A Free-Market Energy Blog

‘No Left Turns’ (self-interested conservation at UPS)

By -- March 8, 2017

“UPS engineers found while studying the performance of its truck fleet that left-hand turns were a major drag on efficiency. Turning against traffic resulted in long waits in left-hand turn lanes that wasted time and fuel, and it also led to a disproportionate number of accidents.”

“The [Mythbusters] program sent a truck out to deliver packages following a normal route and one employing the left-turnless UPS route. They found the UPS approach saved gas but took a bit longer.”

While it is hard to believe that you can drive longer and go farther and actually save gasoline, United Parcel Services Inc. (UPS), the ubiquitous package delivery service famous for its brown trucks and drivers’ uniforms, has proven this scenario to be true.

Back in 2004, UPS announced it would begin a policy of planning its delivery routes in such a way as to avoid making left-hand turns.  They have stuck with the policy ever since.

This decision came after the logistics company developed better tracking devices for its trucks and began studying how to improve their efficiency. As a nationwide delivery service, UPS operates over 96,000 trucks and several hundred airplanes in the competitive package delivery business. Improving efficiency was a top goal for improving profitability.

UPS always understood that its performance required a series of optimization decisions about saving time, using less fuel, and maximizing space utilization. With the advent of improved vehicle tracking devices in 2001, UPS was able to identify areas where it was less efficient in the use of its equipment and employees, and where operations might be improved by changing procedures.

UPS engineers found while studying the performance of its truck fleet that left-hand turns were a major drag on efficiency.  Turning against traffic resulted in long waits in left-hand turn lanes that wasted time and fuel, and it also led to a disproportionate number of accidents.

Thus, the company undertook a significant operational shift by instituting a policy for trucks to avoid making left-hand turns even if it meant a truck had to make multiple right-hand turns and driver farther in order to complete a loop and reach a location.

Most drivers would say that the shortest distance between two points is what should govern route-setting even if it means making a left-hand turn. Amazingly, even if a UPS delivery truck traveled farther and took more time, the entire process proved to be more efficient and profitable for UPS.

In fact, this no-left-hand-turn policy, coupled with some other minor operational improvements, led to an estimated savings of 10 million gallons of fuel for UPS in 2012. At $2 per gallon, that meant a cost savings of $20 million.

“I can see a few of you smiling out there, and I know what you may be thinking,” stated the CEO of UPS after making these points to an audience. “But it really works.”

Mythbusters Tests

So skeptical were people that Discovery channel’s acclaimed science show Mythbusters decided to test the UPS claim. The program sent a truck out to deliver packages following a normal route and one employing the left turnless UPS route. They found the UPS approach saved gas but took a bit longer.

It is possible that Mythbusters failed to save time on the route by following the UPS rule even more stringently that its drivers do.  We, and we’re sure you, too, have seen UPS drivers making left turns occasionally.  It is usually in residential neighborhoods without much oncoming traffic. Asked by one of the Mythbusters hosts how often UPS drivers turn right, a driver said, “A guesstimate, I would probably say 90%.  I mean, we really, really hate left turns at UPS.”

UPS Traffic Engineering

UPS uses computer software to map its drivers’ routes, which tend to be heavily right-hand turn oriented. In some situations, it will call for left-hand turns when they are easier and faster than the alternative. Those turns are generally in areas where traffic is light. As one senior VP of UPS put it, “That’s why I love the engineers, they just love to continue to figure out how to make it better.”

Should We Change Too?

How often have you observed a vehicle sitting in left-hand turning lanes waiting for a clear path across four lanes of traffic in order to turn into a shopping center parking lot. How long they have to sit there before getting that opportunity to turn left? Sometimes we have to know because we are behind them.

Why not at least consider taking a right turn instead to take a later U-turn? Based on the flow of the traffic this strategy would likely save time, even if they have to drive farther.

A bit more fuel traded for saved time: that’s a trade that a lot of folks would make–just like UPS drivers.

3 Comments


  1. Tom Tanton  

    there’s a lesson here for wind turbine enthusiasts as well. That left turn phenomenon? Turns out that ‘waiting at idle and accelerating from stop’ impacts electrical generators in the same way when forced by the on-coming wind energy to wait. Now maybe we can get the UPS engineers to calculate just how much. Oh wait, …

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  2. Bob Cherba  

    I’m an old guy and have avoided left turns whenever possible for at least the past 20 years, mainly for safety reasons. Additionally, though, right turns make city driving much more pleasant.

    It’s amazing to me how many drivers insist on making left-hand turns across three lanes of traffic near busy intersections.

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  3. Jon Boone  

    Encouraging that the Discovery Channel attempted to reproduce the results of UPS’ experiment, although clearly not with scientific rigor. Perhaps others will follow in other venues….

    Moving goods and services in space and time is an enchanting exercise that showcases how energy is converted into power to obtain productivity, preferably at affordable scale. Although UPS was able to save on gasoline, the cost evidently was extra time and, likely, increased maintenance/lower vehicle life expectancy. Can’t imagine there was much overall “savings,” particularly in a modern economy where extra time typically has service–and cost–implications.

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