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Trucks drive thousands of miles with no cargo—this app is making them more efficient

They’re called “empty miles” and they help add millions of tons of emissions to trucking’s emissions footprint. Convoy—a winner of Fast Company’s 2020 World Changing Ideas Awards—has an app to help truckers always make sure they have something to haul.

Trucks drive thousands of miles with no cargo—this app is making them more efficient
[Source Image: OstapenkoOlena/iStock]

Shipping products—produce, electronics, anything else you buy that wasn’t made locally—across the U.S. has a massive carbon footprint. But those emissions don’t just come from the sheer distance of trucking boxes from, say, the Port of Los Angeles to Chicago or Memphis. Another part of the challenge comes from how the trucking industry operates: It’s not uncommon to make a delivery and then turn around and drive back hundreds or thousands of miles with an empty truck if a driver can’t easily find another delivery to make on the return trip.

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“This problem is actually kind of the dirty secret in the freight industry,” says Jennifer Wong, head of sustainability at Convoy, a trucking software company. The company’s Automated Reloads program is designed to address it: Truck drivers can use a free app to quickly find a group of connected shipments so that they can book an entire trip rather than a single route at a time. The technology is the winner of the transportation category.in Fast Company’s 2020 World Changing Ideas Awards.

[Screenshot: Convoy]

Convoy estimates that trucking accounts for around 205 million metric tons of CO2 emissions in the U.S. each year, and around 72 million metric tons of those emissions happen because trucks are driving empty. “In freight, we call that driving empty miles,” she says. “That’s because the industry is so fragmented and it hasn’t been optimized through technology to find the most efficient routes for drivers to haul across the country.”

Many of the three million truck drivers in the country work for themselves, and these small businesses can’t easily coordinate multiple routes—something that can take hours to arrange with brokers and by searching through listings on boards. “Scheduling load is not their primary occupation,” Wong says. “They want to just be spending time on the road, picking up and delivering. But they don’t want to spend their time looking at load boards and reviewing route options. Even the people that work with dispatchers only have a limited view of the potential shipments available. So that kind of work is actually most optimally done by machines and algorithms.” That’s what Convoy’s technology does, bundled it into its existing free mobile app that truckers use to manage shipments.

It’s a less obvious way to improve the carbon footprint of transportation than an electric car or airplane, but it has a significant impact. After launching the tool last summer, the company reported by the fall that shipments using the program were seeing a 45% drop in carbon emissions.

“We’ve already seen some pretty meaningful impacts so far,” Wong says. “But as the shipments in Convoy’s platform actually grows over time, and the density of those shipments also increases, we’re able to see even more improvements. ” And If the industry as a whole uses the technology, emissions could drop by 32 million metric tons a year.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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