If you ask nearly any leader in any industry to name the biggest disrupter in 2020, COVID-19 would top the list. The pandemic generated unprecedented challenges within the logistics and transportation sectors across not just the country but the entire world.
To summarize its effect, however, is complicated as the impact of the coronavirus has varied. Imagine a rollercoaster ride for a solid visual of its effects. Driver demand, health and safety concerns and interruptions to the supply chain because of manufacturing stoppages and material shortages are just a few of the issues arising last year.
A report conducted by the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) and the Owner-Operator Independent Driver Association (OOIDA) Foundation conducted a trucking industry survey garnering approximately 5,100 responses on the pandemic’s impact on trucking. Perhaps most telling was the discovery that the pandemic caught small fleets unprepared for significant impacts to their operations. Of the owner-operators and fleets with fewer than five power units surveyed, nearly 80% reported having no disaster plan in place prior to COVID-19. Only 30% of larger fleets, on the other hand, lacked business continuity plans. Regardless of fleet size, all trucking companies can benefit from having disaster plans in place.
Continuity plan or not, trucking companies and fleets still found themselves pivoting — or in some cases scrambling — to address challenges in staffing, management and delivery during the pandemic.
Tolls on Trucking
COVID-19’s ripple effect started with backlogged cargo in China’s major container ports. With warehouses closing down in virus hotspots, workers falling ill and managers trying to operate with a skeleton staff, serious shipping and receiving backlogs began to build up.
Border closures also restricted goods movements worldwide. In addition to ports lacking the personnel to accommodate normal container volumes, air freight volumes fell initially, too. But those volumes recovered as the pandemic continued and demand rose.
The trucking industry felt the effects of COVID-19, with ever-increasing driver demand causing headaches for fleet management. With most of the nation locked down for safety, the industry saw significant increases in e-commerce and online shopping generated more shipping demand, especially for food, beverages and paper goods. To help facilitate the delivery of critical COVID-related supplies during the pandemic, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) extended hours of service (HOS) exemptions to those drivers transporting items critical for relief efforts. Other items, however, often remained in short supply, leaving store shelves empty.
Also in high demand within the medical sectors were personal protective equipment (PPE) and other medical equipment. After their development, the vaccines themselves required specific transport protocols, leading to 8.3% growth in 2021 and 2.7% growth in the dry van segment, according to Freight Transportation Research (FTR).
Meanwhile, the truckers — especially long-haul drivers — faced other challenges on the road. When everything shut down, the closures included state-run rest stops. Drivers rely on these stops not just for rest, but for access to water for cleaning up and eating. Closures required some drivers encountering full truck stops to find other, less safe areas to halt for a break.
Trucking companies also faced hiring challenges. The pandemic forced trucking schools to close, delaying the ability of many students to earn their CDLs. In fact, 40% fewer drivers received training in 2020 than in 2019. The demand for drivers increased in 2020 — and is expected to continue growing for the foreseeable future to a record 160,000 shortage by 2028 — but finding, onboarding and training new drivers remains a tricky proposition.
As the trucking industry continues working to overcome challenges it faced during the pandemic, more and more fleets have recognized the need to embrace digital transformation and the technology it offers to modernize the industry. One of those tools? Automation.
Modernization within the trucking industry
It’s difficult to predict which pandemic-driven changes within the trucking industry will remain permanent. However, many industry adaptations made to increase safety in the workplace and increase driver efficiency will become long-term solutions thanks, in large part, to automation.
Automation is useful in many facets of the trucking industry, from fleet management to HR and driver workflows. Fleets have seen the benefits of using automation to gather and analyze data necessary for informing and guiding organizational strategy. Cloud computing — and automation — are trends that should last well beyond 2021.
Automation in HR
Sourcing, vetting, interviewing, hiring, onboarding and training: All aspects of HR that can benefit from automation. HR departments can convert paper forms into electronic forms quickly and easily completed online. By automating repetitive, standard HR processes, personnel can use their time more efficiently to focus on decision making and strategizing.
Automation in logistics
When warehouses and shipping companies shut down or had to operate with limited resources and staff — and were open fewer hours — fleet management software with in-app messaging enabled fleet managers and drivers to communicate effectively. Dispatching, TMS, and fleet management software also allowed fleets to schedule and reschedule loading dock appointments, manage driver workflows and HOS, and optimize routes, to adjust to fluctuating demand and rapidly changing circumstances during the pandemic.
This flexibility enabled trucking companies to securely and safely transport goods while still meeting on-time delivery deadlines made even more critical for shipments containing medical supplies, PPE, foods and other products in high demand.
Meeting customer demand
Another persistent force behind the acceptance and implementation of automation? B2B customer demand. Customers expected service, technology and reporting customized to their specific requirements even before the pandemic. COVID-19 increased the urgency to adopt document imaging tools, electronic bills of lading, and other digital tools useful for reducing friction and touchpoints.
The trucking industry will continue weathering the pandemic storm, navigating uncertainty and disruption to gradually regain the momentum it lost. Ultimately, the adjustments and pivots required during the pandemic may increase trucking companies’ efficiency — in no small part thanks to technology adoption.