A quick uptick in the economy could lead to renewed labor concerns for the trucking industry, creating a double-edged sword as the nation looks to return to some semblance of economic normalcy. A more gradual improvement would be the preference of two top trucking executives who participated in the opening general session of the Truckload Carriers Association's (TCA) Virtual Safety & Security Meeting, held last Tuesday through Thursday.
Speaking during the session, sponsored by the Allied Committee for the Trucking Industry (Act 1), Dennis Dellinger, president and CEO of Cargo Transporters, said he hoped for a more gradual recovery rather than a sharp uptick.
"I think it's possible we may see a Nike Swoosh [-shaped recovery], and I guess if I could sit here and have a preference, for me, I'd rather see that than a V, and definitely [not] a U or even W," he said. "The challenge we could have if we go into a V recovery is maybe we could end up with a labor issue. It definitely would be an opportunity for staffing our drivers and filling our trucks."
Speaking on a panel along with Dan Doran, president of Doran Logistics Services, Ed Nagle, president of Nagle Toledo, and Dave Williams, executive vice president of Knight Transportation, Dellinger said his fleet had just restarted driver orientation programs.
"We have some trucks that are unseated at this time and if we came back at 100%, we would not be able to service the customers we have," he noted.
Doran echoed Dellinger's hope, noting unevenness in Doran Logistics' business over the past few weeks.
"We've already seen some recovery, and a slowdown," Doran said. "Two weeks ago we were real busy and last week we were off. This thing is ratcheting up, which to Dennis' point, is probably a good thing rather than coming back at 100% right away."
Williams said the recovery within trucking could look different than it does for the general economy, pointing to the freight-truck balance that is so critical to rates.
"When you talk about recovery, our trucking economy is somewhat of a micro-economy within the general economy, and our economy is not always directly tied to the general economy," he said. "For us, we need to understand why we are in the position to start with. For us, it's a matter of balance [and] capacity."
The panel, hosted by TCA President John Lyboldt, touched on a number of topics in a more than hourlong discussion, including trucking's image and how the goodwill of the past few months can be sustained, commercial license permits and regulatory wait periods, the state of driver drug testing, hours-of-service changes, the updated crash preventability program, and autonomous trucks, among other topics. Many of the topics, though, centered around COVID-19's impact on trucking.
"I don't think any of us had a pandemic on our radar," Williams said. "In our minds, the likelihood of having a pandemic was the same as the likelihood of having a zombie apocalypse. It's just something our generation has never experienced before, so our planning was more hinged around things we were familiar with — natural disasters, weather, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes — and fortunately a lot of the planning we did around those natural disaster plans was able to be incorporated into our plans as our reaction to this pandemic."
Williams said that Knight has extensive emergency plans in place, and reliance on technology allowed it to quickly close offices and adapt. He pointed to the surprising success Knight has had with videoconferencing.
"I think what we are learning through this pandemic is that video calls are much more effective than we thought, whether it is with our drivers or our office staff," he said. "With our office staff, we have been surprised at how effective video calls have been. With anything, I think there is an evolution that happens, and we are going to have to figure out how to use these tools in order to make us better at communicating."
Doran said video calls have helped, but his preference is still for onsite, in-person communication.
"There are certain parts of this business that lend themselves to this type of videoconferencing, whether it be the sales, the support staff or back-office people," he said. "But I still think for your operations people, there is no substitute for being in close proximity for when things get busy to make things click."
Williams said as Knight becomes more comfortable with the tools and "understands how to adopt them," it should improve communication with drivers.
Over the past few months, safety has not been compromised, the panelists said, and none indicated they have put off investments in technology.
"I don't believe any of us have changed our approach to incorporating technology in our specs because of a relatively short-term phenomenon," Nagle said. "We've continued to embrace it. Everything from adaptive cruise control and ABS, which are standard, and we incorporate forward and rearward cameras for a whole host of reasons. One of the things we're really interested in is incorporating artificial intelligence into cameras so we are seeing things predictively instead of waiting for an event to trigger the camera."
Dellinger said his fleet has just taken delivery of new Freightliner models.
"We actually decided on our purchases long before COVID and we haven't changed our process or mindset," he said. "We weren't scheduled to get trucks delivered until May and we waited until May so we were able to get the 5.0 Detroit Assurance [safety package] in those trucks. We had a little bit of a delay because of the factory closing, but we did tag 10 trucks last week and will do 10 more this week; we're pretty excited about that feature."
"Having been closely associated with equipment now for almost 30 years in the industry, I have not seen a time period where we have had so much technology introduced to us, so it can become challenging because it's not a matter of what works, it's what works best and is most effective," Williams said.
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