REPORT: Why UPS trucks only turn right (mostly)

The express logistics giant UPS is saving 37,000 tons of fuel per year by only making right-hand turns.
UPS has specialised routing software that favours right turns over left.
UPS has specialised routing software that favours right turns over left.

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The express logistics giant UPS is saving 37,000 tons of fuel per year by only making right-hand turns, according to a report by CNN.

The courier favours right-hand turns over left always, unless a left-hand turn is unavoidable, and in doing so saves fuel and cuts down on emissions equivalent to over 20,000 passenger cars per year.

UPS, which dates back to before the First World War, started the practise during the 1970s in New York, but has since implemented the system in most of the more than 190 countries in which it operates.

A software now tells all drivers the most efficient route for their given batch of deliveries and automatically prioritises right-hand turns.

Loop dispatch

UPS came up with a method called "loop dispatch," plotting deliveries in a right-turning loop and starting with one side of the street first in the 70s and has since perfected it with a software called Orion, launched in 2008.

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The routing software calculates the best possible route for each truck while favoring right-hand turns. "It took 10 years to get it right. The hardest part was making it think more like a driver and less like a computer," says Jack Levis, UPS senior director of Process Management.

Orion analyses 250 million address points a day and performs 30,000 route optimisations per minute in the US alone. This saves the company US $300 to US $400 million annually in fuel, wages and vehicle running costs.

"Our basic routines were already good, and allowed us to save about 85 million miles a year. When we put Orion on top of those, it shaved off an extra 100 million miles, and the savings got up to 185 million miles a year," says Levis.

But why are left-hand turns so bad?

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Why are left-hand turns so bad?

In short, turning left, in countries that drive on the right, such as the US and UAE, is wasteful and unsafe. To turn left, one must typically go against the flow of oncoming traffic, which creates congestion further down the road behind the left-turning car.

"This can not only be dangerous, but makes traffic build up, unless you install a dedicated left-turn 'phase,' which is fine but basically adds 30 or 45 seconds to everyone else's single time," Tom Vanderbilt, author of the book Traffic: Why we drive the way we do, explained to CNN.

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According to a recent study on crash factors in intersection-related accidents from the US National Highway Traffic Safety Association, turning left was the critical pre-crash event in more than 20% of collisions, compared to 1.2% for right-hand turns.

Turning left is also less fuel-efficient, because the vehicle idles for longer, and usually has to accelerate hard to dodge oncoming traffic.

Does UPS ever turn left?

"We will make left hand turns, but not ones that are unnecessary. We don't need to go in circles all day long by making only right hand turns. We have tools analyse the number of left hand turns for each route, and we can work out which ones are avoidable," says Levis.

UPS has created its own maps, which it says are more accurate that commercially available ones because its software can differentiate more important left-hand turns from unimportant ones.

The system knows about parking lots, private driveways, variable speed limits and roads that are inaccessible for a truck. It can also calculate the outcome of a right-turn versus left, by adding a 20-second penalty to a left-turn and only using it if going around the block would take longer.

The rule, says Levis, can also be applied to left-hand driving countries, such as Australia and the UK, where it discourages right-hand turns.

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