Since they were launched some 35 years ago, load boards that match freight with trucks on the truckload spot market have led mostly low-tech lives. The original monitors, resembling the familiar flight arrival and departure boards at airports, were located only in truck stops. Loads were posted by hand before the eventual conversion to what today would be considered extremely primitive technology. Drivers had no visibility into load opportunities until they pulled off the road. Once a driver spotted an attractive load on the board, a call would be placed to the shipper or freight broker, and, barring any legal issues, off the driver would go.
As with all products and services impacted by the digital revolution, the load boards of 2015 have gone beyond their creators' wildest dreams. Today's boards, laden with eye-popping technology, allow users to view most of the nation's vast truckload network in real time. Drivers can absorb all of the information about a load, and the party posting it, from a single screen. Through their mobile devices, brokers and carriers can post, book, and accept loads from anywhere, even from the seat of a cab at a remote location. Load boards' interface with transportation management systems (TMS), though not new, is more robust than ever, according to load board executives. Load board providers have even built TMSs for small to mid-sized users that want to go beyond the capabilities of an Excel spreadsheet but can't justify the cost of high-end systems.
Load boarding's two main vendors, Portland, Ore.-based DAT Solutions (formed in 1978 under the name Dial-A-Truck) and New Plymouth, Idaho-based Truckstop.com, hold a duopoly on the business for goods movement, though there are other load boards dedicated to sectors like waste haulage. As the two firms add functions in their battle for market share, it is apparent that the basic load matching function has become the baseline service. Truckstop charges a $35 monthly subscription fee for load matching, the same price since its founding in 1995. However, all other features are priced à la carte, so there would be additional charges if a broker sought to verify a carrier's insurance status and safety record, have the load board provide route optimization services, engage Truckstop to manage the setup paperwork for the carrier—a process known as "onboarding"—or use the board to retrieve a broker's credit score and payment history.
DAT introduced in March the latest version of its "DAT Power" platform, which, among other things, enables multiple employees from the same broker to simultaneously scour load boards on behalf of a customer. Employees have visibility into each other's screens, thus each sees what the others are doing. This allows employees to put on a full-court press for capacity without creating overlap and confusion, according to Scott McCollister, DAT's load board product manager. This type of load board collaboration is unique, and it is an area where DAT will place more emphasis, McCollister said.
The software also maps a driver's route history so brokers can determine if a driver is a good geographic fit for the load. A driver that generally runs from, say, Chicago to Dallas might not be appropriate to haul loads from Chicago to Minneapolis, according to McCollister.INCREASING RELEVANCE
Perhaps the most important element of the load boarding evolution has been the involvement of carriers. Scott Moscrip, Truckstop's founder, said early versions of load board technology were designed exclusively for shippers and brokers. "Carriers didn't have a voice in how load boards were structured," he said. "They didn't pay subscription fees and had no input into the process."
Over the years, though, carriers began demanding features aimed at their needs. The result, Moscrip said, has been more balanced software improvements. Today, Truckstop gets equal feedback from both sides of the transactional fence, he said. "We are getting requests for more technological enhancements in everything we do," he said.
Load boards will become more relevant in the years to come, experts said. More truck freight is moving in the U.S. than ever before, and a larger proportion is heading to the spot market and away from contractual relationships. DAT estimates that as much as 25 percent of today's truckload freight moves on the spot market, up from the long-held, albeit unscientific, estimate of 15 to 20 percent. During the winter of 2014 when many truck networks were paralyzed by snow, sleet, and ice storms, about 40 percent of freight migrated to the spot market, according to DAT.
Adding to the demand is the increasing volume of less-than-truckload (LTL) loads hitting the boards. DAT said in April that board postings for loads exhibiting LTL-type characteristics are growing at twice the rate of truckload shipments, albeit off a lower base. Brokers and third-party logistics service providers that are heavy load board users are expected to handle more LTL traffic as companies turn over more of their freight business to outside specialists.
The growth of small fleets operating a handful of trucks will boost demand for load board technology because, unlike large fleets with the clout to work directly with brokers, small fry often need help in finding loads. A load board vendor's ability to rapidly "onboard" a smaller carrier will be critical since brokers and carriers can't afford to spend two to three hours exchanging paperwork for what may be a one-off transaction, Moscrip said.BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS
According to both providers, the near-term advancements in load board technology will focus on improving existing technology to help facilitate broker-carrier relationships. McCollister of DAT said the company rewrote its main program "from the ground up" to make it Web-enabled and move it away from the use of clunkier downloadable software. Updates now happen in real time as opposed to users waiting for software "refreshes" every 30 to 45 seconds, McCollister said. The software also incorporates more advanced "browser controls" so users can chat with each other online and minimize their need for back-and-forth phone calls, he said.
DAT has developed a module enabling brokers to review and monitor carrier performance; the module is located on the main page where brokers scout for carrier and lane availability, McCollister said. DAT was loath to force users onto a separate query screen because it wanted them "to find a company they want to work with. We want to make it easier for them to see their preferred partners," he said.
Moscrip of Truckstop said the biggest change in its traditional load matching module is the amount of information available on the search page. Several years ago, a broker could only view a list of carriers that were available to move freight in a lane. Now, all of the information about the load, including the price, the best way to move it, and carrier specifications, sits on the same page. A user has access to comprehensive data from one screen, he said.
As load board technology becomes more functional and user friendly, vendors see the spot market evolving into something once quite foreign to it: a strategic asset that fosters long-term relationships. The long-held view of the spot market is that it is a purely transactional option that is used only when all else fails. Yet load boards' advanced technology will enable brokers and carriers to behave more rationally, to plan for future circumstances rather than have the circumstances dictate their behavior, and to build durable broker-carrier relationships that extend beyond transactional activity, board vendors said.