A New Wave of AI Is Coming to Trucking

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Numerous technology vendors serving the freight transportation industry are investing in AI to drive their future product development and ultimately unlock higher levels of safety and productivity for motor carriers and third-party logistics providers.

While the industry today is still in the earliest stages of implementing the latest advances in AI, the potential use cases are diverse and virtually endless, encompassing driver safety, worker efficiency, vehicle maintenance and business intelligence to name a few.

Tom McLeod, CEO of McLeod Software, said recent advances in technology have paved the way for AI to flourish in freight transportation.

“Really in the last few years, we’ve had the compute power and the enormous storage requirements for these technologies to work,” he said. “They’ve reached a price point making them accessible and potentially available for widespread use.”

Given those developments, the latest wave of AI appears to be at the tipping point where broad adoption can begin and ultimately become mainstream, McLeod said at the McLeod Software AI Conference, which the transportation management software provider hosted Feb. 28 at its headquarters in Birmingham, Ala.

McLeod Software, for its part, has been using machine learning in its rate predictor, a function within its MPact Pro market analysis product designed to forecast freight rates up to two weeks in advance.

“What we’re doing is helping to automate the routine things,” says Tom McLeod, CEO of McLeod Software. (Seth Clevenger/Transport Topics)

The company also has other AI projects in the works, including efforts to make unstructured data more useful and adding generative AI tools to streamline processes, and is working alongside other tech vendors to implement new capabilities through software integrations.

“What we’re doing is helping to automate the routine things, the things you’re having to do manually right now, to make your company more productive,” McLeod said.

For freight brokers and back-office employees, AI can boost productivity by automating the routine parts of the job so workers can focus instead on more valuable activities such as customer service and increasing sales.

This can take the form of AI “co-pilots” that workers can utilize to automatically perform certain mundane but time-consuming tasks.

“There’s an opportunity to use this latest wave of AI to build tools that sit side by side with workers, that take a lot of the mundane and tedious work off of their plate and elevate their role to something that is much more focused on solving complex problems, building relationships and selling,” said Jesse Buckingham, CEO and co-founder of Vooma, a tech startup that is working to automate the email spot quoting and load building process for brokers and carriers.

By using AI to automatically extract and structure key information from emails, the technology enables sales representatives to handle those processes much more efficiently, freeing up time for them to focus instead on customer support and building business relationships, Buckingham said.

“It really is like giving the customer-facing people superpowers so they can take the menial things off their plate and also act more as a strategic supply chain and transportation adviser to their customers,” he said.

Moving from the office to the vehicle, AI computer vision in the cab can support driver coaching, detect unsafe behaviors such as distracted driving and help fleet operators raise the bar for safety.

“It really is like giving the customer-facing people superpowers so they can take the menial things off their plate,” Vooma CEO and co-founder Jesse Buckingham says. (Seth Clevenger/Transport Topics)

AI capabilities also promise to help optimize vehicle maintenance practices by better predicting when a component should be replaced to avoid a costly breakdown.

More broadly, AI can enable companies to better harness the sea of data captured by modern trucking and logistics operations.

By identifying patterns in the data, AI programs can help determine which drivers represent the highest safety risk or are most likely to leave the company, giving fleet managers an opportunity to proactively prevent crashes and improve driver retention.

Those are among the use cases that fleet telematics vendor Isaac Instruments is pursuing with its in-house AI development team.

“Our customers are collecting a ton of data,” said Jean-Sebastien Bouchard, Isaac’s co-founder and chief product officer. “Looking at the amount of data that we have, we thought, what more can we do with that data?”

AI will make it possible for fleet managers to focus on the key information that is most relevant to running their operations effectively rather than being overwhelmed with all the data at their fingertips, he said.

“I think AI is going to change our lives,” Bouchard said. “It’s going to change the way we manage our businesses.”

Other use cases for AI include optimizing truck routing and dispatching to improve fleet utilization, enabling faster and more intelligent freight pricing and bidding through market analysis and forecasting, and even developing automated driving software for the autonomous trucks that are undergoing testing and validation on some interstate routes.

While the public discourse on AI often touches on the notion that certain jobs could be automated away, tech developers in the transportation industry generally promote their AI products and features as ways to help workers do their jobs more efficiently rather than replace them.

“I am firmly in the camp of it’s man plus machine,” said Lindsay Watt, vice president of product at Parade, a capacity management platform for freight brokers.

Rather than threatening their jobs, automation can help make broker sales representatives more productive and better position them to respond to the needs of their customers and carrier partners, he said.

A New Wave of AI

The term “artificial intelligence” has existed for more than half a century and has been used to describe a wide range of software capabilities that simulate human intelligence.

McLeod data scientist Sujit Kunwor outlined decades of AI development, from simple rule-based programs that rely on “if-then” conditions for decision making to the rise of machine learning models that can “learn” from data and perform tasks without explicit programming.

Most recently, the latest wave of AI has included the proliferation of generative AI tools and large language models, such as ChatGPT, that are designed to recognize and generate text and provide a natural language interface for users.

“There’s this instant gratification when you create something just by typing in some words in the tool,” says Sujit Kunwor, a data scientist for McLeod Software. (Seth Clevenger/Transport Topics) 

“The public’s fascination with these generative AI programs has fueled the current hype surrounding AI and its many use cases, Kunwor said.

“Everyone who uses them feels empowered,” he said. “There’s this instant gratification when you create something just by typing in some words in the tool.”

Within the transportation industry, large language models can help structure and synthesize vast amounts of disorganized supply chain data that often exists in a variety of formats, resides in different locations and comes from disparate sources.

“I think AI is going to be the end of data silos,” Parade’s Watt said.

Applying AI to Industry Challenges

Some carriers and brokers are already finding ways to address business challenges by applying the latest AI capabilities that are just beginning to reach the market.

Freight broker Sunset Transportation has been implementing several forms of AI to improve operational efficiency and ultimately enhance customer service, said John Sutton, director of corporate strategy.

The company is streamlining new shipper-broker contracts with potential clients by using AI to automatically identify areas of agreement and areas where negotiations are needed on factors such as minimum cargo coverage and days to pay. A process that traditionally might have taken most of a day or even longer can now be completed in 45 minutes, Sutton said.

“The AI will go through, synthesize the entire master trade agreement and outline where we are in alignment, partially in alignment or completely out of whack,” he said.

Another area where Sunset is applying AI is weather management. The technology projects what weather systems might disrupt a shipment in the future based on information such as a driver’s destination and remaining hours of service. Those insights can enable the company to proactively notify clients well in advance if a shipment might be affected by a storm or hurricane, for example.

Sunset also is using automated quoting to extract unstructured data from emails. The goal, Sutton said, is to make that routine part of the job faster and easier so freight brokers are always free to answer calls from customers.

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“That’s our bread and butter right now — just making sure that we’re picking up the phone,” he said, describing that personal touch as a competitive advantage for his business.

Sunset Transportation is part of Armada Sunset Holdings, which ranks No. 11 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest 3PLs in North America.

Decker Truck Line, a diversified carrier based in Fort Dodge, Iowa, is among the growing number of fleets that have deployed AI-enabled video telematics systems in their trucks to gain a clearer view of what’s happening on the road and strengthen their driver coaching practices and overall safety programs.

The company also sees opportunities for AI-driven improvements in areas such as fuel optimization and forecasting freight volumes, said Brent Ellis, the fleet’s vice president of business systems and processing.

AI could factor into the company’s efforts to reduce driver turnover as well. Ellis said Decker Truck Line is looking to hire drivers who live in areas with a heavy concentration of shippers or deliveries so the company can more easily provide driver home time while minimizing empty miles.

“I think there are a lot of use cases out there that we just haven’t gotten to yet,” Ellis said.

While AI implementation may seem daunting for some carriers and 3PLs, tech vendors said companies can start by testing and deploying it in small ways that may not be existential to their businesses but can still make a difference.

“I think the most important thing to do is begin to embrace it,” said Justin King, chief product officer at transportation technology vendor Transflo. “Just getting started is the most important part.”

Industry Voices

How do you envision AI changing the freight transportation industry in the next five years?

“In the next five years, AI with real-time analytics at the edge will enable better understanding of the detailed road environment dynamically, which will facilitate better freight route optimization accounting for route safety and current and predicted road conditions and help improve operational efficiency and safety.”

— David Julian, CTO and Co-founder, Netradyne

“Advancements in AI and computer vision will transform the cost structure of the transportation industry. AI dash cams that accurately detect unsafe behavior will reduce accident rates by up to 75%, and insurance costs will follow. ADAS systems will make the job of driving a truck less physically demanding. The combination will drive down insurance and labor costs, expanding the margins for transportation companies that adopt AI technology.”

— Shoaib Makani, Founder and CEO, Motive

“In the next five years, I envision a new business model that leverages advanced technologies that enable average employees to become ‘supercharged’ high performers, bringing next-level efficiency gains to their respective organizations. You’ll see a transition from tribal knowledge and large workforces to smaller teams taking on more responsibility and outperforming what we’ve previously thought possible.”

— Chris Torrence Chief Strategy Officer, Optym

 

“AI will optimize operations and boost efficiency and productivity as fleets seek to supplement their existing workforce. We believe it will streamline repetitive tasks and offer clearer, faster solutions such as providing guidance on pricing and bidding, optimizing complex routes and enhancing driver performance and coaching. We see a number of complex, highly dynamic problems potentially being improved by AI — such as network planning and driver-to-load assignment and routing — while we also see industry decision makers relying increasingly on AI to collect and analyze vast amounts of data, specifically data produced from telemetry and video devices.”

— Paul Cardosi, Sector Vice President of Global Mobility, Trimble

“Logistics will always be a people business, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be inefficient or compromise data quality due to human error. This makes the adoption of this new wave of freight technology essential. Relationship building is also crucial. These innovations will streamline low-hanging fruit, exceptions and repetitive tasks, allowing human capital to focus on relationships and value-added activities. As the industry evolves, accessibility to real-time, dynamic data and predictive analytics will become the standard, creating an unattainable playing field for vendors and transportation professionals who refuse to adapt.”

— Dawn Salvucci-Favier, CEO and Chief Product Officer, Greenscreens.ai

“The simple decision making we’ve been manually performing in our industry will cease to exist. Actionable intelligence will drive significant value by effectively leveraging AI to expeditiously make those decisions. Today, most of our business knowledge is held hostage by users. Over the next five years, the efforts to store and then leverage that data will allow users to experience significant gains in productivity.”

— Tom Curee, President, Qued

“Generative AI and other deep learning AI technologies are essentially giving trucking companies a set of powerful tools to create more sophisticated and intuitive solutions to any number of persistent problems. Over the next five years, you’ll see fleets experimenting with AI-powered solutions for everything from road safety and compliance to routing and maintenance.”

— Angus Norton, Chief Product Officer, Lytx Inc.

“AI will become a standard feature in most products in the next few years. The challenge will be delivering the promised (return on investment). Generic, one-size-fits-all solutions will not work in logistics because each business operates differently. AI agents that can be customized for each company’s unique workflow will drive the next generation of industry trailblazers.”

— Annalise Sandhu, CEO and Co-founder, Chaine

“AI tools are enabling transportation and logistics companies to run operations more efficiently through increased workflow automation, optimized decision making and economies of scale. Employee roles will continue to evolve. People will be able to focus where human interaction is most impactful, not confined to the back office performing routine work. People will spend more time doing what they are best at — improving relationships with drivers and customers, resolving issues and managing the ‘intangibles’ of the business.”

— Daniel Powell, Co-Founder and CEO, Optimal Dynamics

“AI is set to revolutionize trucking through both targeted applications for vehicles and drivers, as well as broad analytics for the industry. Adding AI to current algorithms will bring about big leaps in real-time monitoring, predictive maintenance and workflow automation.”

— John Elsner, CEO, Pedigree Technologies

“In the world of commercial transportation, we’re dealing with petabyte-scale data in the cloud and it’s multimodal — it’s not just location data but it’s also video data, it’s text data and more. AI will continue to evolve as the natural fit for extracting value from all of this information and with ongoing advancements, it will become possible to extract far more value in significantly less time than with traditional analytics.”

— Evan Welbourne, Head of AI and Data, Samsara

“AI will enable us to make better decisions faster. We will be able to constantly monitor massive amounts of data and use AI to bring the most pertinent and urgent data to the surface to allow for real-time decision making. This will increase the focus and quality of the decision making for fleets, which will save time — and money.”

— Craig Vanderheide, Director of Product Management, Intangles

“We envision AI changing the freight industry over the coming five years by first focusing on individual contributor efficiency. That is, how can I go from booking eight loads a day per rep to 30 loads a day per rep? What manual tasks, like replying to emails or calling drivers, can I automate in a trustworthy, repeatable way? How can I use AI tools to identify where something isn’t quite right — whether with a carrier, on a load or elsewhere?”

— Kary Jablonski, President and CEO, Trucker Tools

“We envision AI automating functions that historically needed human interaction in business processes such as order management, planning, execution, settlements and billing. AI can learn what actions humans usually take in given scenarios and then automatically perform the steps, freeing the employees to work on genuinely unique situations.”

— Jay Delaney, Director of Product Development, Magnus Technologies

“In the LTL sector, an incredible amount of logistical planning needs to be completed in a very short time span. AI is transforming this logistics ‘jigsaw puzzle’ of coordinating dock labor, linehauls and last-mile routing from a puzzle which people try to piece together, mostly using rules of thumb and general business rules, to an optimization model solution where AI and advanced computing power churn out the best plans and then constantly revise the plans based on conditions on the ground to achieve lower-cost solutions, and to allow plan execution earlier.”

— Ben Wiesen, President, Carrier Logistics Inc.

“I believe one of the biggest changes will be found in leveraging AI capabilities to deliver on the full vision of a ‘connected supply chain.’ Companies will have a single interface through which their connected devices, and those of their suppliers and customers, will communicate information in real time and thus take, or at a minimum suggest, corrective action. … I truly think in the next five years we’ll look back and have a hard time remembering what it was like before, much as it is now for us to think about business before the internet.”

— Deryk Powell, President, Velociti

“In the next five years, AI will significantly enhance freight transportation by improving route optimization using AI, predictive maintenance and streamlining electric vehicle conversion processes. … These advancements will lead to more precise logistics, reduced operational costs and increased sustainability in the industry.”

— Dean Marris, Chief Data Science Officer, ERoad

“AI applied to vast amounts of operating data will automate back-office tasks, improve safety, and significantly enhance asset and driver utilization. To realize this, driver and vehicle data needs to be seamlessly combined with business data in the (transportation management system). AI-derived insights will also need to be operationalized real time in the TMS to automate workflows and guide user decisions that the TMS handles.”

— Hans Galland, CEO, Beyond Trucks

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