An overland conveyor for coal transport Photo: © Sukarman .

Japan is hatching a new plan for a so-called ‘autoflow road’, replacing truck traffic with a 500km cargo conveying belt, travelling in tunnels under motorways, and beside them on the hard shoulder or central reservation, between Tokyo and Osaka.

The primary motivation for the scheme is dealing with the shortage in truck drivers, a problem common to many economies including the US and UK. Many of Japan’s truck drivers will age out of the pool by 2030, and according to a study by Nomura Research Institute, the overall number will go down to 480,000 in 2030, from 660,000 in 2020, leaving as much as 35% of all cargo without a driver to transport it.

Tetsuo Saito, Japan’s transport minister, said that the autoflow road would “not only address the logistics crisis, but also help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” and that he would “like to speedily proceed with discussions on the matter”.

He is almost certainly right. It is difficult to compare the carbon cost of a conveyor belt with a truck travelling the same distance — the current longest conveyor in the world, 98km, is located in Bou Craa, Morocco and carries phosphate ore. But it is sufficient to say that moving cargo slowly over a series of electrically driven rollers would yield a tiny fraction of the operational carbon emissions that a fleet of trucks would produce. Only some of these rollers need be powered at all – the unpowered ones, called ‘idlers’, simply hold up the belt, and there can be dozens of them for each powered roller.

The intention to have goods moving along the conveyor on 1 tonne pallets, presumably in plain sight of motorists, is made explicit by the project’s backers. Shuya Muramatsu, a senior official in the ministry’s road economics research office, said: “Automated logistics roads are designed to get the most out of road space by utilising hard shoulders, median strips [central reservations] and tunnels beneath the roadway. Our study is examining the impact on road traffic, including on surrounding roads, and costs.”

Regrettably, such a system as proposed, has a glaring weakness common to any application of unaccompanied freight: theft. It is with a deep sense of national pride that I predict that were an autoflow road to debut in the UK, no more than a week would pass without motorists finding themselves with more deckchairs, tennis balls, and Hitachi ‘massagers’ than they knew what to do with.

In 2022 in the UK, there were some 5,000 reports of freight crime, totalling £66m in value, data from National Vehicle Crime Intelligence Service (NaVCIS) shows. About 400 of these were so-called ‘jump-up’ thefts – criminals leaping over the tailgates of parked trucks to pilfer cigarettes and other cargoes.

Experience in other countries bears these assumptions out, too. In the US, amid children crawling between railcar bogies to get to school, and other widescale silliness introduced by precision scheduled railroading (PSR), an old-fashioned train robbery has become more straightforward than ever. Waiting interminably in urban areas, train cars have been broken into, and cased entirely before the driver has become aware of a problem; thieves have even undertaken a degree of in-situ unpackaging and sorting before making their escape.

Can criminality be considered an engineering problem? If so, there might be reason to suspect the autoflow road to be more feasible in Japan, at least enough to merit serious consideration by government officials. Crime certainly exists in Japan, but it takes on a unique character, best summarised by Terry Pratchett: “If there is to be crime, it might as well be organised.” For public relations purposes, famous crime syndicate the Yakuza (Japan’s ‘Mafia’) takes on a share of the policing work itself, acting to keep its members, as well as unaffiliated criminals, in line.

As a result, theft is a fraction of what it is elsewhere. Compared with the US, France and Germany, which suffer 81.4, 43.8 and 43.2 robberies per 100,000 people according to official figures, Japan experiences just 1.2.

“It’s important that we develop this automatic train-like delivery system because of the challenges in terms of the labour force, but also because we need to bring down carbon dioxide emissions, particulate-matter emissions and other pollutants that can have a direct impact on human health,” said Yoshitsugu Hayashi, a professor of transport policy and systems at Chubu University, in the South China Morning Post.

“The surface is becoming more and more congested, so tunnels under expressways are a sensible approach. There is already space in the median strip or on hard shoulders of existing roads, so the basic infrastructure is already in place and that should make the project relatively easy.”

The project could potentially perform the work of 25,000 drivers. Should it go ahead, The Loadstar will observe it – and the extent of its associated security measures – with interest.

Comment on this article

You must be logged in to post a comment.