Teaching Freight Mode Choice Models New Tricks Using Interpretable Machine Learning Methods: Article No. 1339273

Xiaodan Xu, Hung-Chia Yang, Kyungsoo Jeong, William Bui, Srinath Ravulaparthy, Haitam Laarabi, Zachary Needell, C. Anna Spurlock

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Understanding and forecasting complex freight mode choice behavior under various industry, policy, and technology contexts is essential for freight planning and policymaking. Numerous models have been developed to provide insights into freight mode selection; most use discrete choice models such as multinomial logit (MNL) models. However, logit models often rely on linear specifications of independent variables despite potential nonlinear relationships in the data. A common challenge for researchers is the absence of a heuristic and efficient method to discern and define these complex relationships in logit model specifications. This often results in models that might be deficient in both predictive power and interpretability. To bridge this gap, we develop an MNL model for freight mode choice using the insights from machine learning (ML) models. ML models can better capture the nonlinear nature of many decision-making processes, and recent advances in "explainable AI" have greatly improved their interpretability. We showcase how interpretable ML methods help enhance the performance of MNL models and deepen our understanding of freight mode choice. Specifically, we apply SHapley Additive exPlanations (SHAP) to identify influential features and complex relationships to improve the MNL model's performance. We evaluate this approach through a case study for Austin, Texas, where SHAP results reveal multiple important nonlinear relationships. Incorporating those relationships into MNL model specifications improves the interpretability and accuracy of the MNL model. Findings from this study can be used to guide freight planning and inform policymakers about how key factors affect freight decision-making.
Original languageAmerican English
Number of pages19
JournalFrontiers in Future Transportation
StatePublished - 2024

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/JA-5400-88901


  • freight mode choice
  • interpretable machine learning
  • multinomial logit model
  • nonlinearity
  • Shapley additive explanations


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