Creating a Physical Internet: UA Researchers Work to Reduce Carbon Dioxide Emissions

By Mason Carr,

UA and Virginia Tech researchers are mimicking the Internet in hopes to revolutionize the way products are delivered to consumers.

They have coined their concept the Physical Internet. They hope that it could reduce carbon dioxide emissions, the costs of products, and the rate long-haul truck drivers quit or are fired, said Russ Meller, a researcher on the project and UA professor in the Department of Industrial Engineering that specializes in logistics.

Although the first phase of research focused on the trucking industry, the Physical Internet will be a multi-modal system that includes ships, planes, trains, and trucks. (Photo by Mason Carr, LEMKE NEWSROOM.)

The first phase of the research has concluded. It was supported by the National Science Foundation over the past two years as well as business contributions. The research, along with data from 18 corporations, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Proctor & Gamble Co., J.B. Hunt and Walgreens, was worked it into mathematical models, Meller said.

In 2007, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions were 6,103.4 trillion grams (or 6.1 billion metric tons — a car produces 5.2 metric tons a year). The freight industry (trucks, ships, and trains) contributes 517 trillion grams of those emissions a year in the U.S. Although that is a small portion of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, it is five times more than China’s freight industry, the second-leading emitter among freight industries, according to Physical Internet data.

About one-fourth of tractor trailers in the U.S. travel empty, and those that do carry freight are only a little over half full, which means a lot of excess carbon dioxide emissions, Meller said.

(Graphic by Mason Carr,LEMKE NEWSROOM)

Because long-haul truck drivers often are on the road for more than two weeks at a time and eat and sleep poorly, turnover rates for those drivers regularly exceed 100 percent, Meller said. Fifty-eight percent of accidents associated with truck drivers “were deemed to be fatigue and sleep-deprivation related,” according to National Transportation Safety Board statistics cited by the Physical Internet report. Truck drivers have a reduced life expectancy of 16 years, according to a statistic cited by Ray LaHood, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation.

The trucking industry moves 70 percent of freight in the U.S. according to the American Trucking Industry. (Photo by Mason Carr, LEMKE NEWSROOM)

To address those problems, the Physical Internet borrows from the digital Internet in two ways:

First, like email, cargo would be sent across a shared distribution system that would include trailers and warehouses.

“The thing that makes the Internet great is that if you send an email, you don’t have any idea whose server it goes through. There’s all these computers out there that are doing the handoffs of these packets as it goes across the Internet and you send the email and it’s fine,” Meller said.

To mimic this process in the physical world, Meller and his colleagues have proposed an idea similar to the Pony Express, “where drivers are doing relays, handing the load off as they go, which means they would get home everyday or every other day,” he said.

The relay system would share trailer and warehouse space among suppliers so that trailers are fuller and products are closer to their destination, he said. The other way the Physical Internet borrows from its digital counterpart is in the way it packages products.

“When you send information, the Internet says ‘whoa, I don’t deal with information, I deal with packets,’” Meller said. “The analogy for us would be instead of just letting anybody ship anything, we’re going to say ‘no, no, no, we’re going to ship things in these packets, these containers we know how to deal with.’”

Russ Meller, researcher for the Physical Internet, sits in his office at Bell Engineering. (Photo by Mason Carr, LEMKE NEWSROOM)

The Physical Internet model proposes 20 standard containers that would “snap together like Legos,” Meller said.

Although those containers may not store freight as effectively individually as the thousands of box sizes used, when stacked together on a pallet, the containers save 20 percent more space, he said.

Because there are fewer miles traveled with fuller trailers and less diesel being consumed, transportation services can increase their profit margin from five to six percent to seven to eight percent while charging less to the shipper, who takes products from the warehouses to retailers.

Because distances between warehouses and retailers are shorter and stores can keep lower in-store inventory, shippers can provide better service to the retailer or the customer and reduce the cost they charge, Meller said.

“We believe the annual impact of the Physical Internet, even when serving only a subset of the principal freight flows in the U.S. (say, 25 percent of all freight flows in the U.S.), would be $100 billion, 200 trillion grams of carbon dioxide emissions, and a reduced turnover rate of long-haul truck drivers (up to a 75 percent reduction),” according to the report.