The little guys speak: how will technology help our businesses?

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In a conference where the prospect of technology in the trucking sector is the underlying theme, a panel took up the question: what about the little guy?

The Transparency18 panel in Atlanta was focused on what was called the "micro-carrier." Kenny Long, the president of Patriot Star—a carrier and broker who said he generated a great deal of his business off Facebook trucking connections--said he finds himself "between a rock and a hard place."

Patriot is a 20-truck fleet. Long said there are software companies that specialize in fleets with 1-5 trucks, with fleet-wide systems covering bigger companies. But for his size firm, it's a challenge.

A recent switch in transportation management software began with quotes from suppliers of $100,000, while others said, "great, perfect, we work with startup companies" and would quote a system for $5,000. "We did find a system," Long said, but it is cloud-based and, as he said, "lacks some options."

"The software options become limited for the money," he said. "What is happening is that you get multiple little systems and they all do different tasks." Without these systems speaking to each other, it creates extra work to drive efficiencies out of them. Long on two occasions during the panel noted the prospect of blockchain technology as a way of bridging that gap.

"There is still not a perfect solution out there, but I found the best solution for me at this time," Long said. "I hope that in 3-5 years, there will be a better solution."

Peter Emahiser, the CEO of Tadmore Transportation, a freight brokerage company based in Toledo, said technical progress can be made, but it won't have its most extensive impact "until we help the little guy."

Rod Nofziger, the COO of independent driver trade group OOIDA, and the moderator of the panel, said the companies developing software are a factor in the development of such products. "I get calls from software companies whose knowledge of the industry comes from bigger companies," Nofziger said. The companies supplying information to the software developers have "needs that are going to be dramatically different" from the micro carriers.

There was a clear discomfort among the panelists for brokerage-like solutions that automatically match driver and load. There was skepticism whether these applications would ever truly launch; Chad Boblett, a panel member and the owner of Boblett Brothers LLC, said the "pattern I see with technology is that it never seems to get off the ground."

Emahiser worried about such solutions employing surge pricing, like that sound on Uber, where an algorithm can survey supply and demand and suddenly set a higher price. "Can you imagine going to your customer when the price is suddenly two and a half times higher than it was?" he said. "An app is a great idea when you have an abundance of freight, but what about when there aren't enough trucks?"

As a driver, Boblett said he is not impressed with load boards based strictly on their volume. "I want to see what has happened in the last 30 minutes," he said. "I want to see the first 30 loads the broker has."

Boblett sketched out an app that would allow a broker like Emahiser to see his preferred drivers, rather than just pull from the universe of everybody using the app in a certain geographic area. "He doesn't want to show it to 300 people in the area," Boblett said. But that isn't a putdown of technology, Boblett indicated. "That is where point and click comes into play," he said. "I hope load boards become smarter."

Long said in his brokerage business, he tries to steer drivers away from load boards that are attractive just by sheer dint of big volume. "If you don't know the market, you can't get the most competitive price on loads," Long said. "It's the rate information, it's the lane information, it's the hot markets and all the other stuff you should consider before you start looking at the loads. Because if you don't know what the market is, you can't give a competitive price."

And that information is not likely to come just from a digital brokerage app with no human input, Long suggested.

Emahiser spoke about an incident immediately after Christmas where his company rolled up their sleeves and met the needs of some shippers trying to move product with snow as an issue. "That sort of relationship is what you should trust first," he said, questioning conventional wisdom on how fast the transition from human input to app-driven brokerage would take to complete.