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MIT FreightLab Research Discussion and Update

On June 17 2022, the MIT FreightLab convened its Q2 2022 Research Update and Discussion. In this virtual session, approximately 70 friends of the FreightLab joined MIT CTL staff researchers to share experiences and insights related to “Improving the Sustainability of Truckload Transportation”. This off-the-record conversation offered both context for, and concern about, shippers’ and receivers’ readiness to be carbon net-zero by mid-century. 

The discussion opened with MIT FreightLab Co-Director, Dr. David Correll, sharing the results of a pre-event survey. 54 people completed the online survey, representing mostly shippers – but with some carriers, brokers, and solutions vendors also represented. Overall, the group reported strong pressure to engage in improving the sustainability of the truckload transportation services coming from a variety of sources, including customers, investors, and corporate executives. In the current business environment, pressure reported from these sources was not especially surprising. However, Dr. Correll also noted that among the MIT FreightLab community, ‘‘personal/intrinsic motivation” ranked equally as high as these commercial pressures, which was unexpected. 

Given this strong motivation, Dr. Correll then shared respondents’ timelines for improving the sustainability of their truckload transportation.  55% of respondents reported having a net-zero carbon emissions goal.  And among them, the average goal year for achieving net-zero was 2040 for both shippers and carriers.  This begged the question: are we ready for 2040? 

Participants seemed to agree that achieving net-zero by 2040 will be a real challenge.  The conversation surfaced industry concerns about:  measurement – are firms currently ready to accurately measure their emissions, much less reduce them (?);  technology – will alternative fuels technology, and the supply of alternative fuels ever be sufficient for a complete industry transition(?); and choice – there are many ‘green’ fixes on offer to transportation professionals, but it’s hard to know which ones actually  work, which ones can work together, and which ones don’t work at all. 

Dr. Correll then reported back survey respondent’s assessments of specific technologies and programs for reducing fuel consumption and CO2 emissions.  The survey asked respondents to evaluate both the scale of the reductions achievable with each technology, as well as the timeline to realize those reductions. The group went through seven different technologies, with MIT CTL and industry experts joining the conversation to contribute what recent research tells us too. In the end, the conversation seemed to suggest that most firms are hoping that currently unproven alternative fuels will be adopted between now and 2040 that will carry the preponderance of their net-zero commitments.  Dr. Correll facetiously called this approach a ‘team whose game plan depends on a Hail Mary pass in the fourth quarter”.  

Following this conversation, Dr. Josué Velázquez Martínez offered an overview of his recent research on sustainable logistics.  Dr. Velázquez Martínez gave rich context to the questions of emissions measurement.  He showed how different measurement protocols count different types of freight movements differently, and what those differences mean for industry. He also shared what his research tells us about actionable plans for making sustainability improvements. He shared recent successes relating to truck routing that considered topography and gradient to reduce fuel use.

The MIT FreightLab community will continue to study this topic in partnership with our collaborators from industry. If you or your firm is interested in exploring these topics with us, please reach out to freightlab@mit.edu.