Distribution transportation today and tomorrow

Jun 30, 2010
  • Rising importance due to the growing share of the global population living in urban areas
  • Increasing incidence of stop-and-go traffic
  • Growing need for alternative drive concepts
Distribution transportation is a multi-faceted field of operations. While transport economics does not offer a clear definition, the following features are characteris­tic of distribution transportation: The focus is on collecting and distributing goods in conurbations (urban distribution transportation) or in the area surrounding a conurbation (regional distribution transportation). Transportation takes place on short-haul routes.
Sylvia Diederichsmeier, Head of Future Markets and Customers, a futurologist focusing on commercial vehicles in Daimler AG's Society and Technology Research Group, explains: "Distribution transportation is often the pre- or on-carriage part of a long-haul transport operation starting from a central depot (the so-called "final mile"). Distribution transportation primarily serves the consumption needs of the people who live in conurbations."
The primary area of operations concerns the supply of retail undertakings which serve consumers directly, such as food and drinks transportation, along with deliveries to clothing retailers and supplies for pharmacies and other retail outlets, Ms Diederichsmeier observes.
Many goods that people need in their daily lives are delivered directly to their homes, e.g. furniture, electrical appliances and mineral oil. Recent years have also witnessed a sharp increase in internet shopping, accompanied by a strong rise in parcel deliveries directly to the consumer. Supply services for chilled foods and drinks also form part of distribution transportation.
Another key component is the collection of goods, including the return transport of empties and the collection of parcels and letters. Waste collection transport is a special category which does not form part of distribution transportation.
"Service sectors also give rise to distribution traffic," Sylvia Diederichsmeier continues. The hotel and catering industries requires transportation services for laundry, for example. Transport operations for industry and the wholesale sector are commonly carried out by general freight carriers. Removal firms and leasing companies round off the picture."
The deployed vehicles are as diverse as the logistical tasks, the types of goods and the sizes of consignment involved, with all classes of vehicle participating in distribution transportation, from vans – or even standard passenger cars – to 40‑ ton semi-trailer/tractor combinations.
The workload will continue to grow in distribution transportation in the coming years, due in no small part to changes in consumer behaviour:
  • The shift towards a service economy leads to an increase in delivery services
  • Further growth in the number of online shoppers and the availability of online goods leads to an increase in the volume of parcels to be delivered
  • Increasing requirements with regard to freshness and quick availability give rise to more frequent deliveries
The futurologist sees a number of challenges facing the distribution transportation sector: "The conurbations are continuing to grow. Increasing numbers of people are moving to urban areas. The small and medium-sized towns on the outskirts of cities (metropolitan areas) are growing, while at the same time inner-city areas are also undergoing revitalisation. The majority of the world's population are already urban dwellers." According to UNO forecasts, the global urban population will rise to over 60 % of the world's total population by 2030 and will reach around 70 % in 2050.
Towns and cities will become a focus of traffic problems, with the increase in distribution traffic also contributing to this situation. "Creeping mobility" is already a reality in many towns and cities today. The incidence of stop-and-go traffic will continue to increase. Despite the strains on the infrastructure, road transport will remain the primary means of moving goods in towns and cities, due to a lack of alternatives. Emissions and noise will become a focus of environmental policy in towns and cities, with the aim of improving the quality of life.
Towns and cities are unable and unwilling to fully exclude truck traffic. If a 40-ton truck were to be replaced by smaller vehicles to supply a supermarket, for example, around 17 vans would be required. Promoting the use of light vehicles by imposing weight restrictions on vehicle access is inefficient and is no solution to the problems faced by towns and cities. Effective city logistics systems with transfer points are under discussion.
"Trucks will continue to play an important role in distribution transportation in tomorrow's towns and cities," says Ms Diederichsmeier. The futurologist sees major changes on the horizon, however: "Towns and cities will introduce legislation with a sharp bias on environmentally friendly vehicles. Access restrictions and toll charges will be pegged increasingly to emissions. Initial signs of such trends are already apparent in cities such as London, Stockholm, Bologna and the German environmental zones.
Towns and local authorities will take on a leading role in climate protection in the future. Towns will compete for the title of "the greenest town" and best practice projects will be exchanged.
There will be a greater emphasis on reducing CO2 emissions in urban traffic in the future. National and global aspirations in the field of environmental protection will offer towns and cities fresh scope for the introduction of regulations. In future, areas will also be defined in towns and cities which require the use of zero-emission commercial vehicles. Urban logistics will alter. New options are arising here through the deployment of alternative vehicle concepts.
"Apart from the future restrictions in towns and cities, our customers' ecological objectives are also driving our efforts to offer alternative commercial vehicle concepts," notes Sylvia Diederichsmeier. DHL has set itself the target of reducing CO2 emissions from its own vehicles and those of its subcontractors by 30 % between 2007 and 2020, for example.
The changing underlying conditions in the towns and cities will have a major impact on distribution transportation and on truck customers operating in this field in the future. "Daimler Trucks will help them to take these challenges in their stride," concludes Ms Diederichsmeier.