If fulfillment managers seem a little nervous lately, they have good reason to be: There's a lack of truck drivers bearing down on them like, well, a runaway, unmanned semi. After putting so much time and effort into tying trucks into the IoT, building efficiency into shipping routes and otherwise embracing technology, it's a sad irony that the sticking point of shipping solutions now seems to be the human component. As drivers age out, retire or leave the industry for other jobs, 3PL companies are casting increasingly nervous glances into the pool of teenage drivers or calculating the red tape ahead of them to use flying robots for the last mile.
Collaboration: A Realistic Future
While logistics may be able to eventually reinvent the proverbial wheel, realistically, the industry doesn't have the time or resources to reinvent all 16 of them to keep big rigs on the road. In terms of viability, lowering the CDL age requirement to 18 or 19 is likely more feasible than clearing drones with the FAA, but either solution could take longer than the logistics industry has to wait. Using existing methods for transporting freight and tightening up connectivity holds the most promising possibilities. Intermodal shipping, for example, increases vital flexibility within the supply chain, allowing it to better adapt to other shipping obstacles, such as post strikes, with less downtime and indecision. The reality is that companies need to at least consider working with similar industry partners—whether directly or through a freight forwarder—to combine LTL shipments and cargo freight and drive costs down.
Ears to the Ground
Supply chain professionals aren't the only ones who are carefully watching the growing crisis in the trucking industry. Other transportation mode providers are stepping up their game to make their products more enticing to an industry that has long been dominated by over-road transport within the country. Jordan Crucchiola of Wired recently discussed an unusual new patent filed by airplane manufacturer Airbus, outlining a "drop in" passenger compartment module for commercial airlines. While much of the newsworthy buzz about the patent has centered on the tech's potential for passenger convenience, the patent mentions cargo—of the non-human variety—as another potential application for the technology. If airplanes are able to jettison their cargo at the gate in tubes that double as shipping containers, they may be able to give the ease of ocean freight transport a run for its money. As the truck driver shortage becomes more apparent and starts to make a tangible impact, new, innovative shipping solutions like this will undoubtedly arise.
Alternate "Trucking" Opportunities
As big names like UPS and FedEx struggle to attract, train and retain their driving workforce, smaller companies are well-positioned to take up the slack. Partnerships within existing supply routes between more well-established carriers and leaner start-ups could be an attractive, tech-transparent alternative for retailers anxious to get goods into the hands of consumers. It may be that, several years from now, we're still facing a driver shortage but not necessarily a crisis, thanks to a freelance or microtask-based economy that has grown to fill in the gaps. It certainly won't be without issues—many of which will be difficult or foreign to recipients used to paying for and receiving delivery consistency—but it will help hold the marketplace together as the trucking industry moves beyond their biggest employment obstacle to date: lack of interest.
Concerned that your current shipping solutions may be affected by the lack of freight drivers on the road? Ask your 3PL or other transportation logistics partner what their alternate plans are, should a carrier miss a pickup or fall behind in a shared schedule. That answer may very well be a viable line on your to-do list—and you'll need to make sure it's composed of more than teenage dreams or semi-sentient vehicles.