Drivers as assemblers: a closer look at last-mile freight delivery

As autonomous driving technology companies test their vehicles on public roads and gather data at its wake, there are several driving-related jobs that might be at risk over the next decade. Driving autonomy is expected to make early inroads into the long-haul freight market before venturing into self-driving across urban spaces, as it is easier to navigate highways than crowded city streets.

There are instances of limited deployment of semi-autonomous long-haul trucks in the U.S. already, such as UPS, which has been delivering cargo using self-driving trucks between Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona, since May 2019.

However, there are still segments within the trucking industry that cannot be automated, including the last-mile segment where truckers are customer-facing in addition to hauling cargo. FreightWaves spoke with Doug Ladden, the CEO of Deliveright, a last-mile delivery network, to discuss the daily lives of truckers who also double up as last-mile assemblers. 

“Most people think of truckers as people who drive tractor-trailers, who may or may not be involved in loading or unloading a truck, which is usually done by people at the warehouse where the tractor-trailer ends up,” said Ladden. “So the driver is really a driver primarily, and he has paperwork that the warehouse will sign for the cargo. It is not a surprise that companies are looking to automate this function.”

In the last-mile ecosystem, drivers do not head to warehouses to unload cargo, but rather visit the homes of people and have a lot of end customer-centric interactions as a part of their work description. “You’re also not on a tractor-trailer any longer, but on a much smaller box truck that tends to be anywhere between 16 to 26-feet long on average – much smaller than the 53-foot tractor-trailer variant,” said Ladden.

The world of last-mile is slightly more complicated than that of long-haul truckers, as drivers are entrusted with dropping off boxes across various customer touchpoints, including the front door or the reception desk of an office. For heavy goods, drivers are not just handling the items and delivering them to customers, but also enter homes and offices to set them up within living spaces. 

“There are usually two people who handle heavy items for delivery. A successful delivery involves the driver to bring it into the room of choice and set it up in the exact location where a customer wants it to be. You want to make sure the carton and packaging materials are removed and that there are no pieces missing while the product is being assembled,” said Ladden. 

In general, customers expect the driver-assemblers to be experts in what they do. However, the assembly process is not easy, even if the experience of the driver-assembler is taken into account. Before the driver gets to assemble, he would have to evaluate the path of the cargo carton to the room, make sure there are no obstacles along the way so as to ensure the safety of the carton’s movement from the truck to the specific location it needs to be installed. 

“Customers are generally comfortable with letting experts making the delivery set up items. So in that situation, you don’t want the delivery team to go up and ask the homeowner if they know how to put it together. Assembling involves a whole lot of specific skills and expertise that a typical tractor-trailer driver does not need to have,” said Ladden. 

Ladden contended that this specific role of a driver-assembler has evolved over the last decade with the proliferation of ecommerce websites that sell home accessories and furniture, which were previously only found at specialty storefronts like Home Depot. For instance, an ecommerce seller from Idaho could sell furniture to a customer in Florida and ship cargo from California – a scenario made possible with the advent of ecommerce. 

This has increased the need for driver-assemblers. Bulky and heavy items cannot be pushed through the sortation equipment that logistics forwarders like FedEx or UPS use, which leads to local businesses taking up a majority of such deliveries. 

It is here that Ladden believes technology could have an impact, as it helps phase out manual and localized mapping out of deliveries by automating and digitalising processes like routing and paperwork. Delivery applications like Deliveright can help by giving customers real-time updates on where the delivery truck is, helping them track delivery time windows. 

It also helps to make little tweaks to last-mile processes to ensure perfect delivery experiences every time an assembler gets inside a house. Pre-assembling items at the warehouse and taking them apart again will help assemblers accurately determine the method of setting it up, and also ensures that there are no missing pieces to an item. 

“This way, we can reduce the stress level per delivery. Drivers will know that every delivery they go on should be fine because they’ve already seen the product and had the chance to inspect it,” said Ladden. “And if there is an issue that crops up, drivers can always record it in a mobile app, take pictures and demonstrate the follow-up procedures to customers, thus ensuring customer satisfaction.”