Although the future of the freight industry largely depends on the arrival of Brexit, everyone in the sector understands there is a need for real change, and quickly. What most would agree is a risk averse sector, the freight industry is under significant pressure to operate more efficiently, and to reduce emissions in accordance with the Road to Zero policy. Customer demand is rising; however margins are shrinking. New connected and automated vehicle technologies promise solutions but bring with them significant challenges.

This year’s Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) Academy Symposium got to the heart of the debate, by calling on the freight industry to collaborate to resolve the issues it faces and bring about clarity of future direction before it is too late. Topics discussed included the challenges facing the freight industry; the technological, operational and environmental considerations of freight transport; policy considerations, supply chain concepts and new business models; freight traffic control and other innovative ideas; and the feasibility of implementing real-world, on the road trials. All were discussed through a number of key presentations from industry leading spokespeople including:

  • Nick Gazzard (CEO of Incept and Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Logistics & Transport);
  • Matthew Edwards (Senior Policy Adviser, Energy Technology & Innovation Directorate, Department for Transport);
  • Prof. Samir Dani (Professor of Logistics and Supply Chain for Huddersfield Business School);
  • Prof. Tom Cherrett (Professor of Logistics and Transport Management within Engineering and Physical Sciences at the University of Southampton);
  • Gavin Bailey (Freight Specialist for TRL).

For more details about the event, the full report, speaker notes and interviews, visit the 2018 TRL Academy Symposium page.

Wake-up call required

Nick Gazzard used his speech to advocate the need for a wake-up call within the freight industry. Whilst the world’s infrastructure is set to quintuple in size, the UK is continuing to lose its competitive advantage. With revenues of £770 billion[1] (26% of GDP), the sector is one of the most important for UK Government. However, Gazzard stated that the industry needed to find a way to cut costs, adapt and make changes faster and more efficiently and introduce new technologies in the short-term to hit longer term goals. He also called for the UK freight industry to make significant changes to its fleet in a bid to hit the climate change targets set for 2030, explaining that to achieve a reduction in emissions by five times in the next 11 years, focus, dedication and a togetherness across the industry not seen for many years will be required.

Data is critical

The biggest surprise according to many in the freight sector is the lack of correct information about everything from the size of the industry through to how much it contributes to the UK economy. As Nick Gazzard states, 2014 estimates of the sector’s Gross Value Added (GVA) varied from £55-96 billion, with the variance of £41 billion being larger than the entire UK defence budget![2] To be able to develop effective plans in the future, having the right data at the industry’s fingertips is a must.

According to Prof. Samir Dani, the proliferation of internet enabled devices and the flood of data these bring with them should provide an opportunity for the freight sector to harness information that will enable efficient logistics operations. However, how the data is delivered and in what format is a critical question that must be answered. Working collaboratively in the future to answer this question is the only way forwards, according to Dani.

Technology innovations, and the speed at which they are being introduced, are happening regardless of the freight and logistics industry, so a question to the sector is whether it is adapting quick enough to this evolution. Innovations including the Internet of Things (IoT) and Blockchain to name a couple are bringing with them hurdles to overcome. IoT is a particularly interesting concept, which Dani believes will have an impact on the freight and logistics sector. Smart containers, sensors that capture data, trace parcels… the list goes on. How the industry secures these advancements of course is something that will require a lot of work.  

Road to Zero strategy must be met

The Government’s Road to Zero strategy was launched in July 2018 with a long-term ambition of decarbonising road transport and to place the UK at the forefront of the design and manufacture of zero emission vehicles by 2040. According to Matthew Edwards, transport greenhouse gasses are the single largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, accounting for 20% of the UK total. In addition, it is a significant contributor to poor air quality, the fourth largest threat to public health in the UK after cancer, heart disease and obesity. If this wasn’t enough, in 2017 there were over 147,000 million tonnes.km moved, of which 76% was moved by road and just 9% by rail. The goods transported by road generated 18,599 million vehicle kilometres, 30% of which was empty, all of which is set to grow in the future.[3]

This is a large reason why the Road to Zero strategy states that the freight sector is the lifeblood of the UK economy, and is why zero emission technologies must be developed and made available commercially for all types of HGVs.

Edwards called for the Road to Zero strategy to act as a rallying call to the industry to speed up its efforts to clean up and decarbonise road transport, to challenge the myth that HGVs have to be a big polluter and to transform the world we live in for the better of everyone. 

Prof. Samir Dani agrees that decarbonisation and sustainability are a must if we are to meet the Road to Zero targets. However, Dani argues that none of this can work without technology advancements, which will need to be leveraged to enhance delivery models, bring about mass customisation and enhance customer fulfilment models.

Prof. Tom Cherrett added to the Road to Zero debate by discussing the emergence of crowd-shipping and how this can be a viable transportation mechanism. Moving away from motorised delivery for the last mile, Cherrett introduced the concept of portering, whereby people walk and cycle the last mile to deliver parcels. Through ongoing work being undertaken as part of the freight traffic control project – a three-year EPSC funded programme – the University of Southampton is working with parcel carriers in London to decouple driving from the physical parcel delivery, completed by walking.  

According to Cherrett, the study (which represents about 7% of the workers in one part of London) showed that an average parcel carrier in London completing largely business to consumer work does approximately 130 drops per day, moving their van about 38 times, driving approximately seven kilometres, but walking up to ten kilometres. The alarming part of this is that the van will often be stationary for up to 70% of the working day; essentially becoming a wasted asset and contributing to what is already a congested city.

Overall, decoupling driving from walking could decrease the number of vans on the UK’s roads, reduce mileage and in turn cut CO2 levels – food for thought as part of the overarching Road to Zero strategy.

Future freight concepts

There are numerous trials currently being undertaken across the UK all demonstrating the range of options available to the freight industry to meet future needs, explains Gavin Bailey. Technologies including the following, Bailey suggests, should be considered in the future:

  • Freight sharing: making better use of the assets already being used on the UK’s roads. For example, Nestle and United Biscuits discovered they were shipping to the same location. Through backhauling operations, the two organisations reduced 400,000 vehicle kilometres over one year.
  • Optimisation and machine learning: the notion of mobility as a service (MaaS) to enable users to exploit opportunities in multiple modes, by synchronising them seamlessly so that parcels can travel across multiple modes quickly.
  • Ultra-low and zero emission technologies: TRL is working on an Innovate UK funded project trialling 19 different applications of low emissions technologies nationwide, ranging from compressed natural gas, electric batteries, hydrogen/diesel dual fuel, lightweight and dynamic trailers and kinetic energy recovery systems.
  • Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CAV): TRL is involved in numerous trials, many of which will likely have a positive impact on the freight and logistics sector.
  • Aerial drones: the proposition has been made to use drones to make multi-drop deliveries which would supersede portering.
  • Hyperloop: TRL is involved with Magway around a concept that is the closest to Hyperloop. The aim is to transport freight through small pipes either above or underground. Removing the issues of vacuum currently being found within tubes and levitated pods, parcels can enter at a single point and be delivered to multiple destinations.

According to Bailey, many of the concepts discussed today could be considered outlandish and a long way off. However, the UK has seen a tremendous rate of change and development of innovative technologies, meaning these concepts may be closer to reality than many think. The future of freight should not be considered as a long timescale, but rather be tackled today for a brighter future.

In summary

The freight industry is feeling the heat from Government, from its own supply chain and consumers to enable change quickly, efficiently and importantly, successfully. With a wide range of technologies either available, or being trialled to be taken advantage of in the future, most agree that it is time the sector took hold of the changes required and delivered a cost-effective, doable plan that will enable it to take charge of its own destiny. To enable this to happen, TRL has promised to hold a workshop in the first half of 2019 whereby key industry players can come together to take hold of the key challenges and provide a workable strategy to resolve them. Watch this space for further information in quarter one 2019.

Sign up and register your interest in participating in a workshop.

[1] CILT UK Freight planning TO 2030 – 2014, & ITC Importance of UK freight report 2014

[2] CILT UK Freight planning TO 2030 – 2014, & ITC Importance of UK freight report 2014

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