Running on empty: why it’s finally time to optimise commercial road transport

This is a guest blogpost by Wenjia Tang, head of data, DigiHaul.

The recent driver shortage has shone a light on the importance of the supply chain industry in terms of keeping the cogs of industry and commerce turning, as well the chronic labour challenge it’s facing. A combination of Brexit, the pandemic and the general reputation of truck driving led to such a shortfall in drivers that for a time petrol stations were closed and Christmas 2021 celebrations were in jeopardy.

While there’s clearly a long term need to encourage more people to consider driving careers, its not widely known outside the industry that roughly 20% of trucks on the roads are running empty. By addressing this waste, there’s an opportunity to solve two of the biggest issues in commercial transport – cutting carbon emissions and unlocking extra capacity to alleviate some of the pressure on supply chains.

One of the barriers to tackling empty running is visibility across the UK’s commercial road transport network. Road haulage is a highly fragmented industry. While some of the large logistics companies will operate their own fleets and have reasonably good visibility of them, a lot of the industry is made up of small to medium sized hauliers.

The industry has also been extremely slow to embrace digitalisation – shipments are booked over the phone and deliveries are recorded on paper. It’s the way it’s always been, so unsurprisingly data literacy across the industry is low and hauliers are reluctant to invest time or money in technology they haven’t seen the value of. But by onboarding hauliers, giving them access to systems that are simple to use we have the potential to achieve much greater visibility, allowing us to optimise the road transport network – connecting carriers with shippers in the most efficient way possible.

One of the biggest flaws in the industry is that a truck will make a delivery of a full load, travelling from A to B, then travel back empty to A, meanwhile a business needing to send a shipment from B to A is booking a separate truck and potentially paying a premium or suffering a delay because of a lack of availability. By combining tracking data with information such as a shipper and carrier’s profile, their location, travel distances vehicle characteristics, and collection dates and times we can start to find efficiencies to bring down this kind of empty running and under-utilisation.

A similar model has already transformed the passenger road transport. Uber created a network that connected drivers with passengers, giving drivers access to jobs that might not otherwise had access to and giving passengers visibility of there the car is, what route it’s taking and how much it will cost.

By achieving a holistic view of, and connectivity across, the commercial road network, we can create a better picture of how the shipper and carrier can work together. This could potentially generate much greater efficiency for the carrier and opens up more capacity for the shipper.

Since the world is still some time away from having the alternative fuel solutions needed to decarbonise commercial road transport, a reduction in empty running is one of the most significant changes that can be made right now.

It’s fair to say that most start-ups claim that the industry they’re operating in is ripe for disruption but in the case of commercial transport, data really can solve the problem of trucks running empty on our roads – thereby easing supply chain strain and more importantly cutting carbon emissions. Digitalising this process is long overdue.

Data Center
Data Management