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October 8, 2020 4:45 PM, EDT

Executives See Bright Future for Savvy Fleets

CQ Roll Call panel

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Three trucking executives said they remain enthusiastic about the future of their businesses after technology helped them weather the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

NFI Industries CEO Sid Brown, YRC Worldwide Chief Information Officer Jason Ringgenberg and Transfix Chairman Drew McElroy addressed a virtual panel discussion on Future-Proofing and Next-Generation Tech Investment on Oct. 8 during the Future of Freight and Supply Chain Management Symposium, which was co-sponsored by Transport Topics and CQ Roll Call.

The pandemic hit them all.

Several technologies helped them manage uncertainty and what was happening with customers, loads, routes and even employees — with one calling the pandemic an accelerator of existing trends.

They cited cloud computing, the Internet of Things, digitalization, video, predictive analytics and the need for cybersecurity. Also, each expected a shift to more electric powertrains, autonomous trucks and artificial intelligence.

“The vast majority of our people still reported to a terminal every day,” as the pandemic deepened, Ringgenberg said.

Optimization of YRC’s freight network was key, he said, as were the investments made in cloud computing so employees could manage back-office processes from home.

YRC Worldwide ranks No. 6 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest for-hire carriers in North America.

“We were able to reroute freight to the next closest terminal to service customers as best we could when there were hot spots, flareups that didn’t allow the normal route,” Ringgenberg said.

At NFI, “what we did as an organization was make some hard decisions, quickly monitor the situation, ignore a lot of the noise of what was out there, and really try to get the facts and then continue to guide the company forward,” Brown said.

NFI ranks No. 18 on the for-hire TT100.

Ultimately, things recover, Brown said. “What enabled me to have a lot of confidence was really the fact we were prepared to go remote,” he said, a reflection of major investments across all of its service offerings. “And our IT group and the systems we had in place allowed us to do that,” he said.

He added NFI’s IT support, which used to go on site, is doing a lot of that work now by video.

Transfix logo

“We felt we were sort of in the eye of the storm at the very beginning,” said McElroy, also co-founder Transfix, a developer of online shipping tools based in New York City, which was an initial pandemic hot spot. Within two days in early March, the company was 100% remote. Productivity increased “from the very beginning and throughout the evolving events.”

He added: “Digital aspects of our business took on an entirely new level of value in this sort of context,” in dealing with carriers and shippers.

It was not a time to “pinch pennies,” he said. Transfix partnered with Truckers Emergency Aid Response Network to donate personal protective equipment at truck stops all over the country and start a pay-it-forward campaign to give gift cards to a core group of drivers.

YRC Worldwide logo

YRC’s Ringgenberg said, “Now everything wants to be contactless. So that’s digitization of the supply chain documents, in our case, the bills of lading, the delivery receipts. Things like that, that have been around for a long time, you’re going to see continued investment in that.”

As for the advance of new powertrains, Brown reminded the others he has predicted 30% to 40% of NFI’s fleet could eventually be electrified. NFI operates about 4,550 tractors.

“The only thing that might hold that back is more the truck manufacturer than us,” he said.

NFI logo

NFI is testing battery-electric Class 8 vehicles from Freightliner, a unit of Daimler Trucks North America, and others from Volvo Trucks North America, a unit of Volvo Group.

Meanwhile, YRC is looking at clean diesel and other biofuels as a bridge to electrification. It operates 14,100 tractors.

YRC also is testing battery-electric yard tractors in California and can envision them being autonomous.

Brown said autonomous over-the-road trucking has a long ways to go from a technology standpoint and regulatory standpoint. But he believes, “it’s inevitable, once they get that technology.”

Ringgenberg said autonomy in freight movement comes with “huge societal questions.” He mentioned the potential concerns of a mom with kids in a minivan sharing the highway with an autonomous truck, and wondered what decisions insurance companies would make.

He was more certain of the need for artificial intelligence that could be programmed. For instance, during pre-trip inspection, cameras could check whether a vehicle’s tires are underinflated, brake lights don’t come on, hydraulic hoses are disconnected, or even the efficiencies of the skirting intended to help with fuel economy.

“We’ll see massive [AI-driven] improvements all across our industry,” he said.

McElroy mentioned the stream of investment capital entering trucking. “You know, everybody talks about the amount of capital that’s come in. I would argue we’ve seen nothing yet.”

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