Increasingly sophisticated weather forecasting applications are helping fleets and drivers navigate around adverse weather conditions that could pose safety risks or delay the movement of freight.
“As long as there has been weather to observe, there have been significant efforts to try to predict it — all the way back to the days of the Farmer’s Almanac,” said Chad Lindbloom, chief information officer at freight broker C.H. Robinson Worldwide.
Rapidly improving technology has put weather forecasting and radar capabilities into the hands of consumers — first through desktop computers and now via mobile apps and more, Lindbloom said.
“While this type of weather technology continues to develop and improve, there are still opportunities to predict the disruptive impact of weather events and prescribe actions to minimize the effects of the disruption,” Lindbloom said. “This is particularly critical for businesses, like trucking companies, whose daily operations could be completely derailed, sometimes for days or weeks, by a significant weather event such as a blizzard or flash flood.”
Eden Prairie, Minn.-based C.H. Robinson ranks No. 5 on the Transport Topics Top 50 list of the largest logistics companies in North America.
Hurricane Harvey’s devastating sweep into Texas and the Gulf Coast in August, as well as Hurricane Irma, which struck Florida earlier this month, greatly disrupted freight transportation throughout those regions.
Weather command center at FedEx headquarters in Memphis, Tenn., via FedEx Corp.
“In the past 10 years, weather has accounted for $3.5 billion in mobility costs and $14 billion in accident costs,” said Eric Witty, vice president of product management at PeopleNet, a provider of fleet mobility technology. “Of the 905 natural catastrophes in 2016, 93% of those accidents were predicted by the cutting-edge, new predictive models.”
“As more companies implement these new models, profitability will be realized more and more,” Witty said.
PeopleNet offers myRoads, an application that alerts drivers when inclement weather could affect safety or delivery time.
When the truck is not moving, the myRoads service allows drivers to view a map showing current and forecast weather and road conditions. Then, once in motion, the driver can receive detailed weather warnings from the application via text-to-speech functionality.
C.H. Robinson’s Lindbloom, meanwhile, thinks the rise of new weather technology may be the start of an important niche for today’s competitive trucking firms when they must deal with disruptions from weather events.
“Think about the ripple effect a large-scale weather event like a hurricane can have on supply chains throughout a region,” he said. “When shippers and carriers can be predictive and prescriptive, they can take actions to lessen the impact to supply chains and their businesses.”
Shippers can work to find alternative options to ensure their products still reach their customers, while carriers can move capacity out of the impacted area before drivers and trucks become stranded, Lindbloom said. “These types of movements could prevent impacts in the immediate area but also throughout the supply chain.”
One company is developing a trading platform that will enable shippers, carriers and third-party logistics firms to lock in freight rates ahead of major weather events and other natural disasters, such as earthquakes, or social and infrastructure-related breakdowns.
“Weather is one of the biggest disruptors causing market volatility both in the short term and the long term,” said Craig Fuller, CEO of TransFX in Chattanooga, Tenn. The company is planning to launch a trucking futures market next year.
In May, TransFX signed an agreement with Riskpulse, an Austin, Texas, company that provides analysis of supply chain risk based on detailed weather data and forecasting tools. In early August, the company issued its 2017 hurricane season update that accurately predicted an elevated risk of disruption to energy, agriculture and logistics interests along the East Coast and Gulf of Mexico due to a “warming trend in the Atlantic basin, and the expected development of a low wind shear environment across the Atlantic.”
Riskpulse CEO Matthew Wensing said weather forecasting has been used to predict price volatility for commodities since the 1980s and is “second nature to oil and gas and grain traders.”
“We now have the ability to unlock that same value within transportation,” he said.
Other transportation-related companies that are working with Riskpulse and incorporating weather analytics into their business include 10-4 Systems, a supplier of cloud-based technology for monitoring shipments; load matching startup Lanehub.com and Q Products and Services, a Chicago-based company that makes specialized containers and covering materials to protect temperature-sensitive shipments.
At a recent conference hosted by Q Products and Services, Jon Davis, a lead member of the meteorology team at Riskpulse, said global warming trends likely will lead to more extreme weather events but also could open up new trade lanes as sea ice melts and seasonal weather patterns change. “Novembers are completely different than they used to be,” Davis noted.
Overall, experts said the real-time information that weather applications are providing to fleets and drivers is making a difference.
“Weather-related technology, along with traffic information, could be considered a game changer,” said Amos Rogan, productivity and efficiency leader for less-than-truckload operations at Averitt Express Inc. “Weather within itself, without showing how it’s influencing the road and potentially the cargo, will not tell us the complete story about how we can better support our drivers and shippers.”
“Enhanced road and cargo hazard notifications will help carriers minimize losses and down times,” Rogan added. “At the same time, the technology will enable drivers and equipment to be used to their optimal potential while also improving service times during harsh seasons.”
Cookeville, Tenn.-based Averitt ranks No. 31 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest for-hire carriers in North America.
Trucking telematics providers are increasingly incorporating weather reporting and information into their telecommunications systems. Inputs such as weather station data, existing forecasts and other parameters may be computed and transmitted to and from trucks on the road, helping drivers make decisions about their travel itineraries.
“One we’ve seen growing in popularity with customers is deploying weather communication technology on individual trucks to gather real-time road weather data,” said Marco Encinas, product manager with Teletrac Navman. “Unlike fixed weather stations, this individual vehicle technology provides real-time data based on the exact location of each truck, filling in gaps left by weather stations for more accurate forecasts.”
Erin Cave, vice president of product management for Telogis Navigation and Compliance, said telematics technology “has grown by leaps and bounds in the last few years, particularly with the ability to go into minute details, such as pinpointing specific access paths and incorporating photos and tags for a specific location.”
For example, Telogis’ algorithm prioritizes roads based on a wide range of factors, including avoiding adverse weather and road closures to ensure drivers get the best route, Cave said.
“One of the main goals of any telematics solution is to help drivers get to their destination safely, and weather plays a huge part in this,” Cave said. “In particular, when it comes to bad weather, you want up-to-the-minute updates on the latest storm developments.”
PeopleNet’s Witty said weather navigation can provide a quick return on investment.
“If a driver avoids just one accident on account of using myRoads or similar weather technology, the system will more than pay for itself, not to mention save lives, which you simply can’t put a price on.”
Daniel P. Bearth, senior features writer, contributed to this story.