A lesson half learned

Trucking has been quick to embrace the Internet, but it's still lagging behind other modes of freight transportation in one important areaFor awhile it seemed like the Internet was all talk and no action, and in many cases it still is. In fact, the media and financial communities are still trying to talk themselves into believing all their own hype about how the Internet will revolutionize their industries.

Trucking has been quick to embrace the Internet, but it's still lagging behind other modes of freight transportation in one important area

For awhile it seemed like the Internet was all talk and no action, and in many cases it still is. In fact, the media and financial communities are still trying to talk themselves into believing all their own hype about how the Internet will revolutionize their industries. While others talk, however, trucking has quietly embraced this high-profile high-tech marvel and put it to work.

Trucking's first Internet applications have focused on customer service. Following the lead of UPS and FedEx, fleets have been quick to offer shipment tracking via dedicated customer Web sites.

According to a new study by Transport Technology Publishing (TTP), shipment tracking is currently the number one Internet application in all modes of freight transportation, accounting for about 20% of Internet applications used by motor carriers. The study, called "[email protected]: The Impact of Internet Technology in the Freight Transport Market," says that some carriers are already using the Internet for 50% or more of their customer interactions.

The study found that the second most popular Internet application among motor carriers was quote request systems. That was followed by load and equipment availability exchanges and electronic proof-of-delivery documentation. All five of these applications have one thing in common - they are focused on customers, whether it be finding them or keeping them with improved service.

Now the floodgates are about to open for internal, or operational, tracking applications. PeopleNet and Orbital Sciences have already begun marketing vehicle tracking and mobile communications systems that use the Internet as the link between fleets and their trucks. And just this month, Qualcomm has unveiled a service that will help it expand its popular OmniTRACS product by taking advantage of the Internet to offer lower cost tracking and communications to smaller fleets.

Other companies, including Raytheon and GE Logistics, have announced trailer tracking systems that are based on the Internet. We're also beginning to see more specialized asset management tools such as Randtec's yard management system that use Internet protocols for internal, or Intranet, networks.

While the industry has certainly moved quickly to exploit this new technology, trucking's use of the Internet is lagging behind other freight transportation modes in one important area - e-commerce, or conducting commercial transaction electronically.

E-commerce, largely based on electronic data interchange (EDI), is the fourth most popular Internet application in freight transportation, according to the TTP study. Trucking, however, puts EDI right near the bottom of its Internet list, accounting for less than 2.5% of its Internet applications usage.

By comparison, rail is a far more advanced and larger user of EDI over the Internet, says Phillip Alling, the principal author of the TTP study. That's not surprising since rail carriers tend to be large operations with more resources for implementation of EDI in general. Trucking companies are relatively small businesses and have generally resisted EDI as too expensive or as offering too little payback.

If fleets can get over their general dislike of EDI, the Internet offers them the best opportunity to satisfy an apparent appetite for electronic commerce among shippers at a more palatable price.

A number of companies are already offering Web-based EDI forms that lower the cost and make it relatively simple to enter that arena. The Internet also makes it possible to sidestep EDI's complexity with simpler forms of e-commerce that may well be more suitable to shippers now unable to afford EDI.

Trucking has shown that it understands how to attract and service customers over the Internet. Now it needs to learn how to use that technology to close the deal and collect its money.

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