Alice Friedemann: When The Trucks Stop Running

Alice Friedemann is a transportation expert sounding the alarm on the unsustainable nature of our modern trucking system, which is critical for delivering goods where they need to be, when they need to be, in our just-in-time economy.

The world's trucking fleet is remarkably dependent on petroleum and, for a number of reasons she outlines in this interview, is not feasibly able to shift over to electricity or other alternative fuels.

To warn of the risks and consequences of a collapse in trucking, she founded and authored the book When The Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation. And while unlikely, her projected aftermath of a sudden complete shutdown of the trucking fleet is sobering, revealing just how dependent we are:

Within a week, in roughly this order, grocery stores would be out of dairy and other items that are delivered many times a day. And by the week, the shelves would be empty.

Hospitals, pharmacies, factories, and many other businesses also get several deliveries a day, and they’d be running out of stuff the first day.

And the second day, there’s be panic and hoarding. And restaurants, pharmacies would close. ATM’s would be out of money. Construction would stop. There’d be increasing layoffs. Increasing enormous amounts of trash not getting picked up, 685,000 tons a day. Service stations would be closed. Very few people would be working. And the livestock would start to be hungry from lack of feed deliveries.

Then within two weeks, clean water supplies would run out. Within four weeks to eight weeks, there wouldn’t be coal delivered to power plants and electricity would start shutting down. And when that happened, about a quarter of our pipelines use electricity, and so natural gas plants wouldn’t be fed natural gas and they’d start shutting down.

It’s a big interdependent system. That’s part of the problem. It’s like Liebig’s Law of the Minimum. A plant needs about 20 different elements to grow, and you take one away and the plant can grow less or stop growing. 

Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with Alice Friedman (44m:27s).

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Awesome podcast, we will be listening to this one again!  Will be getting Ms. Friedmann's book.
Great choice for a guest.

AK GrannyWGrit 

I work at a college and tried to have a discussion about energy with a science professor.  His answer was Moore's law would solve the energy issue.  At that point I just let the conversation end. We sure are betting the house on technology.'s_law
Most of my coworkers have gone back to trucks, SUVs and 15 mpg hot rods. I catch constant grief for driving my four year old Prius. Of course I smile every time it only costs twenty dollars to fill up.  

Hmmm…Moore's law refers to the pace of transistor miniaturization.  And it's not actually a law, but an observation.

It's quite a gigantic jump to go from transistor packing on a chip surface to replacing hundreds of quadrillions of BTU's of fossil fuels and that leap seems to hinge on the idea that we're clever monkeys.

I would have simply tipped my head to the side, furrowed my brow and waited for further explanation.  If none were coming I would be tempted to remain frozen in my pose until things became unbearably awkward and the science professor walked away.


What really is going to happen is massive decentralization. By making sure that everything we need is walking/biking/horse riding distance away we will be far more energy efficient than today and won’t really need trucks. In the early 20th century majority of the people did not live in cities.
Great interview, something I would also like to point some attention to is the energy cost of maintaining roads.
I also think that maintaining your health/physique is a good investment for a future that is probably going to be a lot tougher than today.



For now my Prius is a champ of a vehicle. But if the roads deteriorate much at all it will be useless. 13" wheels and low ground clearance make me cringe whenever I can’t dodge a pothole in time.
A Model A Ford may be a better long term solution. They can handle dirt roads and very low quality gas better than most cars or trucks today AND your local blacksmith can make most of the parts that would need to fix it.

My grandfather made a motorcycle out of a couple of pipes for the piston and barrel. 
He rode it around South Africa.  He had to get off and push it up hills. I never said it was powerful. 

My Dad taught soldiers to ride Harlies in the second world War,  and I still ride a bike.

Mine is dirt cheap and has carried me about 75 000 kms . She has near on 200 000 on the clock. Cosmetic piece are failing, but she is a joy. I call her Brunhilda.  Big in the chest, narrow in the waist and Very Naughty. The only problem is that she only tolerates the finest 98 proof alcohol. 

I'm going to miss her.

Shoes.  Folks will need shoes.  Know any cobblers?  Is that trade taught anywhere in the US?  Aloha, Steve.

Hello all, this podcast made me signup although i've been a regular reader for years. Back to the topic at hand which is the JIT delivery system is so massively inefficient and a HUGE energy waster. Ask yourself, why should a FedEX package which needs to be delivered locally has to usually go to a central hub outside the state? I live in Florida and as such we are known for some of the best citrus in the world. So why do I see citrus from California or other parts of Latin America? Then of course you have the Apple gadgets which are flown all over the world around the clock from China so thanks to the JIT delivery system you can have your shiny gadget within days of your order.
I once owned a 1996 Ford Mustang Cobra which had engine components made in 6 different countries and all flown in to Detroit for final assembly. And as the saying goes, "they don't make them like they used to". Well the JIT delivery system feeds and thrives off of that and as Gail Tverberg likes to illustrate our overly complex BAU system like the Leonardo Stick Toy. Pull one stick out and you risk everything collapsing.

This is why I see little to NO hope for our species to get it right or as James Howard Kunstler likes to say, "until planet Earth pushes the delete button on us".

The project will satisfy the demand of 5 million vehicles and will be completed by 2020.The government is pouring billions into the problem.We can't even manage structurally deficient bridges or potholes in this country…

Prestressed/precast concrete didn’t do JIT long ago; however, by the time I entered the industry in 2001/2, they were going to Just In Time. Indeed, in perhaps September of 2002, Concrete Producer magazine did a JIT series, in which they said (numbers made up, I don’t remember exactly what they were) that the financial benefits to JIT were huge: a company could easily double or triple its sales by going JIT, if they successfully made the transition. That is easier said than done, because only ten percent of those that attempt the transition succeed, and twenty percent of those that attempt it and fail, go out of business.
Then, to maintain the transition is just as hard, with similar numbers EACH SUCCESSIVE YEAR, on the success and the complete bankruptcy.
Looking at that, I concluded that JIT is good for corporate presidents of stockheld companies, that want to loot the companies. They can justify huge bonuses, right up until the day the company goes poof.

I didn't say Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) would shut down, but that fusion was the only possible energy source that could replace oil (Hoffert, et al 2002 Advanced Technology Paths to Global Climate Stability: Energy for a Greenhouse Planet, Science. Vol 298), and fusion looked as far away as ever, with ITER a mess, and possible shutdown of the Lawrence Livermore pilot project (by shifting research to other labs).
Giant U.S. fusion laser might never achieve goal, report concludes By Daniel Clery. June 21, 2016, Science magazine.

A long-troubled laser megaproject is facing fresh hurdles.

A recent report concludes that although the $3.5 billion National Ignition Facility (NIF)—a Department of Energy (DOE) laser lab designed to heat and compress capsules of hydrogen isotopes until they fuse, releasing energy—is making technical progress, it is still a long way from its titular goal: ignition, or a fusion burn that sustains itself and produces more energy than it takes to spark it.

According to Physics Today magazine, the independent report, sponsored by DOE, suggests NIF-related research should shift from identifying the obstacles in the path to ignition, to whether ignition is even possible.

“Barring an unforeseen technical breakthrough and given today’s configuration of the NIF laser, achieving ignition on the NIF in the near term (one to two years) is unlikely and uncertain in the mid-term (five years),” the DOE report says. “The question is if the NIF will be able to reach ignition in its current configuration and not when it will occur.” The report recommends making better use of other facilities, not designed to achieve ignition, to better understand the underlying physics of the compressed fuel, known as high-energy density plasma. These include the Omega Laser Facility at the University of Rochester in New York, as well as the Z machine (an electric pulse generator) at DOE’s Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

NIF, based at DOE’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, has long struggled to live up to its name. Even before its opening in 2009, many physicists were skeptical that the device, which focuses 192 powerful laser beams on a target, would achieve its ignition goal. DOE stuck with the project despite substantial construction delays and cost overruns, in part because they argued NIF would provide vital experimental results to nuclear weapons scientists responsible for maintaining the U.S. stockpile.

The National Ignition Campaign, a concerted effort to reach the fusion goal between 2010 and 2012, failed to deliver. Then began a 3-year effort to better understand the physics of what was happening in the fusion fuel as it was compressed by NIF’s 1.8 megajoule laser pulses. During that time, studies of ignition were interspersed with more research into the physics of nuclear weapons. The new report marks the end of that 3-year campaign.

The report states that there has been progress since 2012, including the first demonstration of “alpha heating,” when helium nuclei (produced by fusing hydrogen) stay trapped in the plasma and help heat it, thus helping to sustain the burn. Alpha heating is an essential process for ignition. With all the data gathered, researchers have made improvements to the computer models used to predict the outcomes of experiments, says Michael Campbell, a former NIF director who now works at the University of Rochester’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics. It was these models that led researchers to believe they would achieve ignition at NIF within a few years, and they continue to make overoptimistic predictions today. But Campbell says that NIF’s slow shot rate—only about 400 a year and only a fraction of them devoted to ignition—“slows down the rate of progress.”

Acknowledging the advances, the DOE report says “the present approach is too broad and diverse, and needs better focus.” After 2012, the research program into inertial confinement fusion, as this implosive compression version of fusion is known, was broadened out to include work at Omega, which uses an alternative “direct drive” approach in contrast to NIF’s indirect drive, and the Z machine, which compresses fuel with pulses of magnetic field. The report wants more coordinated research between the three facilities. “There is currently no published ‘roadmap’ to coordinate cross-[facility] activities,” the report notes.

Campbell says he always forecast that it would take “at least 10 years to figure it out.” He says he is “still hopeful it will work, but you can’t guarantee it.” Fusion, he says, “is just hard.”


Reliable self driving cars would allow us to get by with a small fraction of the cars we currently "need."  Most cars are being used only 3% of the time they could be.  That will save a lot of energy (only manufacturing 5 or 10% of the vehicles we did previously. 
Also… Tesla will have an electric transport truck within a few years.  

I'm a peak energy guy, but I do think there are some technologies on the horizon that could cause one more can-kicking.  Maybe another 20 years or so.  Enough time for the geopolitical situation to destroy our way of life before peak oil does. 

No matter how you parse (or power) it, I don't believe one person-one car for 8 billion plus people is doable.  Now, one person-one bicycle…that might work out.  Still not sure about the "plus" people though…Aloha, Steve.

Maybe.  Anything is possible, especially if battery technology makes a huge leap, and soon.

But for now I am comfortable saying that our current arrangements cannot carry on as is.  There will have to be some adjustments.  How large and how sudden is the question.

Replacing quadrillions of BTUs is a non-trivial task.

Agreed.  A home run with Tesla just buys a little time. 
The powerwall story is interesting to me as well.  I honestly think Tesla is a battery company, rather than a car company. The car was just marketing.  I think the following technologies can make a dent in the energy problem:

1.) increasing utilization for autos from 3% to 80% with self-driving technology

2.) eliminating medium range air travel with self-driving tech (imagine if a hotel room drove up to your house, and you slept while being driven from NY to Chicago).

3.) VR tech advances to the point where many forms of travel become unnecessary

4.) peak metering with powerwall catches on

5.) small living trend continues and is helped by technologies like powerwall.  The new middle class doesn't want a McMansion. 

6.) flying cars for the upper middle class.  Look at how efficient drone technology has become.  Self driving drones are way easier to develop than self driving cars.  Bezos is working hard on this. 

For this all to happen, we would need to accept a structural unemployment on 50% or more.  And that's not compatible with free-market capitalism.  I think we will either a.) March slowly but surely towards minimum incomes and other socialist dogma, or b.) Hit a point where the world turns their back on US hegemony forcing us to take a few fatal lumps. 




The 3% number masks the time factors involved.  A huge percentage of the cars are used at one time during rush hours in the morning and late afternoon.  Even mass transit suffers the same problems.  There's no way the current quantity of cars is supportable long term and there is no way they can be replaced by electric cars.  Just consider how many tons of copper would be required to wind all the motors required, let alone the tonnage of rare earth metals required for the magnets.  Now consider the materials required for batteries.  Then think about the expansion required for the electric power grid to get the energy into those car batteries.  Where's the copper come from for that?  Now consider the electricity generation capacity required.  The numbers aren't even close.
Addressing this really misses the problem.  When energy becomes more scarce it will impact all aspects of society.  We won't be driving around to jobs because most current jobs will disappear.  

Our suburban lifestyle, commuting to jobs in a city will fold.  Cities will suffer as their supply of food, goods and energy comes from surrounding areas and without cheap transport they will starve. 

Our consumer driven economy will collapse as people won't have disposable income to buy most of what they buy now.  To the extent people have income they will spend it on survival items like food and shelter.  Even our medical economy will drastically change as attention shifts to medicine that protects population health (think contageous disease prevention and treatment).  

Analyzing the problem and projecting solutions requires understanding the economy as a complex system.  When you start looking into it things get very scary very quickly.

It'll be a great time to be Amish, until all the starving folks come to take their food.  

The battery is capable of holding 100 megawatts of power an hour for four hours.The battery will be able to handle it without the need for more fossil fuels.The AES corp out of Arlington,VA. is handling it.At least it is a start…

I don't doubt the conclusion. Only the timing, and the contortions that markets and ingenuity will make in order to kick the can, just a little bit further.  Collapses are complex systems too. 
i don't know much about copper supplies, but I suspect maybe there could be some savings from obsolete transformer stations and supply lines if off-grid living takes off.  Maybe the price of copper goes up, making more intense salvage economical.  Who knows?  Certainly not me.