Disruptive technology is steering freight in the right direction
Traditional freight companies have an interesting journey ahead of them. From Uber Freight to Convoy, the benefactor of a recent $185m investment round, logistics startups are challenging and potentially disrupting the business models of legacy leaders by utilising technology. So which technologies are being leveraged to solve the sector’s setbacks, how, and by whom?
The freightening reality
In the US alone, truckers haul 14 billion tonnes of freight per year. But despite the importance of stellar freight services, there are various deep rooted issues within the industry. First of all, it is notoriously difficult to get hold of relevant shipment and product information, often leading to wasted or inefficient trips. Without real time shipment tracking, truckers can turn up to their intended location to find that the shipment is either not there, or has already been moved. Even when a shipment is successfully delivered, the payment process can be slow. These difficulties seriously increase the time and costs associated with the hauling process, negatively affecting customer satisfaction and damaging the reputation of freight companies. This is also a problem for independent operators, who have even less security without the clout of an organisation to support them.
There’s an app for that
One of the ways that technology has begun to address some of these challenges is through the development of digital, on demand freight services. Uber Freight, for example, pairs trucking companies and independent operators with loads that need to be moved. It’s like the original Uber app, except drivers are matched with product instead of people. Similar apps are growing in popularity – last year, Transfix raised $42m in funding, and this summer Cargomatic received $35m. The most recent investment in digital freight brokers – and perhaps one of the largest – saw Alphabet’s investment arm CapitalG lead an $185m funding round in Convoy. These digital freight brokers aim to streamline payments, use data about shipments to avoid bottlenecks in supply chains and improve overall customer experience.
Driven to disruption
As well as Uber Freight, Uber made a bold statement about its plans for logistic expansion in 2016 when the company acquired self driving technology startup Otto. Uber later announced that it would prioritise autonomous cars over autonomous trucks, but self driving freight vehicles and vessels remain an exciting (and controversial) prospect. In the same vein, DHL has begun to experiment with drones, and is the title sponsor for the professional drone racing DR1 Champions Series.
Another emerging technology that has obvious applications within freight is blockchain. CargoX, for example, has created a smart Bill of Lading (goods transfer document). Traditional bills can take days to send, and come with the expected problems associated with paper copies. In contrast, if a bill exists on the blockchain, it isn’t going anywhere.
Blockchain has also caught the attention of industry giants like Maersk and IBM. Both companies are using the blockchain based TradeLens platform to track shipment data and create an immutable record for all parties. There is still some contention over the application of blockchain to the industry due to a lack of information, particularly when it comes to cryptocurrencies. Nonetheless, influential freight companies are clearly realising that they can take advantage of these changes, however risky they may seem.
Investors and companies alike are pouring money into innovative solutions that promise to bring positive disruption to the industry’s legacy infrastructure and processes. Blockchain, drones, digital platforms and self driving systems are a handful of the trends that, combined, have forged a new route for traditional transportation. At present, traditional infrastructure plays an important role in the business models of challengers like Convoy and Uber Freight. Gradually, however, these younger and more agile alternatives will build up their reputations and pose a direct threat to legacy leaders. Luckily, freight companies are more willing than ever to pursue novel techniques to address the many pain points that come with getting shipment A to point B. The result? Increased competition, better services, and the long awaited delivery of disruption to logistics.
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