BY GARY JAMES
Industry members and shipping companies share insights
A growing driver shortage. Rising diesel fuel costs. New federal government requirements that limit driver flexibility and delay deliveries. Increasing expectations from both customers and consumers that products will arrive at storefronts and doorsteps like clockwork.
BedTimes spoke with shipping companies, as well as a number of industry members, including those who operate their own fleets, those who outsource shipping needs and those who take a hybrid approach. What we found is there is no shortage of challenges facing the transportation side of the sleep products business, as suppliers, manufacturers and retailers alike struggle to cope with cost and productivity pressures.
But the one challenge that is top of mind for every segment of the industry is the driver shortage, which is substantial and likely to become even more pronounced in the coming years.
The Arlington, Virginia-based American Trucking Associations estimates there’s a current shortage of more than 50,000 U.S. truck drivers, up from 20,000 in 2013. The association sees that number growing to more than 100,000 by 2022 and 175,000 by 2026 “if things do not change,” said Bob Costello, senior vice president of ATA, in a webinar last spring. He developed that estimate by considering current shortages, projected freight demand and the fact that the trucking industry is going to need to hire 900,000 new drivers over the next 10 years just to replace those leaving the profession, mostly through retirements.
Unless current trends are reversed, “the industry is in for a lot of hurt,” Costello said, and “so is the economy.”
The driver shortage has been unfolding over recent years, particularly when it comes to long-haul specialists, as baby boomers enter retirement and younger Americans show less willingness to put up with the challenges the career involves, such as long periods of time away from home. Compounding the problem is the strengthening economy, which has increased demand for products of all types — from oil and lumber to clothing and televisions. The surge in e-commerce shipments adds to the congestion.
The burden of automation
Another key factor: the new federal Electronic Logging Device mandate that went into effect in December 2017. The mandate requires that drivers use ELDs to record driving hours and total hours of service rather than paper logbooks, as had been common in the past.
Prior to the mandate, many drivers worked more hours than allowed by federal regulations. Now that hours of service are electronically monitored, these drivers are forced to spend less time behind the wheel. That’s had a negative impact on some drivers’ productivity and reduced the availability of trucks, industry observers say. The new requirement — and the impact it has had on earnings by limiting hours — may have prompted some drivers to leave the trucking business.
In addition, the ELD mandate has decreased the productivity of those drivers who already had been fully complying with federal hours-of-service regulations. With service time now scrutinized down to the minute, some drivers must begin looking for parking hours before their service window ends or risk being stranded on a roadside.
Noel Perry, chief economist for New Plymouth, Idaho-based Truckstop.com, an online freight-matching marketplace, estimates that the ELD mandate — when combined with the driver shortage — has lowered driver productivity by about 10% fewer miles per day.
Taken together, these factors are creating a host of new challenges for the logistics side of the bedding business.
“The driver shortage is going to deepen, and transportation costs are going to move up, and I don’t see that changing any time soon unless the U.S. economy goes into a recession, which is a situation nobody wants,” says Patrick Cory, chief executive officer of Cory Home Delivery in Secaucus, New Jersey. The driver shortage is causing new difficulties at every stage of the supply chain, he adds — from long-haul carriers to regional and local truckers moving partial loads to drayage specialists that transport containers from ports to distribution centers.
Even intermodal transportation is being affected, as demand for rail cars rises to the point where shipments are being delayed and rates are rising.
“The lack of drivers is going to lead to a significant ‘capacity’ shortage on high-volume, long-haul truck routes, and anybody who has not locked in a long-term strategy for moving their cargo is likely to pay a higher and higher price based on ever-increasing demand,” Cory says.
According to an April 26 article in USA Today, U.S. trucking companies have increased rates 6% to 10% in the contracts they’ve signed with shippers during the past year. A similar rise is expected in the year ahead.
Spot rates, which cover noncontract deliveries and change constantly, have soared even higher — 30% to 60% or more, in some cases, USA Today adds. Some companies turn to the spot market due to seasonal spikes in business or other unforeseen factors.
Even freight rates for boxed-bed mattresses shipped via FedEx and UPS are on the rise. According to Larry Wolfe, founder and chair of Glendale, Arizona-based Sleep EZ, the average charge to ship a queen-size bed weighing 65 to 80 pounds now is in the $60 to $70 range, up about 3% since the beginning of this year. “This has not caused us to adjust our selling price; we’ve just chosen to absorb the extra cost,” Wolfe says.
So far, home furnishings producers generally have tended to absorb any price hikes they’ve faced in their shipping costs, but that may change.
“Nobody wants to be the first to make a move, but as pressure builds, a share of this rising cost for transportation will need to be passed along to retailers, as well as consumers,” Cory says, adding that Cory Home Delivery has had to implement a price hike recently for its retail deliveries based on its own costs for drivers and fuel going up.
To reduce some of the time and cost pressures that trucking companies are facing due to driver shortages, Cory advises the furniture and bedding industry to adopt a model where companies and consumers are asked to pay a variable price for delivery based on how quickly and when they want a product to arrive. Quick-ship deliveries or deliveries during peak periods would carry a premium.
He also suggests that producers consider carrying a deeper stock of components on-site in their own facilities rather than relying solely on just-in-time delivery from suppliers — and that retailers and producers do as much as they can to anticipate and plan for their shipping needs.
“The more that each party in the supply chain can schedule their deliveries in advance, the better job a carrier can do of moving that product in a timely fashion,” Cory says.
Better pay for drivers
To attract more drivers and keep freight moving, many fleets have reacted to the increasingly tight market by boosting pay, improving benefit packages and offering other enticements. In addition, some fleets have offered generous signing bonuses to draw in drivers. And, once drivers are in the door, fleets are offering benefits such as paid leave, health insurance and 401(k)s to keep them on the road.
According to the latest Driver Compensation Study by the ATA, which includes data from more than 100,000 drivers, driver pay has climbed as rising demand for freight transportation services has led to more competition for increasingly scarce drivers. The median salary for a truckload driver working a national, irregular route now is more than $53,000. That represents a $7,000 — or 15% — increase from ATA’s last survey, which covered annual pay for 2013. A private fleet driver now earns $86,000, a gain of nearly 18% from $73,000 in 2013.
“This data demonstrates that fleets are reacting to concerns about the driver shortage by raising pay and working to make the job more attractive,” says Bob Costello, chief economist for the ATA. “I expect that trend to continue as demand for trucking services increases as our economy grows.”
At Diamond Mattress, finding skilled drivers for its fleet has become more of a challenge. “We’re definitely having a harder time hiring drivers for our trucks,” says Shaun Pennington, president. As a result, the company is outsourcing a larger share of its outbound transportation.
To oversee the outsourcing process, Diamond Mattress also has beefed up its management team. “This side of our business requires more manpower, since we’re needing to spend more time managing these outbound services,” he says.
Inbound services of components and materials, which are handled by Diamond Mattress’ suppliers, haven’t been an issue yet. “Our suppliers are all managing that, and they’ve been able to figure out how to get things to us without any problems that we can see.”
To attract drivers for its own fleet, the Rancho Dominguez, California-based producer has raised salaries during the past few years. In addition, the company has become “more sophisticated about how we manage labor,” Pennington says. For example, the company’s drivers used to help with the loading of trailers but that task has now been delegated to other staff so driving time is maximized.
Diamond Mattress achieves timely delivery
Whenever possible, Diamond Mattress uses its own fleet to deliver products to retailers. The company has 15 tractors, 36 trailers and 10 drivers, who make regular runs to retailers within a 600-mile drive from the company’s plant. Shipments typically are received by retailers within a week of ordering, and because it has its own fleet, the company “can add and adjust routes as needed to make sure we meet our retailers’ needs,” Pennington says.
While having its own fleet represents a significant expense, because it requires ongoing investments in equipment and personnel, it also provides a “big competitive advantage,” Pennington says. “It gives us total flexibility with how we service our customers and complete control of the delivery experience, including rush deliveries and warranty and return situations. If you’re outsourcing this work, you can’t manage driver behavior or how well drivers handle paperwork or offloading merchandise.” That control, he says, is a big plus on runs where one truck might carry loads for a half-dozen or more retailers.
With every delivery, Diamond Mattress asks its retailers to rate the level of service they’ve received from the company’s drivers. That information provides valuable insights into how its drivers are performing — and flags any service issues that need to be corrected.
For deliveries outside the 600-mile radius its own fleet covers or to larger retailers’ distribution centers, Diamond Mattress uses a variety of third-party carriers. Outside carriers handle about 10% of the company’s loads, an increase from the past. While costs for certain routes have gone up of late, particularly during peak-demand times like holidays, the company has been able to absorb those increases without raising its own prices, according to Pennington.
“We’re still getting our goods where they need to be in a timely, cost-effective fashion,” he says, adding that if a high-demand route was $1,500 in the past, it now costs about $1,600 to $1,650. “We’re just having to spend more time, effort and, at times, money to get them there.”
Tempur Sealy focuses on recruitment, training
At Lexington, Kentucky-based mattress major Tempur Sealy International Inc., driver recruitment has become a never-ending process. “Our human resources department is in a continuous mode of recruiting drivers — and looking for creative, market-competitive ways to attract drivers,” says Scott Vollet, executive vice president of global operations. “One key advantage for us is that our drivers are home most nights.”
Even though Tempur Sealy’s driver turnover is on the low side of industry norms, it’s taking more time and effort to find qualified drivers when spots do open up, Vollet adds.
As a result of driver shortages, lining up adequate capacity in the truckload and less-than-truckload market is becoming a growing challenge for the industry, according to Vollet. That constrained capacity “can create significant cost pressure, and possibly impact delivery cycles.”
Fuel cost increases also are an issue that Tempur Sealy is keeping a close eye on, as are costs in general.
“We continuously look for ways to maximize our fleet capacity to give us the best service in the industry for our customers and provide cost-competitive capacity,” Vollet says.
During the past couple of years, Tempur Sealy has adopted several new technologies that are “all geared toward helping to make sure that we have a safe and efficient fleet,” Vollet says. They include forward-facing video; Drivewyze, a weigh station bypass technology; and the SpeedGauge speed management solution.
“We also are in the process of deploying 2019 Volvo tractors with all of the latest safety and fuel-efficiency features that will provide an upgrade over previous equipment,” Vollet adds. “We continue to monitor advancements in alternate fuel and autonomous vehicle technologies and will test new products with our partners as they are available.”
Tempur Sealy delivers about 80% of its products to retailers via its own private fleet. In addition, the company has a network of dedicated carriers managed by third-party partners. To take advantage of cost savings, the company also uses intermodal options on some of its inbound lanes, and it is “always looking to improve equipment utilization to increase shipments on our fleet,” Vollet says.
Southerland factors in quality-of-life issues
Nashville, Tennessee-based bedding maker Southerland Inc., which has operated its own fleet since 2001, also has been finding it more difficult to find skilled drivers. Although the company has had very low turnover, shifts in the U.S. population are making finding new hires more difficult.
“It’s hard to recruit right now,” says Jeff Wisocki, director of transportation for Southerland. “The average age of a driver today is 55, and it continues to ratchet up, making the pool of drivers thinner and thinner.”
Southerland works hard to attract and retain drivers by offering a competitive pay and benefit package that it is “continually tweaking” to stay ahead of the game, he says. As a private fleet, the company has some advantages over other trucking companies because its drivers typically work Monday through Friday only.
“Most of our retailers don’t want us to drop off product on the weekends, so our drivers have that time off. We put a lot of focus on keeping our drivers safe, so their equipment is always up to date and well-maintained,” Wisocki says.
Turnover generally is low, “because good drivers like to work for good companies,” he adds. To fill in the gaps during periods when new drivers need to be recruited, the company employs two to four temporary drivers on a daily or weekly basis.
Southerland leases 35 tractors and 70 trailers, which it spreads out between its three plants in Oklahoma City, Phoenix and Nashville. Ninety-five percent of the company’s products are transported by its own trucks, with a few carrier partners helping out with select lanes, less-than-truckload shipments and final-mile deliveries. The company transports its products to retailers in 43 states.
Where possible, Southerland looks for back-haul opportunities so that its own trucks — as well as trucks owned by outside companies — don’t return empty. The company uses an outside specialist to manage the process.
“We track this activity every month to ensure that we’re improving and staying current with what the market is paying,” Wisocki says. “There also are some useful internet tools that will show you any lane and what it is paying each day for available trucks.”
Southerland takes the same rigorous approach to the movement of its own trucks. “We monitor our drivers closely and plan that truck’s next load so that it’s ready to go by the time they get back,” he says. “We make the most of every minute since there’s no wiggle room once you hit that cap on hours of service.”
When a truck is on the road, Southerland can track loads via GPS. “Twenty-four hours before delivery, each customer is told that a delivery will be coming. Then, once the driver is about one hour away, he calls the customer to let them know the window of time when they’ll be arriving,” Wisocki says. If that changes, the customer continues to get updates.
“We are in the business of selling mattresses — not the trucking business,” says Bryan Smith, Southerland chief executive officer and president. “But having our own private fleet gives us a level of control that is hard to match with any outside company. Our drivers are on a first-name basis with all our customers and they work hard to keep our business relationships strong and solid. And we know we’re in a position to always get our products to retailers in a timely manner.”
Dependable delivery is becoming less of a given when it comes to inbound transportation, however. Because of the seasonality of the mattress business, some of Southerland’s suppliers that rely on outside carriers have run into difficulties from time to time.
“One of our vendors’ carriers actually lost a load, and they had to remake it and send it to us again,” Wisocki says.
In cases where a supplier is using undependable outside carriers rather than its own fleet, Southerland has begun taking control of its inbound deliveries. “We expect we’ll need to do more of this as freight capacity gets tighter,” Smith says.
For some supplies, such as wood for bed frames, Southerland uses rail transportation. But intermodal carriers also are experiencing higher demand for services and that has caused their freight prices to rise, as well. To ensure dependable, cost-effective deliveries, Southerland is considering holding larger inventories of supplies shipped by rail. “But that has a cost, too, because of the space it takes up,” Smith says.
Logistics on a global scale at Leggett & Platt
At Carthage, Missouri-based industry supplier Leggett & Platt Inc., which carries deep inventories on components for most of its customers, today’s challenging transportation environment has led the company to work extra hard on planning and forecasting to make sure it has the capability to get products where they need to be quickly. “We’ve developed a vast network to ensure that we can meet our customers’ needs, whether they require a truckload over the road or a shipping container sent halfway around the world,” says Eric Rhea, president of L&P’s Bedding Division.
In the United States, the company operates a fleet of more than 450 over-the-road tractors focused mainly on moving L&P goods. In addition, it has a segment of the business that operates as a third-party logistics broker, providing truckload and less-than-truckload services to other companies along its routes.
For long-distance hauls, L&P has contracted with multiple intermodal providers. And it also has established a full container shipper co-op called the L&P Shippers Association for moving international freight.
To make sure it has the drivers it needs for its trucks, L&P recently hired a full-time recruiter focused on this part of its business. “He helps us identify qualified candidates so that when we have a vacancy, we can fill it quickly,” Rhea says. In addition, the specialist helps L&P keep abreast of what’s happening with wages and benefits so the company stays competitive with its offerings.
Because of the driver shortage, rising fuel costs and high demand for freight services, Rhea estimates that commercial carriers’ rates have gone up 10% to 15% this year. “We’re trying to keep costs in line by being as efficient and proactive in our planning as possible,” he says.
In this period of high demand and restrained capacity, the ability to anticipate and plan trucking schedules in advance can mean the difference between an on-time, cost-efficient delivery and a late one with extra fees. At L&P, the logistics team operates under an “80-20” rule. “We aim to get at least 80% of our shipments on a regular schedule and then deal with the other 20% as best we can,” Rhea says.
In the coming months, L&P plans to upgrade its transportation management system “to better manage our trucks and get them where they are needed the most,” Rhea adds. “The customer’s expectation is for faster and faster delivery, so any steps we can take to save time will help us meet this challenging goal.”
Working with outside shippers
When it comes to saving time, there’s one big step that anyone receiving a shipment could take that would help shippers immensely, says Mike Emmett, president of Cranston Trucking Co. in West Greenwich, Rhode Island. That would be to make sure their dock team is ready to receive product when it arrives on location.
“It’s not unusual for a driver to arrive at a plant only to find that the docks are all full or nobody is available to receive them,” Emmett says. “They may have to wait three or four hours before they can unload their truck.”
To expedite the process, Cranston has begun calling some customers two hours before a load’s arrival to give them a heads-up that a delivery is imminent, adds Dianne Francin, vice president of sales and marketing. “If they know the truck is about to arrive, they’re better prepared when a driver pulls up.”
While asking drivers to wait to unload has been a common occurrence at delivery docks for many years, the days of this practice may be numbered. That’s because, with the new ELD regulations, drivers don’t have the flexibility to manage their own time that they had before.
“Any time they spend waiting has to be recorded as ‘hours of service,’ so it’s more important than ever that they are able to keep moving,” Emmett says. “If a company has a habit of making the driver wait, they’re going to find that they aren’t the priority that they once were, or they’ll face an extra surcharge to cover lost time.”
Emmett cites the situation recently faced by the last-mile carrier it uses for deliveries in the Los Angeles area as an example of how drivers’ time can be wasted by poor planning. “He arrived at the plant only to find that the docks were all closed. The producer had shut everything down for the day to take its monthly inventory, and nobody told us,” he says.
A less-than-truckload and truckload carrier that specializes in precision handling of inbound deliveries for a variety of industries and products, including mattress fabrics, Cranston has 25 tractors, 35 trailers, 40 employee drivers and 16 contract team drivers in its fleet. The company delivers fabric and other supplies to bedding manufacturers throughout the Carolinas and neighboring states. It also operates Cranston Terminal Operations and Cranston Select Consolidation Center in Greensboro, North Carolina, where it consolidates mattress ticking rolls for distribution by a major manufacturer.
In addition, Cranston offers three-day Driver Team Service to California and Arizona.
Cranston’s “speedy, reliable service and customer-friendly approach” have been the hallmarks of its success since the company entered the delivery business in 1975 and began delivering mattress ticking in 2002, according to Emmett. “And our drivers play a big role in that. We’re still serving some of the same manufacturers we started with,” he says.
With the population of active drivers dwindling, shippers and receivers will need to work more closely together to make the delivery process as smooth as possible, Emmett says. “Communication and preparation are the keys,” he says. “We have to work together to remove the roadblocks, like unnecessary delays, that make drivers’ lives more difficult.”
Gold Bond makes use of shipping sources
The process of ensuring timely deliveries and controlling costs requires constant vigilance in today’s environment of restrained capacity. To keep on top of this challenge, Bob Naboicheck, president of Gold Bond Mattress in Hartford, Connecticut, and his son, Skip Naboicheck, vice president, spend at least a few hours each day managing this side of the business.
In Gold Bond’s core market of the Northeast, the company relies on an outside shipper with its own trucks and a team of dedicated drivers that drive to stores on a weekly basis. In other key markets, such as the Southeast and Midwest, the company works with a variety of freight brokers. To make the runs as efficient as possible, Gold Bond backhauls cotton from suppliers in Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina to its plant, which it then processes. When possible, the trucks also backhaul fruit from Florida to nearby northern destinations.
“We try to be as innovative as we can to keep costs in line,” Naboicheck says. “The price of everything from foam to steel has been going through the roof, so there’s a lot of extra expenses that we face every day.”
Since shipping rates can vary significantly from destination to destination, finding the best carrier for a particular route outside its core market is a constant challenge, Naboicheck adds. “Because the lane to Chicago is so active, we can ship to that market cheaper than we can ship to northern Maine,” he says. “When we ship to northern Maine, we need to work with our broker to line up a load to backhaul from there.”
Until just recently, Gold Bond used to be able to call up a broker and say it needed a truck to deliver a load to a specific destination a week from Friday “and quickly line one up without any problem,” Naboicheck says. “That no longer happens. Today, we have to make our calls much earlier or pay a rate that’s way outside our range.”
As a producer of promotional to midpriced products, Gold Bond has to be particularly mindful of the impact rising transportation rates might have on its own prices. The typical price to ship a truckload of bedding from Connecticut to Florida, for example, recently jumped from $2,700 to $4,000. As a percentage of the total value of the product being shipped, that’s a big increase. “To balance it out, we try to encourage a retailer to add some higher-end goods to the load rather than raising our prices. That makes the higher rate more manageable for us,” Naboicheck says.
Coping With Rising Fuel Costs
Diesel fuel prices grabbed attention when they rose to their highest level in four years in April, with the average price for a gallon hitting more than $3.15. In the past few months, prices have continued to edge upward, although they have a long way to go before they hit the height of June 2008, when the average per-gallon price for diesel was $4.67.
According to the Energy Department’s monthly Short-Term Energy Outlook issued July 10, the national average retail cost of on-highway diesel, including tax, is expected to average $3.14 per gallon for 2018. That’s nearly 50 cents per gallon higher than 2017, when the average actual cost was $2.65 per gallon, and 83 cents per gallon higher than 2016, when the average cost was $2.31 per gallon.
In 2019, the average cost for diesel is expected to moderate slightly to $3.07 per gallon. But that’s still more than $1 per gallon higher than the late winter of 2016, when the national average price briefly dipped below $2 per gallon.
The bottom line? Since fuel is typically the largest cost for fleets, other than depreciation, operators need to take a proactive approach to managing costs and make sure drivers have the tools they need to maximize efficiencies and reduce waste. Among the tips passed along by logistics experts: Conduct regular preventive maintenance (such as oil changes and proper tire inflation), right-size fleets with newer vehicles that have smaller engines and less weight, monitor fuel-card usage, optimize driving routes, reduce vehicle idling, discourage aggressive driving and consider installing engine governors that limit maximum speeds.
To be effective, managing fuel costs requires regular attention.
“We review our fuel expenditures, and what’s happening in the market every week,” says Jeff Wisocki, director of transportation for Southerland Inc., a bedding maker in Nashville, Tennessee. “We do everything we can to make sure our trucks are as fuel-efficient as possible in an effort to minimize our costs.”
Still, when fuel increases reach certain levels — as they have this year — the company institutes a fuel surcharge on its line-haul rates to recoup some of the added expense.
And to maximize fuel efficiency, the company updates its fleet with newly leased trucks every three or four years.
“We spec a good truck, with speed controls on board that ensure that drivers operate efficiently,” he says. Each vehicle also is equipped with an auxiliary power unit for heating and cooling that improves fuel efficiency.
And anytime drivers “fall out of a parameter,” say by stopping or starting too suddenly, a manager makes them aware of the situation so corrective steps can be taken.
“We work closely with our drivers so that we’re all on the same page with our cost-containment and safety goals,” Wisocki says.
Advantages of ISPA Membership
Members of the International Sleep Products Association have access to a variety of cost-cutting and time-saving programs relating to transportation. Here’s a quick overview:
ISPA’s relationship with FedEx enables members to receive discounts of up to 26% on FedEx shipping and office services through the FedEx Advantage discount program. It’s free to enroll and there are no minimum shipping requirements.
Once members enroll, they can save:
- Up to 26% on select FedEx Express services
- Up to 20% on select FedEx Express international services
- Up to 15% on select FedEx Ground services
- Up to 20% on FedEx Office services
- Up to 70% on FedEx Freight services.
UPS Air Freight
With UPS Air Freight, it’s easy to send freight around the world. The company’s comprehensive portfolio of global air freight services provides options that fit time-in-transit needs. Shippers can use UPS’s technology solutions to calculate rates and create shipments on UPS.com, then track freight movements in real time or access a full view of shipment detail for inbound, outbound or third-party shipments.
Members receive special pricing with UPS Freight on qualifying less-than-truckload shipments. With UPS Freight, shippers enjoy regional, interregional and long-haul capabilities — all through one carrier. And with UPS technologies, such as WorldShip and Quantum View, companies can process and track less-than-truckload shipments, create electronic bills of lading, reconcile billing and more.
ISPA members are eligible to receive special negotiated rates with YRC Freight on shipping services. YRC Freight is committed to providing members with a competitive shipping option for inbound and outbound shipments ranging from 150 to 7,500 pounds.
ISPA members typically save between 5% to 15% over what they currently pay with their incumbent carrier or logistics provider. The company’s broad portfolio of North American less-than-truckload services helps companies increase the flexibility and reliability of supply chains by offering direct service to almost every point in the United States and nearly all of the Canadian population.
YRC Freight is a leader in two- to five-day less-than-truckload shipping with comprehensive service throughout North America. Solutions include a full suite of standard, guaranteed, expedited, cross-border, exhibit, truckload and custom services.
Follow These Best Practices
Getting a mattress from point A to point B may seem like a straightforward proposition. But in today’s environment of tightening freight capacity and rising expectations for faster and faster service, transporting products in a timely, accurate manner often can seem like a race to solve a Rubik’s Cube: All of the different pieces need to be positioned just right or the cubes don’t line up properly.
Solving the bedding transportation puzzle involves a series of similarly interrelated steps. For example, producers have to anticipate customer demand so that they maintain the right products at the proper inventory levels. Then, if they’re serving a nationwide base of stores, they need to make sure they have these products in the optimal locations for fast distribution. Finally, they must have lined up reliable partners — or established their own in-house fleets — with the drivers and trucks needed to move products quickly and cost-effectively to their destinations.
With the shortage of drivers growing and the availability of trucks diminishing, the logistics side of the business has become more complex. It takes planning, communication and oversight at every stage of the supply chain to succeed and — even so — there always will be a few bumps in the road.
Ken Smith, a partner with the High Point, North Carolina-based accounting and consulting firm Smith Leonard, shares a few tips on how to reduce transportation headaches based on a survey of home furnishings producers, retailers and suppliers he conducted. The firm suggested these best practices:
- Work with the fewest, but most respected carriers possible.
- Avoid shipping minimum orders by themselves and consolidate orders as much as possible on a single delivery.
- Establish parameters for when retailers can accept deliveries.
- Ask retailers to assist in off-loading product to minimize drivers’ wait times.
- Encourage carriers to position drop trailers at distribution centers to speed product movement.
- Consider using more intermodal rail service to handle less time-sensitive shipments.
- Invest in new technologies to improve shipment visibility and tracking capabilities.
- Keep open lines of communications between all parties in the supply chain — work with each other rather than in opposition.
Potential Game-Changer: Autonomous Vehicles
If you live in Texas, California, Arizona or Florida, you already may have caught a glimpse of trucking’s future: an autonomous truck rolling down the highway with no active driver behind the wheel. Such trucks use a combination of software, radar and cameras to drive themselves while they’re on the highway and then cede control to an onboard or remote human operator for the more complex tasks needed during the beginning and end of each trip.
Moving quickly from drawing boards to real life, driverless trucks could be a regular presence on roads in the United States and other countries within the next 10 years, says a recent report issued by the International Transport Forum, a think tank that operates under the umbrella of the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The report notes that trials of autonomous trucks are underway on public roads in many regions of the world, including the United States and European Union, as leading truck manufacturers such as Daimler, Freightliner, Peterbilt and Volvo — as well as a growing list of ambitious startups — fine-tune new technologies for eventual rollout.
At the same time, state and federal governments actively are reviewing their regulations to ensure the safety of motorists and pave the way for the bold new driverless era to come. With a recent autonomous passenger car test by Pittsburgh-based Uber Advanced Technologies Group having resulted in a death of a pedestrian in Arizona, governments will be looking for assurances that these vehicles are safe before granting the green light for widespread rollouts.
In the meantime, a number of on-the-road tests are underway. A few examples:
- Since October 2017, autonomous trucks built and operated by the Silicon Valley startup Embark have been hauling Frigidaire refrigerators 650 miles along the I-10 freeway, from a warehouse in El Paso, Texas, to a distribution center in Ontario, California. A driver sits in the cab to oversee the automated system and drive the first and final few miles.
- TuSimple, a global company with U.S. headquarters in San Diego that was founded in 2015, has been testing six autonomous Peterbilt trucks with a backup driver on board in a stretch of highway between Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona. By the end of this year, the company hopes to expand the test to 25 Peterbilt trucks with the goal of dock-to-dock driving. TuSimple in China is focusing on an autonomous port project.
- In Florida, Starsky Robotics sent a truck down the road for a 7-mile test journey with nobody inside the vehicle at all. The company’s business model calls for human oversight of the trucks to take place off-site in an office via remote-control consoles rather than in the vehicle itself. Drivers would take the controls only for the first and last few miles of trips to navigate more complicated city environments.
Other companies that have been conducting on-the-road autonomous truck testing in the United States include Waymo, an Alphabet spinoff that has been delivering freight for Google data centers in Atlanta using self-driving Peterbilt trucks; and Volvo and FedEx, which have begun testing digitally connected semis on a highway in North Carolina. Uber ATG, which also had been conducting tests, announced in late July that it had decided to wind down its self-driving truck program to focus on self-driving cars.
“We are keeping a very close eye on everything that’s happening with driverless vehicles,” says Eric Rhea, president of Leggett & Platt Inc.’s Bedding Group in Carthage, Missouri. “There’s a lot of infrastructure and policymaking that’s needed in order for this to be viable, but the concept has huge potential to transform the trucking business — and reduce or eliminate driver shortage.”
While a major rollout of autonomous vehicles may be a decade away, some experts predict that self-driving trucks will hit U.S. roads before self-driving cars do. The reason? Economics. While autonomous trucks will be much more expensive because of the added technology, they also offer two attractive cost benefits: significantly lower labor costs and higher productivity, since they would be in a position to run virtually around the clock.
Just how much labor will be displaced is yet to be determined. As a first step in transitioning to this technology, trucking companies may cut back from two drivers to one for some long-distance trips. There’s also some talk of “platooning” trucks in convoys of two or more, with a driver in the front vehicle and an autonomous truck following close behind. In addition to labor savings, platooning could help save gas by reducing wind drag.
Autonomous trucks are unlikely to do dock-to-dock runs for a long time. Instead, the first generation will be focused on moving products down the stretches of highways between transfer hubs, at which point drivers will take over.
“We expect that, while a truly automated truck may not be available anytime soon, a number of related technologies are likely to be introduced in the next five years that will help drivers,” Rhea says. “These improvements will set the stage for a more full-scale adoption of automated trucks down the road.”
When that day comes, the impact will be considerable, adds Patrick Cory, chief executive officer of Cory Home Delivery in Secaucus, New Jersey. “Autonomous trucks would be capable of running 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year,” he says. “That would be a huge cost savings. These trucks could handle all the long highway runs, and drivers could focus on moving products to the final destination. The technology isn’t fully ‘baked’ yet from a safety standpoint, but once it is, this could be a game changer.