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Despite high fuel prices, many trucks run empty

A quarter of trucks on US and British roads carry no cargo, wasting billions of dollars in fuel. By harnessing the power of the Internet, truck fleets could become far more efficient.

By Robert MatthamsContributor / February 25, 2012

Trucks roar down Interstate 81 near Chambersburg, Pa., in this 2011 file photo. By one estimate, 28 percent of truck trailers on US highways carry no cargo because of inefficiencies in the delivery system. New Internet-based services could help, reducing wasted fuel and cutting delivery rates.

Markell DeLoatch/Public Opinion/AP/File

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Every day thousands of trucks in Asia, Europe, and the Americas run empty, pushing up the world’s fuel prices and degrading its air.

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In Britain, a quarter of trucks on the roads carry no cargo and more than half transport only partial loads, according to the European Environment Agency. In the United States, 28 percent of truck trailers are running empty, according to the National Private Truck Council in Arlington, Va. If the rest of the world’s trucking fleet operates equally inefficiently, then there’s a lot of opportunity to create a much cleaner, more efficient trucking industry.

The benefits could be huge. Overall, the transport sector accounts for 60 percent of the world’s oil consumption and a quarter of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Why do transport fleets run so inefficiently, especially in an era of high fuel prices? One reason is that many small haulage companies struggle to find the volume of work needed to conduct deliveries continually. For some, deliveries have decreased by 30 percent in the last year. Increased competition from rail and air-freight industries has added to the pressure, as have rising diesel prices. Some 16 percent of British haulers filed for bankruptcy last year.

There are solutions. Companies can make simple vehicle modifications, which can save dramatic amounts of fuel. Replacing regular tires with energy-saving ones and ensuring they are fully inflated could save fuel by up to 10 percent. Lighter, more aerodynamic trucks could also help to increase efficiency.

Fleet operators are also investing more in digital route planning and forecasting to ensure greater efficiency. GPS units in trucks are now almost essential and software like TomTom Webfleet allow for remote management of operations. These innovations allow drivers to receive real-time updates on route changes and potential delays, allowing them to reroute and avoid unnecessary stoppages that cause more emissions

The next logical step is for the companies to harness the power of the Internet to share their loads. Using online marketplaces, transport companies can find consignments to fill their empty trucks. Via the Internet, they have access to thousands of possible deliveries along their routes and can greatly reduce their cost per mile.

Load-sharing in the US dates back to the 1980s; regulations were relaxed to enable inter-corporate hauling, which saw the rise of commercial freight exchanges. Haulers would arrange with other businesses, or an independent freight broker, to fill backloads and empty legs of journeys to increase efficiency.

Now online marketplaces like Shiply.com and others are bringing the load-share concept into the 21st century. Unlike a commercial freight exchange, these online marketplaces allow drivers to quote for smaller jobs posted by individual customers, such as a home removal or the pickup of an eBay item.  

Load-sharing not only reduces the number of trucks on the road and saves fuel, it also offers cheaper service for consumers. Using a truck that is "going there anyway" provides highly competitive delivery rates and increases the demand for haulage companies, giving a much needed boost to a struggling industry.

However the world’s transport companies achieve it, they must become more efficient – for themselves, for their customers, and for the rest of us.

– Robert Matthams is Shell Young Entrepreneur of the Year and managing director of Shiply, an online transport marketplace.

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