Japan Plans a 310-Mile Long Conveyor Belt to Replace Semi-Trucks

This would put your local conveyor belt sushi bar to shame.
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Conveyor belts are a gift and gift giver. From the rudimentary hand-cranked versions of the late 1700s to the heavy-duty one developed in 1892 to transport mining materials, today, this basic piece of equipment brings us sushi, takes us to our airport gates, or, if we’re gluttons for cardio, keeps us running in place. Tomorrow, though, it just might transport our packages from hundreds of miles away.

If you haven’t heard, there’s been a commercial truck driver shortage for the last few years. In the U.S., the DRIVE SAFE Act suggests opening the profession to 18-year-olds while some states increased load limits. But this is not just a U.S. problem; it’s an everywhere problem. In Japan, the proposed fix is a 310-mile-long conveyor belt. Because if there’s no one to drive the freight to its next destination, why not use a ridiculously long treadmill? Hmm, are we really out of other options?

Japan Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism

Referred to as the “Autoflow-Road,” this network of automated logistics roads would transport goods using both above-ground tracks and tunnels. At ground level, tracks could be placed in a variety of places, most likely medians and alongside shoulders. So, the basic infrastructure is already in place, and the use of tunnels would minimize the impact on above-ground congestion.

The Japan Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism is looking to model the AutoFlow-Road’s above-ground freight tracks after existing high-capacity conveyor belt systems currently used in the mining industry, particularly a 23-km (14-mile) belt in Kōchi prefecture or a 100-km (62-mile) one in Western Sahara.

The ministry says the system “will not only address the logistics crisis but also help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We would like to speedily proceed with discussions on the matter.” The hope is that each conveyor belt pallet can hold up to one ton of cargo. In a 24-hour cycle, the ministry estimates the Autoflow-Road can deliver the same amount of freight as 25,000 drivers.

Of course, there’s no official timeline or budget for this stab in the dark. However, according to The Yomiuri Shimbun, the ministry has suggested a completion date as early as 2034. The regional newspaper also noted that cost would be a significant challenge, with wide-ranging estimates of 7 billion yen to 80 billion yen ($43 million to $497 million at today’s currency rates) per 10 km (6 miles). According to a study by the Nomura Research Institute, Japan’s long-haul workforce is expected to plummet by 36% within the next six years. The impact of the driver shortage will be most severe in rural areas. The Yomiuri Shimbun adds that by 2030, nearly a third of all packages will not be delivered if there aren’t enough drivers.