- Original Paper
- Open Access
The use of freight apps in road freight transport for CO2 reduction
© The Author(s) 2017
- Received: 2 November 2016
- Accepted: 9 June 2017
- Published: 1 July 2017
The purpose of this study was to investigate how a smart phone freight application service (Apps) could reduce CO2 emissions in road freight transport and to identify the core problems for improvements.
This research uses a multiple-case-study approach to examine several existing freight apps in the Chinese market. The study was conducted using multiple data collection techniques, including interviews, production observation, firsthand experience, and online-search summaries.
Inspired by a full analysis of case studies, a hierarchical conceptual framework was developed to provide an overarching view of how existing apps achieve environmental benefits, which deepens our understanding of the interrelationship between freight Apps utilization and CO2 reduction. Freight apps provide a mechanism that auto-match the consignor’s demand and the carrier’s supply based on mobile Internet. The efficient way to find the right truck and complete the delivery process enhances the decrease of truck’s empty travel distances and improvement of average vehicle loaded, then leading to an improvement of efficiency and a decline in carbon emission in freight industry. And then the identification of returning pick-up and route planning was conducted to further improve apps for CO2 reduction.
The influences to freight movement system by apps focused on reconstructing the demand and supply with integration technology, and resulted in a more efficient transaction using matching technology and advanced fleet management with optimization technology. When with inter-urban Full Truck Load, freight apps enable carriers to search for demand for returning a pick-up with decreasing empty running mileages, which then has environmental benefits through reducing CO2 emissions. However, when in urban Less-than-Truck Load, by strengthening the average vehicle utilization on laden trips, another determinant of route planning of delivery & collection reduced CO2 emissions. In order to further promote development of apps, in inter-urban Full Truck Load of long-distance transport, sufficient number of users and suitable matching conditions ensured carriers schedule an order to guarantee the return pick-up at an appointed time or grab several orders to achieve a larger non-empty return trip. In this “always-laden” transport plan, consideration should be given to the carriers’ search and waiting costs before starting the next freight service. Meanwhile, route planning of delivery & collection based on real-time traffic information in Less-than-Truck Load required sharing high-level of data, complicated-adaptable models and the efficient computing power. These valuable aspects would be a great challenge for follow-up development of freight apps in aiding CO2 emission reduction.
- Road freight transport
- CO2 reduction
- Freight app
- Evaluation framework
- Further improvement
Road transport currently dominates freight movement in China, accounting for approximately 76% of lifted tons . Subsequently, road transport contributes to 85% of total CO2 emissions for domestic freight transport  and approximately 6.8% of total domestic CO2 emissions in China, which only accounted for 34% of the total freight turnover in 2011. Given the serious challenges of global warming plus the increasing concerns about energy shortage, both the government and stakeholders of freight movement have been intensely exploring methods to reduce energy use and CO2 distances for inner-city delivery as well as the use of alternative fuels and resource collaboration for emissions. Common measures under the ASIF (activity, structure, intensity and factor) model include, for instance, the increased vehicle load factors, which reduce emissions per ton-kilometer . The work of Mckinnon  and Tacken et al.  indicates that the practices to reduce CO2 generated from road transport sectors can be clustered into the following four main elements: modal split, vehicle fuel efficiency, carbon intensity of fuel used and road freight transport network optimization and consolidation.
Concurrent with the rapid development of information and communication technologies (ICT) in recent years, companies in the freight transport industry have moved to make use of an increasing number of applications based on ICT in an effort to improve the performance of their processes. The studies of Marchet et al.  and Perego et al.  provide a detailed summary of four classes of transport-related technologies: transport management applications; supply chain execution applications; field force automation applications; and fleet and freight management applications. More recently, the attention of scholars has concentrated on improving the environmental friendliness and sustainability of road freight transport using ICT-based applications. Klunder and Malone et al.  developed three types of ICT-based solutions for energy use and CO2 emission in road transport.
Major types of freight app use in China
Apps in logistics parks
Both cargo owners and drivers can use it. Cargo owners can publish and manage the source of goods, and select the drivers. Drivers can publish the source of cars and find the goods. Generally, such Apps do not involve in the specific transaction, but only provides the information interaction function, and third-party payment, insurance, oiling and other value-added services.
Apps of Linan Logistics and Chuanhua logistics
Apps for cargo owners
Only applicable to cargo owners. Provide query, ordering, tracking, account checking, inquiry and other functions for the cargo owners.
Chewang platform, Kaopu platform, Lulu Dispatch, OTMS, Yunmanman, and Good logistics
Apps for truck management
Provided for logistics companies having own vehicles or needing to manage out-sourced vehicles. Have management functions of vehicle archiving, vehicle dispatching, tracking, etc.
G7 truck management version, Lulu truck management, and Aidijie motorcade
Apps for Drivers
Provided for the drivers. Functions include publishing the source of trucks, finding the goods, feedback of the transportation process, etc.
G7 freight personnel version, Guanchebao, Haoduoche, Yunmanman, and Kuaile cart
Apps for transportation enterprises
Mainly provided for use by cargo owners or potential cargo owners. Functions include order placing and delivery, inquiry and tracking, account checking and settlement, business advertisement, etc.
Apps of Huayu and Deppon
Apps for in-city distribution
Provides intra-city order placing and delivery by standard vehicle type.
Blue Rhino, No.1 truck, No.1 Huode, Shendun Express and Huolala
1.2 Definition of freight apps and objective of study
A comparative between freight apps and ET/LM
• Mobility of logistics platform
• Logistics socialization
• Integrated to meet the long tail demand
• Eliminate barriers to achieve information sharing
• Logistics facilities standardized
• Transport unit standardized
• Decreasing the stocks and the physical distribution costs
• Reduce investment in fixed assets
• The cultivation of the number of users
• The change of shippers’ and providers’ behaviors
• Facticity of information
• Profit model
• Logistics function are out of control
• Giving up the exploitation of professional logistics
• The uncertainty of long-term relationship with customers
RQ1. What is the use of the freight apps on CO2 reductions in road freight transport?
RQ2. What are the main aspects for further development in CO2 reduction?
The rest of this paper is organized as follows. Literature relating to this subject is reviewed in next section. Section 3 describes the research method used in this study. Section 4 outlines the framework to evaluate the impact of mobile apps for CO2 reduction. The main aspects for further development for freight apps in CO2 emissions reduction are presented in Section 5. Section 6 offers the conclusions and outlines the limitations of this research and suggestions for future research.
2.1 Factors affecting CO2 emissions in road freight transport
2.2 ICT-based applications for CO2 reduction in road freight transport
A hierarchical categorisation of ICT use in transport and logistics operations
Levels for use of ICT
Key applications and systems
Level1 – vehicle and load
On-vehicle or in-cab ICT systems managing individual vehicles or loads; typical applications include:
Digital tachograph, which works by digitally storing data on the driver and vehicle in its memory, and also on a credit card-sized plastic card known as the “driver smart card”. It is an electronic system for recording driving and rest times for drivers and co-drivers of trucks that are driven under EC driver’ hours rules.
Telematics, which is made up of three components: an on-board computer, a satellite receiver/GPS, and a communications device. These are normally combined into a single piece of equipment within the vehicle, supported by office-based equipment and software. It is the wireless backbone of vehicle and load management and helps to monitor the movement of vehicles, fuel consumption and communicate with drivers
Level 2 – company
Enterprise systems deployed to manage specific business processes:
Best of breed functional systems: a typical application is transportation management system (TMS) which usually offers the following functions;
Planning and scheduling: daily route and resource planning and strategic what-if scenarios analysis for long term business plan;
Execution and monitoring: driver communication, real time or retrospective tracking, management reporting and financial settlement;
Fully integrated systems: a typical application is Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system which integrates all of a company’s major business processes (from order processing to product distribution) within a single family of software modules
Level 3 – supply chain
Inter-organisational systems managing mainly the dyadic business activities between two organisations. Typical applications include:
Customer relationship management (CRM) system, allowing business to carry out b2b sales on the web and provides support for marketing and customer service;
Supplier relationship management (SRM) or Supply chain management (SCM) system, designed to deal with the procurement of the components a company needs to make a product or service and the movement and distribution of components and finished products throughout the supply chain
Level 4 – network (multiple supply chains)
Network systems usually involve multiple participants and communications are simultaneously conducted between two or more companies. Typical applications include:
Open electronic logistics marketplaces, mainly for sport trading of transport services between shippers and carriers. Such systems can be used for identifying backhaul opportunities;
Closed electronic logistics marketplaces, for long-term logistics provision and execution. Such systems integrate shippers (consignors), carriers and customers (consignees) and can be used for horizontal transport collaboration between shippers or between carriers Network systems usually involve multiple participants and communications are simultaneously conducted between two or more companies. Typical applications include
2.3 The impact of ICT-based applications for CO2 reduction
ICT-based applications have been identified as having the potential to reduce the CO2 emissions of road vehicles. Hilty et al. [35, 36] pointed that the effects in the target of carbon emissions must also be evaluated from a life cycle perspective called “linked life cycles approach”, if ICT is viewed as an enabling technology to improve or be substituted for processes in sectors (“Green by IT/ICT”). The linked life cycle approach modified the life cycle of ICT-based production in the ways for optimizing the design, production, use, and end-of-life of other products. Wang et al.  empirically investigated the direct positive impact on CO2 emissions reduction for ICT solutions by adopting a multiple case study with three leading UK grocery retailers. The findings highlight opportunities to further reduce CO2 emissions, which are perceived as lying beyond retailers’ own distribution networks for the underutilization of shared information with competitors, which reflects the necessity of the integration of the same type of information. Termed as the Electronic Logistics Marketplace (collaborative ELM), Wang and Potter et al.  highlighted that the ELM has potential for growth in optimizing supply chain networks and enabling vertical collaboration between shippers and a carrier.
However, only a few ICT-based applications have specifically addressed environmental aspects as significant results and quantitative data are still missing in practice . The fact had been confirmed by the main literature reviews in the research of Lieb et al. , Lin et al.  and Evangelista . Relatively little research has been using a quantitative approach to model the effect. Boulter and Smit  considered the state of ITS in Australia and reviewed its effect on emissions. A framework has been developed, and the power-delta-power (P∆P) model was used to evaluate the effects of some types of ITS on emissions. Nagao and Hara et al.  constructed estimation models for the scenario based on the basic model and estimated the reductions in CO2 emissions by using statistical data for 2013 in Japan.
While many aspects of ICT-based application have been considered, only a few studies investigate the development and application of mobile apps in road freight transport. Nemoto and Visser et al.  built a framework to evaluate the impacts on urban logistics systems by describing the nature of influencing the ICT, which considers several scenarios in the mobile environment. An experimental co-operative pick-up system to match transport demand and supply was conducted , and the result did not imply that the pick-up system should be viewed negatively in the future. However, these studies focus on technologies and are only based on the Internet, fixed phones or pagers. With the mobile Internet environment, the freight apps have influenced the freight movement system by changing the shippers’ and providers’ of road transport behaviors . In particular, from the perspective of CO2 reduction, the literature fails to offer a common structured comprehensive view of freight apps in road freight transportation, and the existing freight apps products in Chinese market provide a condition for the study of this problem.
A multiple-case-study research method is suitable when attempting to address “what” and “how” research questions in the context of contemporary events , and Barratt et al.  highlights that this method is mainly used to develop new theories. Robert K.  shows the case study takes a typical case as the material to solve the current “how” and “why” research questions through specific analysis and anatomy and these research methods do not require a strictly controlled research approach. A common criticism associated with case study research is the potential lack of objectivity, considering that researchers may lose their independence through heavy involvement with the case . To improve the validity of case studies, Barratt and Choi et al.  used multiple data collection techniques, i.e., interviews, system demonstrations, site observation and archival documents. This triangulation shows higher reliability of data and more effect structures of the target. The collection techniques applied in this paper also aim at triangulating the data and achieving a better result of contextual data.
A summary of case examples’ background
NO. of case
Road freight apps
No. of registered drivers
No. of coverage area
Several million CNY
8.6 billion CNY
41 service stations
200 million CNY
Several billion CNY
137 million CNY
68 million CNY
Several billion CNY
With case 1, the case study involved an interview of five truck drivers and shippers using freight apps; they were asked about the use of the app since it was installed. Because the purpose is to know the process of using the app, the choice of five samples was sufficient. This offered the opportunity to collect the data required for this particular research. The same method was also used for study cases 2–7, which allowed the cases to be compared with one another using cross-case analysis. The usage process data were also summarized based on the information available from the apps’ own websites and from web sites of China’s Industry Development Association as well as academic articles [45, 49]. By installing seven freight apps on the author’s smart phone, the information collected via production observation is demonstrated to be sufficient to fulfill the needs of this research as a validation of the case findings. The firsthand experience data were obtained by the paper contributors, who installed seven apps to simulate the shippers and discussed their own experiences.
4.1 Mobile-internet-based freight movement system
4.2 Freight movement system influenced by apps for CO2 reduction
In the right part of the framework (Fig. 5), the structure diagram of processes responsible for the generation of CO2 emissions tells us that the links are related to the operations of the freight movement system. The modal split influences the CO2 intensity because it results in the total level of road transport (tons). The modal split is not discussed further in this paper. The amount of road (ton-kilometers) is affected by the level of cargos transported on roads and the length of trips. At the same time, road ton-kilometers are converted to kilometers by dividing them by the average load on laden trips. The larger the average loads are, the fewer vehicles and vehicle-kilometers are needed for transport. For the volume limit of cargos and the delivery and collection frequency, the trucks rarely have full loads. Empty running should be used to calculate the total vehicle-kilometers of trucks, as the most important factor of the freight’s high emissions may be returning empty in long-distance trips in China. Finally, to calculate the total CO2 emission of road freight transport from the total energy consumption, the amount of vehicle-kilometers is divided by the average vehicle energy consumption.
The framework also presented factors that affecting CO2 emissions in road freight transport, which were summarized in literature review section. Several factors were separately considered in framework’s entity block diagram when our study concentrate on the means of freight apps for carbon reduction in road freight transport. Suitable value of payload, empty kilometers and fleet mix were considered to be the most optimized by freight apps.
The use of freight apps for CO2 emissions focuses on reconstructing the demand and supply with integration technology, which results in a more efficient transaction using matching technology and advanced fleet management with optimization technology. When considering the impact of existing apps for CO2 reduction, it is notable that the target of connecting cargos and trucks focuses on different aspects between “inter-urban Full Truck Load (FTL)” and the “urban Less-than-Truck Load (LTL)”. Less than load is the transportation of relatively small freight, and refers to the weight or volume of the cargo is not sufficient for a full truck. Full Truck Load refers to the weight of cargo that is more than 3 tons, or less than 3 tons, but its character, volume, shape requires a road freight transport of more than 3 tons.
When matching cargos and trucks with inter-urban FTL, carriers have a strong incentive to acquire a business opportunity of cargo information. To prevent their trucks from returning without any backhaul, the appeal of an apps’ matching function is fully confirmed. The freight apps enable them to search for demand in a short period of time. This is also the key determinant (Fig. 5) for returning a pick-up with decreasing empty running mileages, which then has environmental benefits through reducing CO2 emissions. However, when in urban LTL, the function of real-time navigation and route planning guidance plays a more important role in accommodating inter- and intra-organizational communications at a network level. By strengthening the average vehicle utilization on laden trips, another determinant (Fig. 5) of route planning of delivery & collection that not only enjoys a higher economy of scale benefits, but also reduces the energy consumption and CO2 emission of the entire organization network. Because these are the levels of improvement, attention has been paid to the promotable efficiency strengthening and environmental savings to the use of freight apps in case studies. It is intuitive to suggest that this research’s contributions are the identification of freight apps as a beneficial tool, which could help realize the reduction of CO2 emissions in the Chinese freight organization with further development. These developments are discussed further in next section.
Given the lack of prospective observations in road transport, it is practical to determine what driving factors may be available to improve freight apps at the level of returning for pick-up and route planning. We envisage that exploring reconstruction and matching between supply and demand could lead to further reductions in CO2 emissions through the mechanisms described in this section.
5.1 Returning pick-up in FTL
5.2 Route planning of delivery & collection in LTL
5.3 Risks in further development
So far, because of extensive subsidies from finance, freight apps are widely used in China’s market. In the long-term sustainable development, we need to pay more attention to demands of users. Transport behavior change of shippers and drivers to apps need continuous intervention for long time in order to get significant efficacy. So, in the condition of the gradual disappearance of subsidies, how to ensure sufficient number of users, which is a prerequisite for cargo-truck matching, should be considered. Another concern is whether the use of apps is charged. The company that exploited apps gets profit from use charge or a percentage of each order. Technically, much emphasis of freight apps’ function is placed on cargo-truck matching mechanism. Implementation of freight movement practice in offline world only through mutual estimation is also need to be investigated. These risks need to be addressed and finally accepted by the user.
While the intent to implement environmentally friendly and sustainable processes continues to grow, the contribution that road transport makes to the nation’s carbon footprint and the potential for their reduction through the use of freight apps have not been investigated in depth, and its impact is largely unclear. Seven leading freight apps in the Chinese market underwent a full analysis, and a clear conceptual framework was developed to provide an overarching view into how existing apps accomplish environmental benefits, thus deepening our understanding of the potential role freight apps could play in reducing CO2 emissions. Then our research identified improvement at the level of returning pick-up and route planning to accomplish carbon emissions benefits.
We find that freight apps provide a mechanism that auto-match the consignor’s demand and the carrier’s supply based on mobile internet. The efficient way to find the right truck and complete the delivery process enhances the improvement of efficiency and information symmetry of the freight industry. The influences to freight movement system by apps have three principally aspects: re-integrate fragmented supply and demand in a wider time and space; an innovative communication method to match cargos and trucks; delivery & collection operations more efficient and environmentally sustainable by optimizing routes based on a series of demand points, full use of unloading space and real-time traffic information.
The framework clearly presented the use of freight apps for CO2 reduction, which focused on reconstructing the demand and supply with integration technology, and resulted in a more efficient transaction using matching technology and advanced fleet management with optimization technology. Factors of payload, empty kilometers and fleet mix were separately considered when concentrating on the means of freight apps for carbon reduction. We talked about the target of connecting cargos and trucks focuses on different aspects between “inter-urban Full Truck Load” and the “urban Less-than-Truck Load”. When with inter-urban FTL, freight apps enable carriers to search for demand for returning a pick-up with decreasing empty running mileages, which then has environmental benefits through reducing CO2 emissions. However, when in urban LTL, by strengthening the average vehicle utilization on laden trips, another determinant of route planning of delivery & collection that not only enjoys a higher economy of scale benefits, but also reduces the energy consumption and CO2 emission of the entire organization network.
In order to further promote development of apps, in inter-urban Full Truck Load of long-distance transport, sufficient number of users and suitable matching conditions ensured carriers schedule an order to guarantee the return pick-up at an appointed time or grab several orders to achieve a larger non-empty return trip. In this “always-laden” transport plan, consideration should be given to the carriers’ search and waiting costs before starting the next freight service. Meanwhile, route planning of delivery & collection based on real-time traffic information in LTL required sharing high-level of data, complicated-adaptable models and the efficient computing power. These valuable aspects would be a great challenge for follow-up development of freight apps in aiding CO2 emission reduction.
In terms of future work, we will attempt to utilize the historical e-waybill data and trajectory data to conduct a quantitative benefit analysis of the fraying truck-cargo that matches the system. We also aim to improve the sophisticated scheduling technique based on freight apps, which we think would really help to support environmental sustainability and CO2 reduction.
This work was supported by the Science and Technology Commission of Shanghai Municipality under the project number is 15DZ1203805.
Compliance with ethical standards
Competing financial interests
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
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