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Going underground on the penultimate mile

Fewer trucks in city centres and transporting goods through pipes in the ground into the cities instead? A great idea for traffic-ridden cities. The Cologne-based start-up Smart City Loop is working on implementing this vision. Goods are transported through underground pipes from the periphery to the inner cities. Sound futuristic? ‘This isn’t rocket technology’, says partner Ekart Kuhn. The type of pipes that the start-up Smart City Loop wants to lay for the transport of goods have already been in existence for 20 or 30 years in the form of district heating or supply lines, says Kuhn. Smart City Loop has nothing to do with futuristic technology such as the Hyperloop by a certain Elon Musk, which aims to transport passengers in a vacuum at the speed of sound.

Pipes with a diameter of 2.80 metres are to be used to transport pallet deliveries underground from goods supply centres on the outskirts of the city into so-called micro hubs in city centres. From there, goods would be forwarded in the most sustainable way possible using electric cargo bikes or fuel cell trucks. Many are obsessed by this “last mile”; however, the section before it, the “penultimate mile”, is just as important. ‘Ultimately, it is clear to everyone in logistics and retail that in a few years they will no longer be able to deliver in city centres the way they do today’, Kuhn explains.
E-Commerce and the stationary retail trade
According to Kuhn, the advantage of the Smart City Loop concept lies in the fact that it can be used for e-commerce as well as stationary trade and general cargo deliveries. ‘In view of possible developments such as city tolls or driving bans, retailers in the city centre are going to experience problems with deliveries at some point’, explains the partner.
Smart City Loop could be used to transport all the types of goods that can be shipped on standard pallets: general cargo, beverages and also food. To ensure that they arrive in perfect condition, a temperature range of between 14 and 18 degrees will be maintained in the tubes. In model calculations, Smart City Loop is based on around 5000 pallets that can be transported daily in a two-shift operation: 3000 with goods into the city, 2000 for disposal.
Competitive unit costs
The pipes would normally be laid about ten metres below ground and thus below all communication and supply lines. Technology from the high-bay warehouse would be used to compensate for the difference in height at the entry and exit points. Goods are transported through the pipe by means of driverless transport technology. ‘These are all standard technologies’, emphasises Kuhn.
The pipes are laid using pipe jacking, a trenchless construction method. In this way, 10 to 20 metres can be built per day. Overall, the total costs of a project would thus be in the upper two-digit million range. Nevertheless, Ekart Kuhn stresses, it is still competitive. ‘It will achieve unit costs on the penultimate mile that are comparable to other offers’.
Feasibility study in Hamburg
In 2018, Smart City Loop was awarded a prize in the first federal competition for sustainable logistics concepts organised by the Federal Environment Ministry. The company is currently conducting a feasibility study in Hamburg. A pipe is to be laid from the Wilhelmsburg district to Altona. This would cross under the Elbe, but that would not be a problem either, Kuhn stresses. ‘We’ll be at a depth of about 25-30 metres’.
The client of this study is the real estate developer Four Parx, which has purchased a logistics site that could serve as a goods supply centre and that also wants to develop further sites into micro hubs. Attracting investors to Smart City Loop is easy, says Kuhn. And gaining operators should also not be a problem. ‘Operationally speaking, the carriers are likely to be freight forwarders.
Development with Fraunhofer
Ekart Kuhn estimates that the first Smart City Loops could be in operation in just a few years’ time. The Fraunhofer-Institut für Materialfluss und Logistik will provide scientific support for the development up to then.
After this point, Kuhn suggests that Smart City Loop should be seen more as a logistics project than an infrastructure project. He and his co-partner and managing director Christian Kühnhold are experienced logisticians. Kühnhold comes from Paki Logistics, a service provider for load carriers, Kuhn from the consulting firm Ekupac. ‘Logistics works’, he smiles, when goods have a voice. That’s what we’re working on’.
Smart City Loop at Hypermotion
The Cologne-based start-up also presented its concept at Hypermotion 2018. ‘There were interesting discussions and many new contacts were made’, confirms partner Ekart Kuhn.

Offers for start-ups at Hypermotion         

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