I love freight brokers. I didn’t fully appreciate the role of good domestic freight brokers until I started working for one in the late 1990’s. It was then I realized shippers and truckers played a continuous game similar to ‘Marco Polo’. If you are not familiar, Marco Polo is a children’s game typically played in a swimming pool similar to ‘tag’. In the game one participant is blindfolded, or eyes shut tight, with the task of finding and ‘tagging’ one of the other participants by tracking and chasing them using only sound. As the unseeing seeker shouts ‘Marco!’ the other individuals disparate not to get tagged are obligated to yell back ‘Polo!’ and a chase ensues until another player was tagged who then becomes the blindfolded seeker.
Shippers and truckers have played a type of ‘Marco Polo’ for many years with the difference being both sides are blindfolded. Quite literally a shipper desperate to find a truck could be within one mile of a truck looking for a load only to never find each other. This sightless condition created a true need for truck brokers. Truck brokers strive to keep a good field of vision of both loads available and empty truck capacity to service shippers and provide loads to carriers. In some cases empty trucks are easy to find and in some cases hundreds of phone calls are made by brokers in the search for truck capacity. Over the years technology has enabled brokers to become even more value added as well as making the effort to find capacity easier, but the game at its core remains the same.
Fast forward to 2018 and through impressive advances in technology quite a few start-up companies have hit the market in the attempt to invent a better mousetrap for brokering trucks. In a parallel effort mega brokers like CH Robinson have also been busy trying to ‘tech their way out of’ the manual and human centric processes of truck brokering. While some are impressive, my personal thought on most of these efforts was there were no game changers who were going to transform the truck brokering market. That opinion may now be changing. The reason for the possible change is money.
Who has the money? Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos through their backing of startup tech company ‘Convoy’ that’s who. Also in the pool is ‘Uber Freight’ which is an appendage of ride sharing company Uber. These two efforts automatically make them the best funded attempts of all other players by far. Add the tech muscle each brings to the table and the 15 or so other major efforts in the United States just got put under some shade when these two giants entered the arena.
Uber Freight and Amazon also possess the names…well, ah…Uber and Amazon. Each is at the top of the charts when it comes to automating process and making it user friendly to the public who trusts them. That counts for something. One of the major obstacles every brokerage automation dreamer faces is gaining the trust of shippers and truckers who adamantly believe there is no way an automated system could provide all the nuances of communication needed to book and transport loads of freight. Truckload transportation is indeed sometimes a communication heavy process with many different needs and limitations considered with each booking. In a completely automated process the requirement to convey minute details not included in the software or last minute obstacles would seem problematic with no personal touch to manage the transaction.
As a driver, shipper, or consignee, if you have been in the business of transportation for a while, there is a small chance you have worked with me personally on trying to keep a shipment wanting desperately to come off the rails back on the rails. One of the things I brought with me when I left the brokerage industry is a deep respect for drivers, shippers, and consignees who, when needed, worked together with me to make the impossible possible. Could a software driven broker platform do that? That remains the argument among transportation professionals. Many in the industry feel automated systems can’t replace existing brokerage platforms in a significant way. They cite the flexibility needed and the requirement to make adjustments, updates, and small decisions as transportation does not always fit into to neat little parameters automated systems thrive on.
My view may be nostalgic, but I believe the brokerage system as we know it will stay just the way it is for a while. It’s not that I believe Uber and Amazon/Convoy won’t put together great platforms. Their collective history indicates the end product will be sound. It’s more a suspicion the freight world may not be buying yet. Our ability to create really cool technology moves faster than our comfort level in giving up our autonomy to it. Even though I have been an avid Amazon shopper for well over a decade and use Uber as a first choice to navigate through many places, I still want to drive my own car manually. Having it drive me wouldn’t feel right at all. If the two new big players are to be successful in integrating automated truck brokerage in the market place in a meaningful way, they will have to make America as comfortable with the idea as I am using Amazon and Uber.