9 Innovations Driving the Green Future of Freight

9 Innovations Driving the Green Future of Freight
Reading Time: 4 minutes

9 Innovations Driving the Green Future of Freight. Photo by Bernd 📷 Dittrich on Unsplash

Reading Time: 4 minutes

9 Innovations Driving the Green Future of Freight

Globalization has various merits, but good environmental health isn’t one of them. The economic benefits of trading goods internationally and moving cargo across vast distances have overshadowed the ecological consequences.

Freight forwarders are terrible global warming contributors. They account for 8% of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. This figure goes up to 11% when you factor in the carbon footprints of ports and warehouses. Despite shipping just about 20% of cargo in 2020, road freight was the most carbon-intensive. 

That year, trucks and vans released 2.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere — nearly 70% of the industry’s pollution. Maritime, rail and air cargo transport types individually added 155-657 million tons.

The freight transportation industry has been slow to decarbonize due to minimal pressure from suppliers, inadequate regulatory incentives and insufficient infrastructure — but things are about to change. These nine innovations are driving freight’s green future by incentivizing fuel switching, improving mileage, streamlining fleet management and promoting data transparency.

  1. Electric Drivetrains

Most freight vehicles run on diesel, a crude oil derivative. Compared to gas, diesel pollutes less and releases less CO2 per mile. Still, this dirty fuel’s carbonaceous particulate matter and greenhouse gas emissions add up and dramatically harm the environment as vehicles with diesel engines cover more ground to move goods.

Electrifying trucks, vans and railroad locomotives is a surefire way to make the industry eco-friendly. The bigger the slice renewables own in the United States energy mix, the cleaner the electricity land-based freight vehicles use.

High cost has been one of the barriers to truck electrification. Although federal- and state-level financial incentives exist to make the transition more affordable, some funding requirements need more thought to be palatable to smaller fleets. For instance, turning in diesel trucks for electric vehicles (EVs) is a common string attached to many programs.

Electric drivetrain retrofit kits represent a more viable path toward sustainability. They make switching from diesel to electric more affordable. The conversion process involves:

  • Gutting the non-electric truck’s motor, transmission, cooling system and a portion of the electrical harness.
  • Replacing the original instrument panel with a digital one featuring EV instrumentation and controls.
  • Swapping the drivetrain forward of the rear axle with a direct-drive unit.

At least one startup is bent on adopting mass manufacturing best practices to reduce retrofit kit production costs. The business model still needs more streamlining, but the technology is here.

  1. Hydrogen Fuel Cells

Hydrogen trucks can become the cleanest freight vehicles to hit the roads. They use fuel cells to convert hydrogen’s chemical energy into electricity efficiently. Unlike battery EVs, these trucks need no charging. Instead, they have a tank like a typical diesel vehicle.

Nobody’s touching green hydrogen because it’s more expensive than fossil fuels. However, the federal government plans to change that. The Biden administration is investing $7 billion to construct seven hydrogen hubs nationwide. Once operational, these energy centers can supply the American freight transportation industry with sufficient low-cost, clean hydrogen and inspire fleet managers to become eco-friendly.

  1. Renewable Diesel

Ditching petroleum diesel in favor of renewable diesel translates to 65% less carbon intensity since the latter burns more cleanly.

Like biodiesel, green diesel comes from organic feedstocks. However, this renewable fuel is chemically identical to crude oil-derived diesel. That means renewable and traditional diesel products are entirely and safely interchangeable. You can instantly make your existing petroleum-powered assets more eco-friendly without upgrading them.

  1. Route Optimization Algorithms

Road freight vehicles equipped with route optimization software can find the shortest way from points A to point B, attaining more mileage and consistently hitting fuel efficiency goals.

An advanced algorithm treats a digital map like a maze, identifying obstacles and determining optimal routes. The software can analyze real-time traffic conditions to incorporate pickup commitments and change orders when making sound recommendations. It can help you plan your routes and change course on the fly.

This technology is suitable for shipping companies aspiring to achieve zero-carbon operations to plant the seeds of sustainability. Take Amazon and FedEx as examples. These paragons of green logistics have committed to various eco-friendly initiatives to take care of the planet while continuing to contribute to global economics. This includes running facilities more efficiently and packaging products in environmentally conscious ways.

  1. Cargo Bikes

Reverting to regular bikes makes in-city last-mile deliveries carbon-free. Switching from diesel trucks and vans to cargo bicycles will reduce freight forwarders’ carbon footprints when bringing packages from warehouses to doorsteps. Electrically assisted bikes also are more agile and occupy less space on the road.

The glaring disadvantage is less carrying capacity. E-cargo bikes can be simplistic solutions, but logistics interests may be able to ensure prompt deliveries through route optimization.

  1. Circular Packaging

Retail parcels have too much packaging material. Granted, it aims to keep the item in one piece throughout its journey from manufacturer to consumer, but there’s no denying it creates more waste than necessary.

Fortunately, environmentally conscious e-commerce giants are rethinking delivery packaging to address this frustrating issue. Amazon has combined materials science, machine learning and lab testing to develop right-sized packaging options. These boxes have optimal weight and dimensions to keep their contents damage-free while making them suitable for curbside recycling.

  1. Geolocation

This technology blends various innovations, including Internet Protocol addresses and the Global Positioning System, to track cargo movement anywhere on the planet. It collects granular data to help you build a more eco-friendly supply chain network.

Geolocation can reveal whether your partners pay close attention to fuel efficiency. It can also indicate when you should choose closer suppliers to minimize indirect carbon emissions.

  1. Wind Power

Sea freight cargo vessels run on heavy fuel oil and diesel. The International Maritime Organization recognizes its crucial role in green shipping, slashing annual greenhouse gas emissions by half or more by 2050 based on 2008 figures. Wind power adoption is one of the first steps taken by maritime transportation industry stakeholders.

Using wind as fuel is an idea as old as time. Shipbuilders are reimagining the sail to propel giant cargo vessels weighing hundreds of tons. Modern wind-powered commercial ships boast vertical fiberglass wings aiding propulsion. Such a design comes with risks and uncertainties, but it’s a brilliant 21st-century idea that can inspire more innovation in the space.

  1. Blockchain

This digital distributed ledger promotes carbon transparency, data security and climate action accountability. It logs logistical information and renders transactions immutable, preventing any party from tampering with its records. It’s a trustless database because it eliminates the need to trust any party to ensure integrity.

Freight Is Moving in the Green Direction

Freight’s greenhouse gas emissions will grow as consumption increases if the industry remains as environmentally unsound in the coming decades as it is today. Thankfully, these innovations hold promise and may become more viable as time passes and adoption occurs. Some positively impact the environment more profoundly than others, but all can move the needle toward sustainability when adopted widely and implemented meaningfully.

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