The trucking industry was already undergoing major structural changes prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, thanks to new technology, driver shortages, and changing consumer preferences. Now, operational challenges related to both personnel and public safety are creating conditions that will likely accelerate new technology adoption, and could crown new winners and losers in LTL and last-mile.
No single aspect of the world economy has gone untouched in recent months, and trucking is no different. Expected cargo volume, rates, and capacity have been significantly impacted by shutdowns. Forecasting predictions are changing by the moment as demand shifts and local economies close and open (and close again).
Sudden changes in best practices have left many providers in the lurch. How can technology help fleets meet the challenges presented by COVID-19?
A “Narrow Winding Road”
Gartner has projected that worldwide spending on information technology will drop 8% in 2020 thanks to uncertain economic conditions. At the same time, industries like cloud-based services and digital conferencing are continuing to grow as businesses adapt to the new reality. Many companies along the supply chain are employing tools to adopt new technologies that minimize physical touch, manage personnel remotely, and to limit on-site staffing through automation.
Trucking companies are no different, and several technologies are proving valuable for helping truckers ‘social distance‘ by maintaining ledgers, checklists, and inspection reports with less person-to-person contact. While many of these tools have been around for a while and some fleets had adopted them prior to COVID-19, the pandemic has forced many organizations to substantially expedite their adoption plans.
What does new technology look like in trucking fleets?
Digitizing paper processes
The push to digitize paper processes extends well before the arrival of COVID-19 on American shores. Paper checklists and driver inspection reports, which are commonly handled by several people per day, are now considered more than an administrative hassle — they’re a potential touch point for disease transmission.
Paperless digital documents not only save time and increase efficiency on the road, they can also break the chain of workplace transmission by allowing drivers and office personnel to avoid needless contact. Drivers can complete digitized paperwork and send it to supervisors for review with no in-person handoffs.
GPS and radio enabled sensors can now prepare trucks for launch with limited human involvement. For example, drivers typically check tire pressure before they hit the road. New cloud-enabled tire monitoring sensors can do that job wirelessly by providing real-time status of tire conditions to the cloud that the trucker can access on a tablet.
Likewise, wireless door sensors and cameras allow truckers to ensure the trailer door is closed without exiting the vehicle. This small efficiency upgrade further reduces the likelihood of incidental contact with an infected person at the loading dock.
Even simple video and teleconferencing software is helping many fleets streamline driver onboarding and safety coaching remotely, saving drivers a trip to the company HQ.
Fleet management software has been indispensable for tracking and routing fleets to maximize efficiency. Ecommerce giants like Amazon and Walmart have used this sophisticated technology to activate next day and same day fulfillment from their network of regional warehouse hubs.
Advanced fleet management software can schedule cargo pickup at drayage sites and warehouses to maximize efficiency based on big data traffic and weather insights. It can also be instrumental in scheduling drivers to meet local reduced capacity requirements and maintain social distancing protocols on loading docks without slowing down cargo loading and unloading.
Transferring cargo between shipping modes inevitably involves some paperwork. Ledgers, customs forms, and other essential documents are transferred between companies on the supply chain. More often than not, paper documents are signed and handed from person to person as part of this exchange.
Paperless cloud-based intermodal ledgers that use blockchain technology could provide a no-contact alternative to this process. By creating a secure, transparent, and scalable digital record of cargo and currency exchanges, this technology limits the amount of physical contact workers need to have while producing a record that can’t be altered or forged.
From digitization to automation
Disruption in one space tends to create disruption elsewhere in the ecosystem. As companies onboard new fleet management software and new state initiatives push for more carbon-free transport vehicles, it’s not unrealistic to consider the full spectrum of possibilities when it comes to innovation. New companies are entering the market to build Class 4 to 6 vehicles powered by electric drivetrains and hydrogen fuel cells. What else will they create?
Of course, the elephant in the garage is autonomous vehicle technology. The importance of self driving tech is only amplified by lockdown conditions related to the pandemic. Cameras, LiDAR, and radar are already being used for stabilization and automated self-guiding in passenger vehicles. Even partial automation of driving tasks could significantly reduce the risk truckers face on the open road.
Things are changing so quickly that trying to make accurate predictions is a fool’s errand. That said, given the current trajectory of existing technology and exciting promise of new solutions, it’s pretty safe to say that the trucking industry will change for the better.
Virus or no virus, trucking and warehouse technology advancements are here to stay. Uncertain economic conditions and a rush to implement new solutions will likely transform the way the shipping industry runs in the years to come. Like many other things, we’ll emerge from this moment into a world that looks different than the one we left behind. In that transformation, there will be winners and losers.
Fleet operators, 3PLs, warehouse managers, and other supply chain companies can stay ahead of the curve by making smart, proactive investments in technologies and tools to maintain an edge during these uncertain times.