Commentary | Viewpoint: Logistics & Supply Chain Analysis

Now Is the Time to Automate the Middle Mile

Tags: Trucking, Transportation, Technology

We are facing a state of volatility in the supply chain. Since the pandemic began in 2020, there has not been a steady cadence surrounding the transportation industry’s capacity, timing, or labor.

Each individual market can therefore be in a state of over/under supply or demand on any given day, and who moves or what moves is ultimately determined by the customer’s willingness to pay. The volatility can be minimal or significant, as well as short or long in duration.

While it can vary tremendously based on the day, the transportation industry is working to better understand the patterns that result from certain changes. Volatility and the reaction to it is the essence of the freight cycle; a cycle of boom-and-bust periods that are somewhat predictable and, in many ways, are a leading measurement of the overall economy.

Another factor impacting the markets is the supply and demand imbalance regarding drivers and open driving positions. For decades, we have been conditioned to believe that there is a shortage of drivers in the marketplace. During the pandemic, the labor shortage was highlighted in the news as a main reason for backups and delayed shipping processes.

This narrative is mostly propagated by the American Trucking Associations (ATA), whose primary backers are the largest trucking companies in the United States. Their thesis is that, to attract and retain drivers in the profession, there must be significant progress made regarding driver wages. But then they add that it can’t come at the expense of earnings for their stakeholders, in which we are seeing record earnings announcements from the publicly traded carriers.

Therefore, pricing must be increased in freight to incrementally increase driver wages, and that will alone solve the stated driver shortage problem.

Focusing on the Solution

The problem here is that there are too many different directions and narratives when there’s one simple solution: technology.

The reality is that there has never been a larger pool of professional drivers available. The solutions for the carriers should be to evolve and embrace new technologies that create more attractive driving jobs.

This means turning to autonomy for the repetitive middle-mile driving that is no longer interesting to the driver population. Current middle-mile driving involves non-organized shipping schedules between carriers that result in time delays and inefficient transportation. Not only will autonomous trucks benefit truckers, but they will also contribute to more structured routing schedules.

Autonomous trucks will be a force multiplier in the creation of new driving opportunities; driving jobs that will allow drivers to end their shifts earlier and be home nightly.

Automation thrives in repetitive tasks and autonomous trucks can operate continuously between origin/destination points in a more predictable manner, with greater safety and efficiency. The autonomous middle mile connects drivers on each end; drivers will rush to fill these jobs as they no longer need to be over the road and away from home. This is the future of the transportation industry.

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