For UPS, the world’s largest package delivery company, no time of year is more challenging than the holiday season. This year, the Atlanta-based company predicts the surge of packages it handles between Thanksgiving and Christmas will exceed half a billion. That tidal wave will peak on December 20 when, on a single day, some 28 million cardboard boxes will be loaded into UPS’s iconic big brown trucks to be delivered, at a rate of roughly 300 per second, to homes and businesses around the world.
The challenge of getting those packages where they need to be using the least amount of energy possible falls to Scott Wicker, who was named UPS’s first chief sustainability officer in 2011. Like many of UPS’s top execs, Wicker is a lifer. He got his start in 1977 unloading UPS trucks while studying to become an electrical engineer. Some three decades later, it’s fair to say Wicker is still working in trucks. Yet today, as CSO, his mandate is to improve the efficiency of UPS’s entire fleet of 93,000-plus vehicles – which includes those brown vans, long-haul trucks, and cargo planes as well as gondolas and tricycles — along with the company’s global portfolio of more than 1,800 facilities.
True to his engineering roots, Wicker approaches this challenge quantitatively. Given that fueling the UPS armada generates more than 90 percent of the company’s carbon emissions, much of UPS’s sustainability efforts focus on its fleet, such as streamlining delivery operations, developing fuel-efficient technologies, and exploring alternative fuels. In 2011, those efforts helped reduce company-wide greenhouse gas emissions by 3.5 percent, even though total package volume grew by 1.8 percent, according to a 2011 report.
OnEarth contributor Adam Aston spoke with Wicker about how UPS has achieved these gains and become one of its industry’s top performers on sustainability.
If there’s a singular example of UPS’s focus on efficiency, it’s the left-hand turn rule in which delivery routes are designed for drivers to make as few lefts as possible. How did this come about?
It’s one of a long list of tweaks we’ve been making to drivers’ routes over the years. It goes back to the ‘70s. Back then, we saw that we were wasting a lot of time making left turns. The more time a van sits waiting to turn, the more fuel is burned idling.
Can you quantify the benefits of the rule?
Partly. It’s part of a broader set of efforts to eliminate idling. Last year we avoided 98 million minutes of idling. And less idling means less fuel burned. We estimate that this effort alone saved 653,000 gallons of fuel.
So fuel efficiency is as much about how vehicles are driven, as what fuel they use or how the vehicle is designed?
Yes, some of the biggest changes to our fleet operations are the least visible. Last year, for example, we estimate we avoided driving nearly 90 million miles thanks to improvements in routing and package-flow technologies. That translates into more than 8 million gallons of fuel not burned. Our technologies determine how to load each package and where each one goes on a specific shelf in the truck.
We’re also developing the ability to adjust routing on the fly. If the driver has to veer off a route for any reason, the system can recalculate the optimal delivery sequence. Further, the system will help the driver to mix more urgent, early-morning deliveries in between less urgent deliveries with later time commitments. In the past, this hasn’t been possible — instead, all urgent packages are delivered first, regardless of lost opportunities to deliver another package nearby.
It may sound minor, but these changes can help reduce the number of miles each driver travels each day. When you multiply a few miles saved per driver per day, the aggregated savings in time, fuel, and carbon are significant.
That said, is the push for a high-mileage truck still a top priority?
Yes. With more than 90,000 vehicles, it’s a constant concern. Our fleet of alternative-fueled vehicles is the largest in the industry, and one of the most diverse. Since 2000, some 2,500 unconventional UPS vehicles have racked up over 200 million miles in service.
Many are powered by natural gas, which we’re looking to as an alternative to diesel. For example, more than 900 local delivery vans are powered by compressed natural gas (CNG) in the U.S., and almost that many vehicles in Canada are powered by propane [a close relative of natural gas]. For long distances, we also have about 59 big rigs — highway tractor-trailers — powered by liquefied natural gas (LNG).
Rounding out the alternative fleet are 381 hybrid electric models that, similar to Toyota’s Prius, use a combination of combustion, electric motors, and battery storage to boost mileage. Because they recapture so much of their energy through regenerative braking, these models are especially well-suited to urban routes, where total miles travelled is short, with many stops and starts, and pollution control is important. We’re also running a small number of ethanol-powered vehicles and pure electric vehicles, which run solely on power stored in their batteries.
We’re also excited to announce that starting this month, we’re rolling out 40 hydraulic hybrid delivery vehicles. This is a continuation of a program we piloted with the Department of Energy and other partners in 2006. Instead of storing energy in a conventional battery, these vehicles use hydraulic fluid as the storage medium. When the vehicle accelerates, some of this stored pressure helps it to start moving. During braking, the process works in reverse: the vehicle’s momentum is converted into pressure to recharge the hydraulic tanks. It’s a remarkably rugged system that can save up to 40 percent of fuel.
Why pursue so many kinds of technology?
We’d like to get off of fossil fuels. That’s our goal. Our approach is holistic because there is no silver bullet. It would be foolish to try to predict which fuel will emerge as the best or most durable.
Can you squeeze greater savings from your conventional diesel trucks?
Yes. One of the things we’re most excited about is “lightweighting.” Last year, we rolled out a test truck that looks similar to our regular delivery van, but that’s built with advanced materials that shave off 900 pounds. There are body panels made of lightweight plastic composites instead of metal sheets. Because the vehicle is so much lighter, we’re able to use a smaller engine, as well.
The trucks deliver approximately 40 percent gains in fuel efficiency, and the price is in line with the cost of a conventional vehicle. Based on that trial, we ordered 150 of these higher-mileage models. We’re also more comfortable with composite material and will consider adding more composite components into larger vehicle types.
UPS operates a lot of vehicles consumers rarely see, from planes to long-haul trucks. What are you doing with these?
To put this in perspective, more than half of UPS’s carbon dioxide emissions come from jet fuel, and the rest of our mobile fleet make up about a third of emissions.
For surface transportation, we shift as much as possible to rail, which is a far more efficient way to move goods than road. For rail and air, the efficiency options are fewer than on the road. With planes, we’re testing more efficient flight paths. Simplifying a jet’s landing pattern, by letting it glide down continuously rather than descending in a step pattern, delivers substantial savings. We’re also testing aviation biofuel. We know it works. The problem is making it at the right price.
Are your customers asking for data on the carbon impact of their shipping?
Customers began to push for this kind of data a few years ago. Big companies are facing more pressure from groups like the Carbon Disclosure Project, the federal government, and financial entities to report on their carbon footprints.
It’s been a challenge to build a system that collects all this data. But today, we’re one of the few logistics providers that calculate Scope 3 emissions, which often comprise a very large share of the total. These are the emissions produced indirectly to make goods or deliver services a company buys. [Ed. note: Scope 1 emissions are created from direct actions, such as fueling a UPS truck. Scope 2 are emitted indirectly, such as the emissions associated with electricity bought by a UPS utility. Find out more here.]
When we ship for a company, or handle its logistics, UPS becomes a major source of the company’s Scope 3 emissions. Delivering that data reliably is a very sophisticated process. Our experience developing these measures has helped us advise partners on their efforts to map out their own Scope 3 emissions, too.
Have UPS’s sustainability efforts helped attract customers?
Yes. UPS is the only U.S.-based company offering a carbon neutral shipping option across all product lines. Puma, for example, ships everything carbon neutral. Toto [a Japanese bathroom fixture maker] uses the service, too. Another example is LiveNation, which organizes touring bands. We ship of all the bands’ gears in our trucks, and, in some cases, have begun to manage transport for those tours in a carbon neutral manner.
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