Taking the Road Less Traveled to Reach Lofty Shipping Goals

walmart hybrid truck photo

Photo credit: Walmart Stores/Creative Commons
This guest post was written by Elizabeth Fretheim, Walmart Logistics Director of Business Strategy & Sustainability.
High gas prices impact everyone, especially during high-travel summer months as families venture out on vacation. Americans across the country are feeling the pressure every time they visit the pump. Walmart is no different, and we see the effects in the way our customers shop, as well as behind the scenes in our own operations. That's why, since 2005, our focus has been on taking trucks off the road by reducing the number of miles we drive and driving our miles as efficiently as possible. This is just one way we keep our operating costs low so we can pass our savings on to customers, while at the same time reducing our carbon footprint. Walmart set an aggressive goal six years ago to double the efficiency of our transportation network by the end of 2015. That deadline is quickly approaching, and we're encouraged by the improvements we've been able to make so far. We've already realized a 65% increase in efficiency over our 2005 baseline, but in many ways, the hardest work is still ahead of us to reach 100%.

The opportunities to improve efficiency are clear, but effective, long-term solutions are harder to come by. Our top three focus areas are:

  1. Putting more freight on every load
  2. Driving fewer miles
  3. Advanced, more efficient technology

Over the last few years, we've improved our loading techniques and are finding more ways to ensure that every trailer is loaded to capacity each time it leaves a distribution center, store or supplier. We're also working to eliminate "empty miles"—when a truck delivers a load to a store and returns to the distribution center with nothing. Our trucks are now being routed to other nearby distribution centers or to a vendor's distribution center to get more freight after a delivery so that we utilize every possible mile.

By better loading, routing and eliminating empty miles, we're able to reduce the overall number of miles that we drive. In the last three years, we eliminated more than 225 million miles from our fleet (that's a lot of trucks off the road). To give you an example of the impact of those reduced miles, just last year we delivered 57 million more cases while driving 49 million fewer miles. This equates to avoiding almost 40,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions, which is the equivalent of taking 7,600 cars off the road. Even as Walmart grows and adds new locations, we're still reducing miles. What's more is that the miles we drive are now more efficient because we're working to find the smartest routes and to train our drivers on techniques that save fuel.

Finally, we look at the equipment itself to find ways to improve our technology—from aerodynamics to auxiliary power units (APUs) to alternative fuels. We evaluate every component, no matter how small, for opportunities to reduce weight and increase fuel economy. One example of how we've improved technology is adding APUs to our trucks that make overnight trips. APUs allow a driver to heat and cool the cabin of their truck and run powered equipment without idling the engine and wasting fuel. In the first year of implementation alone, we saved approximately 10 million gallons of fuel.

We've made significant improvements to the Walmart fleet over the last six years, but where do we go from here? We've become experts at loading our trailers, but there are still times when we reach maximum weight before we reach maximum volume and vice versa, due to regulations and restrictions. And while we're continually eliminating miles and making smarter trips, those improvements will become harder and harder, because we still have to get our products from the distribution center to our customers. There's a great deal of opportunity in advanced technology, but it takes years of testing for new technology to become available commercially, and even more time to implement. However, we are playing an active role in developing this technology, including hybrid engines for large trucks and alternative fuels.

Reaching our goal by the end of 2015 will take creativity and innovation, and we're determined to make our entire logistics system even more efficient. No matter how fuel prices change, the cheapest, most environmentally safe gallon of fuel is the one we never use.

Read more about Walmart's sustainability initiatives:
Walmart Announces Plan to Promote Healthy Foods
Walmart Becomes The New EPA, Bans PBDE Fire Retardant
Are Walmart's Eco-Efforts Enough? Balancing Sustainability & Social Responsibility at America's Largest Retailer