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May 15, 2017 3:00 AM, EDT

Shippers Seek Better Supply Chain Visibility; Real-Time Truck Monitoring Key Component

From left: Lower, Powell, Schrier, Greene/Transplace

This story appears in the May 15 print edition of Transport Topics.

AUSTIN, Texas — Improving real-time supply chain visibility remains a top priority in shipper surveys, several executives said during a meeting here at the Transplace Shipper Symposium.

“It’s obvious that shippers are demanding a more granular level of visibility to their shipments when in transit,” John Lower, director of strategic carrier management at Transplace, said at the symposium last week. “We’re certainly seeing that in our business as well.”

Lower said that some shippers still are using long-term “somewhat reactive” technologies that “tell you where the truck might have been two, three or four hours ago.”

“Predictive” automated solutions will tell shippers and carriers where a truck is in real time and provide accurate arrival and departure information, Lower said May 9.

Gary Powell, logistics service manager of North America for Colgate-Palmolive, said his company in the past has had some discrepancies on data integration with different systems and different third parties, and that the company still has work to do before perfecting its real-time visibility systems.

Powell said that without the ability to communicate about their shipments in real time, shippers can be required to call a carrier, wait for an answer, assess if the information is accurate and then relay the answer, a process that can take hours.

“That’s not acceptable to a lot of our customers,” Powell added. “A lot of our focus this year is to do full integration of information so we can see from a control tower the nature of our business.”

Real-time visibility permits shippers to reduce the number of phone calls and e-mails to customers, he said. “Truly, what’s most important is, where’s my truck?” Powell said. “It’s cool to say I know where your truck is.”

He cautions that real-time visibility is not an “end all, be all” proposition. “It augments our capabil- ities, not replacing our existing tools. It’s helping us drive better answers.”

Powell added, “We still rely on our typical carrier status reports.”

Doug Schrier, a vice president at Covenant Transportation Group, said the carrier has spent the past 18 months developing real-time systems that offer predictive information on routes and weather that help their customers know if trucks are running on time.

Covenant also has developed real- time mobile apps to prevent drivers from wasting time looking for a specific trailer in large terminal yards.

“We can show a satellite image of every single yard that we go to that also shows a geofence and relays other key information,” Schrier said.

Covenant also keeps an interactive scorecard it delivers to drivers that shows how they are doing and allows the company to correct behavior that “is not perfect,” Schrier said.

But despite the value of real-time supply chain visibility, there are potential legal risks when shippers and carriers communicate with their drivers, said John Greene, a Dallas-based partner with law firm Scopelitis, Garvin, Light, Hanson & Feary.

“The legal implications of it are somewhat still to be determined,” Greene said. “This is a new technology and, just like drones and a lot of advances in the health care industry, that maybe the law hasn’t caught up with yet.”

Greene said one of biggest risks with real-time visibility is related to misclassification exposure. The more involved a shipper or carrier is in communication with drivers, the greater the risk of the Department of Labor or courts classifying contractor drivers as employees and plaintiffs’ attorneys holding a shipper or carrier liable for a crash.

“If a driver is involved in an accident, any plaintiff’s lawyer is going to go upstream as far as they can go,” Greene said, “and if a shipper euphemistically has just touched a driver, that creates the potential for liability.”