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U.S. Xpress, MIT team up to study driver efficiency; dwell a focus

Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves

The push to increase efficiency at U.S. Xpress, visible primarily in its Variant initiative, is getting help from an unlikely source: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

U.S. Xpress and the MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics are teaming up to study the issue of driver dwell. U.S. Xpress defined the mission in a prepared statement as the project looking to “develop a roadmap to driver efficiency.”

But in an interview with FreightWaves, two of the key people at the MIT Center were more specific, saying dwell would be the primary focus. 

“What we’re doing is thinking about looking at driver dwell and trying to understand what it is, where it is and how we can reduce it for the benefit of the company,” David Corell, a senior researcher at the MIT Center, said of the project’s mission. 

Closely tied to that will be looking at driver utilization. Correll said they are “two distinct ideas, but they are related, and we want to study their interrelationship.” He added that the study will look for what he called “levers” to reduce dwell time and increase utilization.

Utilization has been a key focus of the Variant initiative at U.S. Xpress. On the company’s most recent earnings call, CEO Eric Fuller said the Variant business model has had a 20% advantage in utilization compared to the company’s legacy truckload business.

James Rice, the center’s deputy director, said in the interview that while the MIT Center researchers — who are students in the program — have “talked a lot” about Variant, it hasn’t been specifically part of the research. “We would have to flag every load and every truck for Variant and perform a comparison,” he said. The researchers have not done that yet, “so it’s too early to say something.”

But Correll said the Center has been looking at driver dwell and utilization, using ELD and TMS data “for a while, so lots of things come out.”

“Overall, I think dwell time is a serious issue and we see that it is unevenly spread across space and time,” Correll said. He likened it to “chunky peanut butter,” with any sort of consistency interrupted by disruptions. 

The work that the MIT Center has done on dwell time shows that it generally is at a low point in the morning, at a high point in the evening, and that there are variations across the days of the week. Correll said that conclusion comes from a study of “several thousand warehouses.”

But Correll noted that is not a conclusion. The work with USX is “still in the hypothesis brainstorming phase.”

In the prepared statement announcing the partnership, Fuller was quoted as saying that the data that the MIT Center will be provided will include “GPS stats for more than 7,500 tractors; loaded and unloaded data for nearly 15,000 trailers; driver hours of service; shipper rates; appointment times; and arrival and departure trends.” 

Correll has done many projects where the MIT Center teams with private companies. Asked how he thought the U.S. Xpress project would compare with others, Correll said he was “getting a sense … that this is a great project.”

“U.S. Xpress is right there with us every week going back and forth, so that is a key ingredient,” he added.

Correll added that the project “plays to our strength in the freight lab,” given the data coming off of ELDs and TMS. “It gives me a lot of confidence,” he said. 

Projects that the MIT Center has conducted with other companies could be just a small part of a bigger problem a company is facing, with the goal being to provide an opportunity for students working on their master’s thesis or capstone to “partner with industry on a real problem,” Rice said.

But in other cases, the work the MIT Center completes is adopted as part of strategy by the company that has entered a cooperative agreement with the school. 

For example, without disclosing the identity of the firm, Rice said the center had worked with “a large product manufacturer” that was “suffering from inaccurate data” on inventory on the shelves and shelf availability in general. 

Working with data provided by retailers, Rice said, “we used that to help them predict when there are phantom inventories, when inventories indicate there is stock on the shelf but there isn’t.”

He described that situation as a “deadly case.” The tool devised by the MIT Center, Rice said, “resulted in a very large amount of savings.”

The MIT Center this year will graduate about 80 students who will earn one of two degrees: a master’s of applied science in supply chain management or a master’s of engineering in supply chain management. The latter group tends to go on to earn a Ph.D., Rice said. 

The school also has remote programs around the world and graduates about 200 people annually, Rice said. “Thousands” of students are enrolled in online education programs as well. 

Big shippers like Amazon and Apple often hire MIT Center students, Rice said, but there have been graduates who go into trucking firms. “So where they end up is very interesting,” he said. “The demand for our students totally outstrips supply.”

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John Kingston

John has an almost 40-year career covering commodities, most of the time at S&P Global Platts. He created the Dated Brent benchmark, now the world’s most important crude oil marker. He was Director of Oil, Director of News, the editor in chief of Platts Oilgram News and the “talking head” for Platts on numerous media outlets, including CNBC, Fox Business and Canada’s BNN. He covered metals before joining Platts and then spent a year running Platts’ metals business as well. He was awarded the International Association of Energy Economics Award for Excellence in Written Journalism in 2015. In 2010, he won two Corporate Achievement Awards from McGraw-Hill, an extremely rare accomplishment, one for steering coverage of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster and the other for the launch of a public affairs television show, Platts Energy Week.