One way to clean up dirty trucks and ships? Design smarter routes

New tools can help freight companies chart more fuel-efficient voyages — and start plotting a path away from fossil fuels.

(Joe Raedle/Newsmakers via Getty Images)
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The trucks, vans and cargo ships that haul our goods still predominantly use dirty diesel fuels to get to warehouses and crowded ports. New mapping tools are helping freight companies to start planning for a decarbonized future — and, in the meantime, to use smarter routes that will curb both carbon emissions and air pollution. 

These digital platforms harness data from satellites, sensors and tracking systems that turn vehicles into mobile computers. They can, for instance, spot with greater accuracy where truck exhaust poses the most severe health threats to communities. Or they can design ship routes that reduce the use of sludgy marine fuel.

The latest smart-transportation tool enables companies to predict the carbon emissions from any commercial truck trip worldwide. 

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The portal, named CO2 Insights, also compares how vehicles running on diesel, hydrogen, batteries or biogas might perform on the exact same route. The idea, according to the tool’s developers, is to help truck operators account for their environmental impacts — while pinpointing places where cleaner fuels can readily replace diesel.

If you’re looking at changing your fleet mix, we could see how many of those routes could have been driven by some other type of vehicle [rather than diesel] and what the carbon impact of that would look like,” Alex Osaki, a product marketing manager for Here Technologies, told Canary Media.

Here Technologies unveiled the CO2 Insights tool earlier this month at the CES 2022 tech event in Las Vegas. The global location data and technology firm is majority-owned by German automakers and U.S. computer chip manufacturer Intel. 

Osaki showed me the portal on a recent video call, plotting a 260-mile trip from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. A semitruck hauling nearly two dozen pallets on that route would emit more than 400 kilograms of carbon dioxide if it ran on diesel — or just 65 kilograms of CO2 if it used biogas, which is made from organic matter including farm waste and food scraps. Both batteries and hydrogen could deliver even steeper emissions reductions, though vehicles using either technology would have to stop to recharge or refuel en route.

The CO2 Insights portal predicts the potential emissions of a truck trip between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. (Here Technologies)

Over in Switzerland, a similar commercial truck could complete a 55-mile run using only hydrogen fuel cells. But battery power would not be an optimal choice; the steep grades along the mountainous course would likely drain a battery’s juice about halfway through the trip, Osaki explained. A scan of many routes in and around Switzerland reveals that most semitruck trips could run on hydrogen instead of diesel, potentially shaving off thousands of kilograms in potential total carbon emissions from trucks making those trips.

CO2 Insights makes such predictions using real-world data on truck operations and drivetrain performance provided by Migros, the Switzerland-based retail giant, and the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology. Here Technologies’ mapping and navigation software assesses not only the distance between start and end points but also factors such as elevation, topography and slope of roads, all of which can affect a vehicle’s fuel use.

Initially, Osaki said, retailers and truck operators will likely use CO2 Insights to more accurately audit their fleets’ emissions. Such data is key to tracking progress on corporate climate goals and complying with regulations for improving air quality and addressing climate change. Migros said the tool will help it reach its goal of reducing carbon emissions from road transportation by 70 percent by 2030.

In terms of being able to provide accountability, this is really the first step,” Osaki said.

Proximity maps” show who’s most at risk from trucking air pollution

The transportation sector contributes nearly one-third of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions every year, with medium- and heavy-duty vehicles being the second-largest culprit after passenger cars.

But diesel-burning trucks aren’t just major carbon emitters. They’re also significant sources of soot- and smog-forming nitrogen oxides, which can damage people’s hearts and lungs and trigger strokes and asthma attacks. 

That health-harming pollution disproportionately affects Black, Latino, Asian American and Indigenous people in the United States, studies show. As more warehouses and rapid-delivery facilities appear within communities of color, residents are increasingly exposed to all that nasty exhaust, said Aileen Nowlan of Environmental Defense Fund, a nonprofit advocacy group.

EDF recently developed a proximity mapping” tool to more precisely identify who lives near these warehouses and how big of a health threat those idling engines and transiting trucks pose. The database combines social, demographic and health information for neighborhoods near some 2,500 warehouse locations nationwide.

In Illinois, for instance, proximity maps show more than 140,000 people living within a half-mile of a warehouse. Peering closer, the tool reveals that warehouse neighbors in certain census tracts have asthma rates that are 20 to 60 percent higher than the state average. This doesn’t necessarily mean that trucks caused the asthma — but it does raise the risk that trucks will exacerbate existing conditions among that vulnerable population.

Communities who are living around these facilities have been saying for decades that proximity to trucks is dangerous,” said Nowlan, the U.S. policy director for EDF’s global clean air initiative. This quantification is really just reflecting and amplifying what those communities are already saying.”

One goal of the mapping tool is to help warehouse owners, policymakers and community leaders to prioritize clean-energy investments in communities most afflicted by truck pollution, she said. That could mean adopting electric delivery vans and installing more charging stations, or restricting idling and altering routes to reduce diesel pollution.

Maps are just pictures,” Nowlan said. Where the power comes in is when people use those to change behavior.”

Weather and satellite data help chart fuel-efficient shipping routes

As trucking companies map and tally tailpipe emissions over roads, cargo ship operators are using digital tools to chart a cleaner course across the ocean.

Route-optimization services help shipping companies plan more fuel-efficient voyages by gathering data on weather, wind and waves and predicting conditions that vessels will encounter along the way. Such tools are growing increasingly sophisticated as ships — like passenger cars — integrate computer software, tracking technology and newer communications equipment.

DTN, the world’s largest private weather firm, provides ship operators with near-real-time updates as they navigate the water. The most optimal routes aren’t always the fastest; rather, they’re designed to get ships safely to port on time, at speeds that will burn less fuel, said Renny Vandewege, vice president of weather operations at DTN. That might mean intentionally slowing down for part of the trip; as a rule of thumb, a 10 percent drop in engine speed can reduce power demand by nearly 30 percent.

The weather company produces thousands of routes per month for shipping customers, he said. By DTN’s count, optimized routing in ocean shipping can both reduce carbon emissions and curb fuel consumption by up to 10 percent. Overall, the global shipping industry guzzles more than 330 million metric tons of fuel every year and contributes nearly 3 percent of the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. 

The global shipping industry is facing rising pressure from regulatory agencies and major cargo owners like Amazon and Ikea to deploy cleaner fuels, including potentially methanol and ammonia made using renewable electricity. Last week, container shipping giant Maersk said it plans to achieve net-zero” emissions in its operations by 2040 — a decade sooner than previously announced — citing advances in technology and growing interest from customers.

Vandewege said the demand for vessel-optimization services has increased in the last few years as shipping companies work to trim emissions and fuel costs while hauling trillions of dollars’ worth of goods by sea.

As companies are trying to move to decarbonization goals, digitalization is one really effective way to do that,” he said.

Maria Gallucci is a clean energy reporter at Canary Media, where she covers hard-to-decarbonize sectors and efforts to make the energy transition more affordable and equitable.