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EDITORIAL | Automated Transportation But One Response to '2024 Problem'

A new overtime cap on truck drivers could stagnate Japan's logistics systems. While automated transportation could help, more effective measures are needed.

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Trucks form a line near Oi Terminal in Shinagawa Ward on January 15. (©Sankei by Shiro Harada)

The Japanese government is considering the introduction of "automated transportation routes" that would automatically transport cargo in open spaces near expressways and other roads. It is aiming to make the concept a reality within 10 years. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has directed that possible routes be selected by summer. 

The envisaged automated transportation routes would amount to a new infrastructure dedicated to the automatic transport of goods by unmanned carts and other modes. Not only would they eliminate the need for drivers, but the resulting reduction in the number of trucks needed would alleviate congestion on expressways and help cut back carbon dioxide emissions. 

An expert panel with the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism has been discussing technical issues since February. The idea is to make use of available spaces, including the shoulders of highways, median strips, and underground areas. Distribution centers would be established as destination points for the carts where the cargo would be transferred to trucks for final delivery. 

Automated transportation routes could alleviate congestion. (File photo: ©Sankei by Ikue Mio)

Precedents in Switzerland and the UK

There are already overseas precedents that can offer hints to planners. In Switzerland, for example, plans are already afoot to construct underground cargo tunnels for automated transport carts to run through. The plans call for the creation of a massive underground distribution system with a total length of approximately 500 kilometers (311 miles) designed to connect major cities in the country. The goal of the Swiss planners is to have the first 70 kilometers (43 miles) operating within seven years with all routes functional within about two decades. 

The United Kingdom is also mulling the creation of an automated distribution system that would utilize space next to railway tracks. The assumption is that low-cost linear motors developed specifically for cargo transport would be used. 

The 2024 Problem

In Japan, a new regulation took effect in April, limiting to 960 hours a year the number of hours truck drivers can work overtime. The logistical crisis expected from the drop in transportation capacity has come to be referred to as the "2024 Problem." According to some estimates, the amount of cargo that will be able to be carried in 2030 will be 34% less than it was in 2019. Obviously, improving logistics efficiency is an urgent need.

The government adopted a package of emergency measures in October 2023, which called for cutting in half the number of parcel redeliveries. It also called for the promotion of a "modal shift" in which truck transportation is replaced by rail and ship transportation. Moreover, in their quest for distribution efficiency, companies are sharing the usage of transport vehicles regardless of their being in different industries.

If Japan's logistics system stagnates, it could severely impact our daily lives as well as industry. The "2024 Problem" is a structural issue that is not about to disappear anytime soon. The public and private sectors will therefore have to pool their knowledge and continue to introduce effective measures that go beyond just automated transportation highways to deal with the crisis. 

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(Read the article in Japanese.)

Author: Editorial Board, The Sankei Shimbun