January 20, 2014 4:00 AM, EST

Opinion: Addicted to Hauling Partial Loads

This Opinion piece appears in the Jan. 20 print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.

By Mike Dargis


Zip Xpress Inc.

The trucking industry is addicted to hauling air. Trailers that ideally should be rolling down the road filled to capacity are burning precious fuel just to carry a couple of skids 1,000 miles.

The sad truth is that motor carriers rarely live up to the ideal of a fuel-efficient, environmentally appropriate full load. We miss the mark for our customers over and over, too often charging them for the whole space when their cargo uses only a fraction of what’s available.

My point of view on this problem has been formed by active participation in the trucking industry for decades, during which modernizations and efficiencies have had a major effect on the North American trucking industry. Those changes have made a huge, clearly positive operational difference, but they’re not even close to doing enough.

It doesn’t have to be that way. The less-than-truckload carrier I serve as president is involved in the growing field of logistically shared trailer space, which works to save customers’ shipping charges and reduce the environmental damage caused by thousands of partial loads driven cross-country every day of the year.

A growing number of trucking’s customers, large and small, are confused by inefficiencies they see among haulers. They wonder why they are essentially paying to ship so much dead air along with their cargo. They want to know if there are better options for logistically incorporating loads to save them money and save the obviously wasted fuel of trailer loads so under-optimized that they echo with empty space inside.

Some of them also wonder about the endless litany of “driver shortage, driver shortage” they hear about in the news and from the industry grapevine. They have begun to wonder what would happen to the notorious “driver dearth” if manufacturers and independent haulers learned to optimize everything coming through the shipping department. Would the shortage and its loyal companion, high turnover, both vanish?

I firmly believe that full-line haulers, LTL owners and everyone in-between could see a breakthrough in the driver job market if we faced up to our lack of efficiency, ditched the take-it-or-leave-it attitude, and offered drivers the chance to work for carriers with great reputations and good pay. After all, it’s the driver who winds up dealing with a carrier’s unhappy customers and disapproving public.

Shipping cost per load, of course, is an absolutely vital slice of the pie of services provided to the customer, and I feel like a man possessed on the subject of what “we” — everyone from LTL operations to full linehaul fleets — are wasting in that aspect of the business. We need to end this era of big trucks hauling little loads for millions of miles. It helps neither our business nor our drivers’ jobs to slowly bankrupt a small business or damage the bottom line of a bigger one.

Transportation departments play a far more critical role in the long-term success of an organization than many realize. Too often, the owner of a business or the chief operational officer has little to no knowledge about the details behind shipping costs incurred month to month. To his or her way of thinking, if the overall transportation costs hover around 8%, hey — that’s not too bad. Things seem OK down in shipping and transport, the trucking company executive decides, so attention quickly pivots elsewhere.

I see this information shortfall frequently in case studies performed for customers looking for savings. Trucking company owners and managers aren’t sure what’s going down on the docks, so they wash their hands of it and stay underinformed.

The problem is that besides missing their own inefficiencies, they are missing the fact that some contracted shippers are hurting their own bottom lines.

Sadder still, many carriers do understand that true optimization and load consolidation are significantly overdue and disaster lies ahead, but they keep shipping light loads anyway, wasting fuel, driver-per-tonnage-per-mile, as well as premature road/bridge degradation and wear on truck engines, tires, braking and mechanical systems.

And this is where we have the chance to resolve those seemingly perpetual driver shortages. I believe if firms raised by fractions the load-weight ratio per mile, per driver, we’d see an overnight reduction in the employment crunch. That’s how optimistic I am that true load optimization is a major step forward.

Inadequate attention to load efficiencies industrywide has a direct effect on the cost of doing business and an indirect consequence in many other areas, particularly:

  • Trucks and trailers: The rigs, engines, mechanical systems and tires wear prematurely in relation to load tonnage per mile.
  • Infrastructure: Public highways and bridges deteriorate prematurely because of millions of underloaded-vehicle miles.
  • Environment: Because of inadequate optimization, fuel-wasting partial loads have a dramatic effect on the industry’s carbon footprint per driver, per haul.

You can do things right now to help this situation, beginning with a thorough analysis of your own operation. Comprehensive, real-time information about your company’s transportation “package” is the launch point for improvements. Everyone in the organization must believe that the owner — or whoever sits in the big corner office — honestly cares about what’s happening in the shipping department. Find out what’s happening out there and what you really are paying for, per truckload. That’s how deep this has to be to get it right.

If we can help customers to be profitable by fixing our shipping practices — why the heck don’t we? Think about it, and do something.

Holland, Mich.-based Zip Xpress Inc. is a less-than-truckload carrier specializing in logistically shared trailer space.