Angel Juan: “Algorithms and big data are the future of transport”

22 January, 2021


The 2020 Workshop on Sustainable & Intelligent Transportation (2020 SI-Trans Workshop), the official meeting point of the Spanish R&D Network in Sustainable and Intelligent Transport, was held online on the 10 and 11 November. Organized by the IN3’s ICSO (Internet Computing & Systems Optimization) research group as a member of the Network, it included different sessions with researchers from countries in Europe and Latin America.

The opening session was given by Ángel A. Juan, professor of Operations Research at the UOC’s Faculty of Computer Science, Multimedia and Telecommunications and lead researcher of the ICSO group.



What are the main concerns of the transport sector?

There are lots. One is the growth of e-commerce. This means that last-mile distribution has become very important, as we see every day with various companies that operate in the sector. With the COVID-19 pandemic, this type of operation, which impacts particularly on transport within cities, has experienced considerable growth. Sustainability is also very important, as is also the move towards zero-emission and self-driving vehicles.

It seems that urban mobility is posing many new challenges to tranportation.

We are moving towards a society in which it is neither sustainable nor logical for individuals to go to work or move around the city in their own personal vehicle. We need to adopt efficient alternative mechanisms, such as car sharing, ride sharing and other new trends that are gradually becoming more popular. These include the use of less polluting vehicles that take up less space, such as bicycles or electric scooters.

What about globally?

Global transport continues to grow in both volume and number of operations, and this is something we must manage because there are many forms of transport: planes, ships, trains, land vehicles… All this logistics needs to be organized, particularly now that it does not seem that the pace of globalization is going to slow down, despite the obligatory hiatus imposed by Coronavirus. This is an issue that causes concern, particularly in terms of the economic costs for businesses and the environmental costs. For example, air transport is precisely one of the industries that generates most pollution. We must look for ways to solve this problem that will reduce the environmental impact.

Will environmental legislation on transport continue to be tightened in the coming years?

This will vary depending on the region. In Europe, legislation does seem to be getting tougher because there is a strong commitment and a greater awareness of sustainability. There is already talk, for example, of levying taxes on diesel fuel and emissions.

Will these sustainability demands entail a significant extra cost for companies?

Yes, they will involve a significant economic cost: an extra 5%, or more according to some studies, and companies are looking to maximize their earnings. But this is the global trend and the legislation is designed to guarantee the sustainability of business activities. 

The Coronavirus was also very present in the workshop. How is it affecting the tranport sector?

On one hand, it has disrupted international logistics chains. This has happened, for example, in passenger transport, whether by air or sea. The impact on these forms of transport has been substantial. But there has been less impact on goods transport and, in general, it has accelerated electronic consumption.

This generates new complexities in last-mile transport, as we explained earlier. Companies increasingly need to optimize distribution and delivery within cities, and not just of non-perishable products – although those too –, but increasingly of perishable products. This is the case, for example, of the supermarket chains that receive online orders. These orders must be distributed quickly to preserve the cold chain, and because the customer wants to have the order delivered at home as soon as possible. Here is where our smart algorithms can add value.

What about medical material?

COVID-19 has also created the challenge of distributing medical protective equipment: they were bought in China, then had to get to Spain and be distributed to the different health centres. Now, in addition, we are going to have to distribute the vaccines, which poses a huge logistical challenge. First, because we’re talking about millions of jabs that have to be distributed to all parts of the country, and second, because some of the vaccines have pretty demanding requirements in terms of temperature.

Are terms such as algorithm, big data or smart logistics the future or are they already part of the sector’s present?

Right now, we’re at a watershed. For some companies they are the future, but for others they are already the present, as is the case of the e-commerce giants. That is why their distribution systems are so efficient.

However, what is clear is that they have come to stay. There is no alternative, because consumers want the products as quickly as possible, delivered to their home and at the time that’s convenient to them. There are also added difficulties when we talk about supermarkets, for example, and the explosion in the sale for home delivery of fresh produce, such as fruit, vegetables, fish and meat. This requires implementing smart methods and algorithms that can help plan the distribution process optimally and sustainably.

What future challenges are on the horizon for transport sector?

One of the main challenges, as we have been saying, is to organize urban logistics in large cities. Private vehicle use is going to change for sustainability reasons and it will not be possible to use it as freely as in the last ten or twenty years. It will be necessary to study different forms of transport within the city. The use of drones, electric vehicles and even self-driving vehicles will become increasingly prevalent.

This could change things dramatically. All these new vehicles are going to need algorithms to coordinate with each other. In fact, they will be computers on wheels and they will need to access big data and the Internet of Things to keep themselves informed, in real time, of what is going on in the city. This will enable instant decision-making. In other words, we need agile optimization algorithms that are capable of responding to the changes that are constantly taking place in the cities, such as traffic conditions, weather conditions, etc.

What were the main conclusions reached at the 2020 Workshop on Sustainable & Intelligent Transportation?

Different universities and industrial partners of the SI-Trans Network, financed by the Ministry of Science, took part in this workshop. The workshop addressed, from a scientific viewpoint, many of the issues that we have been talking about here, and different alternatives or solutions for these problems were proposed.

Among the most important conclusions is the need to achieve two goals. First, develop algorithms for drones, self-driving vehicles, etc. And second, optimize and increase the efficiency of last-mile distribution. Not to mention the need that has arisen to devise logistics models for distributing COVID-19 vaccines. This distribution will be on a global scale and will be rolled out in several phases.

This project has received funding from the Spanish Minister of Science and Innovation. The project identification reference is RED2018‐102642‐T.
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