How Trucking Will Eventually Kill Wasteful Deadhead Miles

Editor’s note: Written by Aaron Terrazas, Director of Economic Research at Convoy, a digital freight network. This is one in a series of periodic guest columns by industry thought leaders.

Waste matters. For nearly every industry, waste contributes to higher costs. But in the freight industry, the stakes are even higher. In freight, waste means that more fuel is consumed, more carbon emitted, and drivers spend more hours sitting idle.

The industry has made significant advances in recent decades toward improving vehicle fuel economy: The average fuel economy of the typical heavy-duty truck has improved almost 20 percent since the early 1980s, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Drag-reducing trailer design and modifications add to those savings.



Aaron Terrazas

But reducing the number of miles that carriers drive empty – also known as deadhead miles – has proven to be a more elusive challenge. Following the push to make freight more efficient after the global oil crisis of the early 1970s, the share of total miles that truckers drive empty has been consistently stuck around 35 percent since at least the late 1990s.

Of course, some individual carriers are able to do better. There are always a lucky few who are able to find a closed loop schedule, with deadhead miles approaching zero. Some are able to cherry-pick the routes and shipments they accept to limit their empty miles. But they are outliers and do nothing to advance the state of the industry as a whole. At the other extreme – though no one would like to admit it – some carriers run as high as 55 percent of their miles empty.

For carriers, particularly owner-operators, this means that those operating costs must be built into rates where possible pushing up freight expenses for shippers and consumers. For the environment, it means that about 10 percent of the 440 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually associated with U.S. medium- and heavy-duty freight occur while trucks are running empty. That is roughly equivalent to one-month of Canada’s annual carbon emissions.

Finding ways to reduce empty miles has the potential to be a rare triple win for consumers, for truckers, and for the environment.


The persistence of the industry-wide average empty miles ratio of 35 percent suggests that perhaps there is a limit to how tight the average human scheduler can fill a truck’s calendar. It’s hardly a surprise then, that technology can do better. Evaluating different combinations of routes and constantly scanning load availability is ideal work for computers and algorithms.

Our early experience at Convoy suggests that there is promise in algorithms that assess different combinations of loads to best fill a truck’s schedule. (Convoy’s app-based platform algorithmically identifies and combines these shipments and recommends them to carriers searching on the app.)

On average, these batches have average deadhead miles of around 19.5 percent. There is room for improvement. As shipment volume increases and algorithms improve, we estimate that the average deadhead percentage could fall much lower. But given the current state of the world, that means there are potentially deadhead savings of 16 percentage points (at least 25 and 30 miles) for the average load.

Small improvements add up over time and over the miles to have a big impact. Even this conservative estimate of the potential for industry-wide deadhead reduction to 19.5 percent would translate into carbon dioxide equivalent emissions savings on the order of 20 million metric tons from dry van and refrigerated freight alone. That’s roughly the equivalent of taking all of New York’s passenger vehicles off the road for a full year or planting over the state of Rhode Island twice with tree seedlings (about 331 million total) and allowing them to grow for 10 years.


For carriers, the impact is no less impressive. Deadhead miles are rarely the only – or even the primary metric – carriers are looking to optimize. Often carriers are willing to accept deadhead miles for a prime rate-paying load. They will do the same to position their trucks in parts of the country where their services are most in demand. This 19.5 percent estimate in deadhead reduction could amount to as much as a 25 percent jump in revenue miles.

Efficiency – doing more with what you have – has been the fuel of human progress. Until recently, deadhead miles have been one of the most stubborn, intractable blockers to efficiency in truck freight. But it’s increasingly obvious that the next two decades won’t look like the last two. New data and new technology mean that we now have the tools to make progress toward real reductions in deadhead.

Editor’s note: Aaron Terrazas is Director of Economic Research at Convoy. Before joining Convoy he was an economist at Zillow and the U.S. Treasury Department. welcomes divergent thoughts and opinions on transport technology and trucking industry issues. Use the comments section to cite yours. Qualified opinion leaders are welcome to offer suggestions for opinion columns. Contact

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17 Responses

  1. Loren

    Will not work. I’ll will not haul a load uner 2 a mile and not put me back home. There is not enough loads in new England states to pay what I want
    I’ll not haul a short load to get me closer to a better paying load. Not worth my time and don’t pay enough for a wasted day.

  2. Jon

    Sounds too much like a mathematician that’s never worked a day in the industry.

    It’s only part of the equation. Yeah it would be nice to reload directly at a receiver.

    Those that haul 55 percent empty are likely to be Specialized carriers hauling their own product for specific reasons. Fuel tankers are just one such example.

  3. Monster

    LMFAO Come ride with us Truckers on a run, Before you think of trying to correct anything, We are not some fucken computer Nerds who sit behind a desk on a computer, We actually work hard for a living. Find a solution to the countless detention hours we work for without pay, Or the parking shortages, Things that actually will help it less stressful for Us the drivers who move AMERICA, So everyone has every day living needs, With out us every one would Starve, be Naked and Stranded….

  4. Petar Yochkolovski

    I’m tired seeing people out of the real trucking world to comment and advising us how to manage our business! Neither Uber or Convoy will help to improve the profit of the carriers, based on reduction of the empty miles. It is cheaper to drive 50 empty miles or even 150 empty miles, or even 300 empty miles and have 400 loaded with a 45000lbs load, then to have a 450-550, 700 loaded miles with this weight! Simple mathematics! Les fuel and emissions, les amortization and better pay for shorter loads than longer ones! Simple statistics! Trucking industry IS NOT ANYMORE a “per mile” industry. It is already TIME SENSITIVE one! We are working by seconds, planning by seconds and calculating our prices based on time spent for the trip. Most of the people, creating such of apps and publications are people, that never ever even touched a truck! The people that still share such of ideology are new into the business or have nothing else than a cab and time to spend and looking for a reason to keep themselves busy! Good luck with this kind of thinking!

    • Susie Lopez

      It is a mistery why everyone but the actual carrier that shoulders most of the cost and the work to move freight around the country is put under everyone else. Brokers do as they please they keep half or more of each load and are not obligated to show what the shipper is paying to transport the load. Fuel, tires insurance, more regulations , forced to donate hours to both shipper and reciever. Penalized if late but made to wait 2 hours for free to keep reciever or shipper happy. No parking anywhere no unloading or toll pay they charge us a percentage on the scrapes left by the broker or we are forced to wait a month for payment. We are tracked like dolphins and have to depend on brokers tracking devices to veryfy detention and all the time we are forced to wait by shippers and recievers. How can this be permitted? We have no power or respect so it seems. Nobody cares because we keep letting them do this to us. If we showed some unity and backbone and let them see how important we are it would put us ahead of the people that should be working for us and not the other way around. They want to make more than the carrier , well then you deliver that load and earn your pay.

  5. Ed Cosman

    That theory is easier said than done. As a driver of 30 years and given current flatbed freight availability and rates it’s not that easy. Yes I know of trucks with that high percentage of empty miles that’s due mainly to being a poor business person. But for the rest of them it’s unavoidable. I would like to see the people that put out these articles and compile all this data actually have some hands on experience doing the job.


    Your theory is a good theory, and it will work you an extent. It’s biggest opponent is market forces. For instance, in flatbedding there are import areas where there are considerably more inbound loads than outbound, is, South Florida, Denver, new England, the northwest. Consequently, the rates are reflective of that. There is also the problem of brokers keeping a bigger share of the revenue than he pays the carrier. A better solution would be to have shoppers use a freight “clearing house”, where it wild be a more direct shipper/carrier relationship.

  7. Emel Pruismann

    A big arrival to say a bunch of nothing. Abortionists of carbon bull shit……when I was in grade school we were taught that we need carbon dioxide to promote the groth of plants………global warming hoax is part of pushing the one world government agenda and ripping all the wealth out of America

  8. Patrick

    Algorithms will help some, but if planting trees has the same affect as removimg trucknoff the road why arent we planting more trees now. It’s the cheapest easiest thing on the table and there is plenty of land out there.

  9. Jerrod Schirck

    I love how they try to give fuel economy in percentages instead of actual miles per gallon the average truck on the road gets 5 to 8 miles a gallon that’s no better than it was in the 70s and 80s.
    Furthermore, I completely agree that there should be no changes my people sitting behind a computer go ride in one of these trucks for a week and see what it’s really like before you start making new laws or changing an entire industry.

  10. Smith transport

    The reason an algorithm will not work on a large scale, or directly at a carriers company in dispatch is because some drivers don’t drive at night, and when u get a load as a company driver u look at it and see if it’s realistically possible, alot of times I ask for a different load or more options bc there are alot.of variables in load planning. It’s not just where’s the closest load, it’s is the driver tired? Is he able to make on time pick up and delivery, does he have enough hours on his 70? Does this driver run hard or does he stop at every truck stop, does the driver like going into this area or not? The dispatch/driver relationship is an important one bc it’s what keeps a driver happy. The ability to work with the dispatcher to get the load u want or need, the miles u want, and in the areas u want is a very big deal. Not every load is gonna be 1 u like but that said I have some strict rules I follow when it comes to driving and there are loads that I can theoretically do on time but that with a little common sense and experience u realise I can’t actually do that tho. So no it’s not a fix all. Back to the drawing board u leftist pricks

  11. Mayday911us

    Yep no deadhead miles it does it matter you’re local or OTR It’s never going to happen.

    Just trying to drive around the yard to find your load. Some of these distribution centers are huge.

    Most newer trucks have DEF are supposedly clean idle with apu.

  12. None of your biz

    As a owner operator, and speak for MANY operators, Get OUT of trucking with your BS calculations… HOP in a Solo owner operators rig , and live the life for a solid month or two dealing with It… (sad part is you’ve probably seen this comment more than once)

  13. Mrs Trucker

    It would help deadhead miles also if trucks had more places to park after delivery. We drive into a city to deliver and then depending on how far it is to park and then back into the city the next day or sometimes only hours later to pickup another load.


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