.

Mathematical Load Optimization enables more products to be carried on fewer trucks

Companies like Campbell Soup have implemented mathematical load optimization to get more product on each load. The results of load optimization have been remarkable, eliminating 5 to 10% of all shipments.  

Optimizing shipments is a challenging mathematical problem. Not only must the system maximize the use of trailer capacity both weight and cube, but it is necessary to ensure that the product can be positioned in such a way that the load will be stable and arrive undamaged even if a driver needs to put his foot on the brakes or make fast turns. Also, with various country and state laws, it's necessary to ensure that the load obeys all requirements, such as axle weights and placement of hazard materials, for all jurisdictions that will be transited.

One company believes that its math-based load optimization software, AutoO2, eliminated the need for 88,000 truck journeys last year. The accompanying graph shows loads delivered in California, one of the most axle-restrictive states. Even when there is slight product weight variation from item to item, significant savings can be attained.

optimized shipping graph

The silver lining for the shipper is that not only are carbon emissions reduced, but the total cost is substantially cut. Most shippers see a payback in weeks rather than months.

Reducing carrier empty miles

Reducing deadhead miles is another way of increasing carbon efficiency and reducing Scope 3 emissions. Today, trucks mostly travel empty to pick up loads. Because of the high fluctuation in shipping demand, carriers’ equipment is often far from where it is needed. Hence, it has to be relocated without a load for long distances to meet the shippers’ capacity needs. Even well-run fleets see 15% deadhead miles. Reducing deadhead miles is achievable by:

  • Using the same carriers to deliver to the site and re-using them on the outbound. This requires coordination, which is helped by smoothing demand.
  • A more predictable shipping strategy. Today, most (all?) supply-planning systems don't consider that transportation needs a "smooth signal" to operate cost and deadhead effectively. There is a new class of software that takes a supply plan, which is not capacity constrained and, holistically, looking at the whole network, generates a better and smoother leveled outcome while still meeting the need for on-time and in-full shipments to customers. The software uses large amounts of data to synthesize a plan for the next 30 to 60 days. This plan provides carriers with a smoother set of requirements that enable them to create better tours for the trucks and eliminate unloaded miles.

Smoothing operations also provide significant opportunities to reduce the carrier's associated cost of doing business, which can be passed on in the form of shared savings. One company, recognizing the benefits to the carriers of their efforts to level load operations, requested concessions from their carriers. This ensures a true win-win situation. 

In conclusion, shipping fewer trucks and reducing deadhead miles are two sustainable practices that can significantly reduce carbon emissions. Importantly, this can be achieved quickly and generate significant financial benefits. While electrification of trucking is a possible solution, it is still a long way from becoming a reality. Therefore, we need to focus on quicker ways to reduce carbon emissions in the transportation industry and reduce Scope 3 emissions.