The Fuse

Trucks, Tunnels & Drones: Automation in Freight Transportation to Bring Significant Rewards, Risks

by Matt Piotrowski | January 11, 2018

There are growing opportunities for a number of automated technologies in the freight and logistics sectors that will improve highway safety, reduce congestion, and significantly cut fuel consumption.

The movement of freight across the United States is typically costly, inefficient, and at times dangerous—but driverless trucks, computerized drones, and automated underground systems have the potential to sharply alter the dynamics of American roads, according to experts speaking at a session at the Transportation Research Board (TRB) annual conference in Washington, DC this week.

Transporting packages underground

Moving goods through an underground network of tunnels is one innovative solution that has not received a lot of attention. However, it could complement other transport methods along the supply chain: Goods would be transported in magnetically propelled capsules that run on tracks through pipelines built near existing infrastructure.

Moving goods through an underground network of tunnels is one innovative solution that has not received a lot of attention.

In his presentation, Mohammed Najafi of University of Texas at Arlington pointed out that moving freight through underground pipelines is less expensive than rail or truck on a cost per mile basis. Using pipelines would reduce the amount of trucks on the road, particularly if they link major ports to nearby cities. Just as crucially, they would be driverless and use electricity instead of an internal combustion engine, cutting demand for petroleum.

U.K.-based Mole Solutions is one company trying to make this type of system into a reality. In 2016, it unveiled details of its freight pipeline concept and has a testing site in England.

Stakeholders in China and India are performing case studies, and Amazon is looking into an underground pipeline delivery system as a way of delivering packages. Mole Solutions points out that freight pipelines can operate at 75 percent less than road costs. There is also interest in creating tunnels for a rapid commuter rail service. Elon Musk’s company wants to build a high-speed underground transit tunnel between Baltimore and Washington, DC to cut traffic congestion in the area.

Najafi has studied the possibility of building an underground freight transportation system from the Port of Houston to a distribution center south of Dallas, Texas, and estimates that the cost per lane-mile would be lower than using trucks on highways. With congestion expected to increase in part because of the greater use of trucks, Najafi argues, using underground pipelines is a more sustainable method of freight transportation.

Obvious challenges of developing such a complex network include funding for the high up-front costs of construction, cooperation between industry and government, social and environmental impacts of building the tunnels, and underground obstacles such as rivers and utilities.

Cost-efficient autonomous trucks, drones

With freight deliveries expected to increase by 40 percent through 2040, speakers on the TRB panel agreed that changes are needed in order to handle the growing amount of freight on American roads. Traffic congestion costs the trucking industry over $63 billion in time and fuel annually, and trucks are underutilized.


Speakers in the session pointed to automation as a key factor in helping alleviate many of the pressing problems that the industry currently faces. Robert Faulck of Sweden-based transport company Einride said driverless trucks have the capacity to run at all hours, which can help alleviate congestion. “The solutions for tomorrow, we already have the technology,” he said. “Now it’s just a matter of how we start applying them.”

Traffic congestion costs the trucking industry over $63 billion in time and fuel annually, and trucks are underutilized.

Faulck and Tasha Keeney of investment firm ARK-Invest highlighted the benefits of trucks being both autonomous and electric. “Electric and autonomous technology will have compounding effects and lower costs per-ton-mile of trucking by 75 percent,” said Keeney.

The high cost savings, she said, will make the transition to electric trucks faster than most anticipate. With automated electric trucks (which will likely be used for short-haul trips), the costs per-ton-mile could fall to as low as 3 cents. Although autonomous trucks will be more efficient than today’s fleet through greater utilization, lower costs, and reduced fuel consumption, the number of miles traveled is likely to increase in order to meet rising demand from consumers. That unintended consequence, however, “could be partially offset if different forms of autonomous delivery take hold,” Keeney said.

“Electric and autonomous technology have compounding effects and lower costs per-ton-mile of trucking by 75 percent.”

One of those other forms of autonomous delivery (besides underground tunnels) is drones. Amazon has large ambitions in this area. The company has tested delivery in the U.K., and some believe that this delivery method will be implemented around the world. The Legal Intelligencer explains: “Amazon has invented a drone hive that allows drones to simultaneously land and take off from multiple locations. Because the hive is multiple stories, each drone can land at a different level, accept a package, and take off for the next delivery.”

Safety concerns and worries about them being used for criminal activity have slowed their implementation, but low costs will likely make them more attractive over time. Regulation permitting, small drones could deliver five-pound packages in a 15-mile radius in 30 minutes for just $1, Keeney told the audience at TRB, over 90 percent cheaper than other options.

Efficiency gains through other methods besides automation

Our analysis of the trucking sector (see here for the link), published in November, found that the industry is likely to be an early adopter of autonomous technology since freight transportation on highways is typically more predictable and less complex than driving on urban roads. However, heavy-duty trucks being omitted from current autonomous vehicle legislation is likely to set back these efforts. In the meantime, we argued, the industry has other approaches that can improve efficiency: The adoption of twin-33s (linked 33-foot trailers) can cut an estimated 23 billion gallons of diesel by 2050, while the widespread use of existing platooning technologies could save another 20 billion gallons of diesel during the same timeframe. It’s clear that with the sharp rise in freight demand in the coming decades a variety of solutions will be necessary.