What is the Future of Truckload Transportation?

There’s been a common thread in my conversations with shippers over the past few years: their desire to take freight off the truckload grid — i.e., minimize the number of one-way truck shipments they make. This desire is driven by a number of factors, including:

  • Capacity concerns: A lot of capacity has left the market since 2008, with many carriers going bankrupt when the recession hit and others downsizing their fleets. This hasn’t been a problem to date because economic growth has been weak, but if and when the economy picks up steam again, many shippers are concerned that truckload capacity will significantly tighten. And the new Hours of Service rules set to go into effect July 1, 2013 — coupled with the impact CSA is having on the ability for carriers to hire and retain drivers — will only make matters worse.
  • Fuel: Although diesel prices have remained relatively flat this year, ranging between $3.85 and $4.10 per gallon, they are almost double what they were in June 2009. And the outlook for the future remains the same: uncertain and volatile. Therefore, shippers are looking for ways to minimize their exposure to rising diesel prices, especially fuel surcharges.
  • Sustainability: As I discussed in a recent Talking Logistics episode, many companies are showing renewed interest in sustainability these days, and they are taking action on various fronts to improve the sustainability of their supply chains — especially in transportation, not only because it offers the greatest opportunity to reduce a company’s carbon footprint, but also because it provides significant cost benefits too.

In response, shippers are shifting more volume to rail, intermodal, and dedicated/private fleets, and they are also making changes to packaging and investing in load optimization software to fit more products per case, pallet, and trailer, which results in fewer truckload shipments (see “Del Monte Foods: Packaging, Transportation, and Sustainability” and “How Walmart Improved Fleet Efficiency by 69 Percent”).

The continued growth of e-commerce and direct-to-consumer shipments by both retailers and manufacturers is also shifting some shipping volume to parcel. And although a bit further down the road, but probably not as far away as you think, 3D printing (aka additive manufacturing) will also have an impact on truckload transportation in the future.

All that said, trucking remains the dominant mode in freight transportation, as the following statistics from the recently published ATA American Trucking Trends 2013 report illustrate:

  • Trucks moved 9.4 billion tons of freight in 2012, or 68.5% of all domestic shipments. Both figures are up from the previous year.
  • In 2012, trucking generated $642.1 billion in gross freight-related revenues, or 80.7% of the nation’s freight bills, also increases on 2011.

So, what has changed, what is different today in the world of truckload transportation compared to a few years ago?

If you think of transportation as a big puzzle and the different modes as pieces of that puzzle, then what’s happening is that the shape of the trucking piece is changing, and where shippers and carriers are placing that piece is also changing.

Consider the following statement by JB Hunt, one of the largest truckload carriers in the US, from the company’s most recent annual report:

Assets in JBT [the company’s truckload segment] decreased throughout the year in response to an ongoing struggle to achieve acceptable, sustainable profitability. Overall demand for generic truckload services has not shown signs of stabilizing over the past three years. Continued efforts to find the right business model with the correct blend of capacity and rate structure are supported by management. We do believe that offering a relevant truckload service in lanes where intermodal, dedicated or brokerage are not the best solutions will be valuable and differentiating. [Emphasis mine].

And Swift, another large truckload carrier, made the following statement in its most recent annual report:

As freight volumes increase, we intend to prioritize the following areas for growth: Intermodal, Dedicated services and private fleet outsourcing; Cross-border Mexico-U.S. freight; Freight brokerage and third-party logistics; Customer satisfaction.

It’s clear from these statements and where these influential carriers are investing their money (and where they’re not) that “generic” truckload transportation is at best a fourth priority — behind intermodal, dedicated, and brokerage.

So, what is the future of truckload transportation? Watch my response from last week’s Talking Logistics episode, and then post a comment and let me know what you think.