Uber’s tech­nol­ogy for truck­ers rolling along

Load-pickup app gain­ing users af­ter test­ing in Texas

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - BUSINESS & FARM - MELISSA REPKO

DAL­LAS — One of the big­gest tech­nol­ogy dis­rup­tors when it comes to shut­tling peo­ple is now try­ing to trans­form the way goods are moved around the coun­try.

This spring, Uber in­tro­duced Uber Freight, an app that matches truck driv­ers with loads of goods to pick up and de­liver. Texas played a key role in the San Fran­cisco-based tech gi­ant’s in­roads. Routes be­tween Dal­las, Hous­ton and San An­to­nio served as its test ground be­fore the app’s de­but.

Texas’ large truck­ing busi­ness made it an ob­vi­ous place to start, said Jeff Ogren, head of driver com­mu­nity and part­ner­ships for Uber Freight. He said that 14 per­cent of U.S. freight rolls in and out of Texas.

The state has con­tin­ued to play a vi­tal role in Uber’s young busi­ness. About 70 per­cent of Uber Freight’s loads and driv­ers are based in Texas, Ogren said.

The new busi­ness comes at a time when tech com­pa­nies are ex­plor­ing the fu­ture of truck­ing and au­to­ma­tion. But an­a­lysts warn that Uber will need to of­fer some­thing new to an in­dus­try that has al­ready squeezed out greater ef­fi­ciency and prove it­self to truck driv­ers who may be skep­ti­cal of an un­fa­mil­iar player.

Mike Ram­sey, a trans­porta­tion and mo­bil­ity an­a­lyst for Gart­ner, said Uber’s new app is a way to lever­age the tech­nol­ogy that un­der­pins its ride-hail­ing and food­de­liv­ery busi­ness. It is also a way to learn a new in­dus­try, so it can ex­plore ways to im­prove ef­fi­ciency in the fu­ture with tools like au­to­ma­tion, he said.

“What they are now is a tech­nol­ogy com­pany,” he

said. “Their as­pi­ra­tion seems to be a trans­porta­tion com­pany.”

Ram­sey said Uber has an edge with brand recog­ni­tion, tal­ent and cap­i­tal, but he cau­tioned that its ma­jor lead­er­ship shake-up could shift busi­ness pri­or­i­ties. Uber Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Of­fi­cer Travis Kalan­ick re­signed in June af­ter months of re­ports of work­place dis­crim­i­na­tion, sex­ual ha­rass­ment and prac­tices that flouted law en­force­ment.

Ram­sey said the Uber Freight app isn’t as pi­o­neer­ing as the ride-hail­ing one. “They’re try­ing to of­fer a bet­ter mouse­trap for a mouse­trap that ex­ists,” he said.

With its foray into truck­ing, Uber must com­pete with lo­gis­tics com­pa­nies, freight-match­ing web­sites called load boards and other apps.

Sim­i­lar to the ride-hail­ing app, Uber Freight al­lows truck driv­ers to pick up ex­tra work when they want to. They also can find jobs that fill up their trucks on the way home.

For Sam Car­rillo, a Dal­lasarea res­i­dent and in­de­pen­dent truck driver, apps have made work sim­pler and more lu­cra­tive. For nearly two decades, he’s re­lied on bro­kers to match him with freight from elec­tron­ics to bot­tled wa­ter in his truck. Now, he gets al­most all of his busi­ness from two apps — one of which is Uber Freight.

Be­fore, he had to wait a month or longer for pay­ment. Now, he said he re­ceives it in seven days — and with­out docked bro­ker fees. He said he ends up mak­ing $200 to $400 more per trip.

And the apps are a quicker way to find jobs. “Press a few but­tons and you’re set,” he said.

Ogren said there’s an ap­petite for new tech in the truck­ing in­dus­try. Be­fore work­ing for Uber, he worked at Trucker Path, a nav­i­ga­tional app that took off in pop­u­lar­ity with truck driv­ers.

“Th­ese guys are look­ing for tools to bet­ter em­power their lives,” he said. “They’re away from their fam­ily 200 days a year. If you can de­velop tools, they are go­ing to buy in.”

Ogren said Uber wants to stand out from load boards and bro­kers through bet­ter cus­tomer ser­vice and faster pay. It plans to of­fer perks, such as re­served park­ing spots, passes that al­low the trucks to skip weigh sta­tions, and dis­counts

on fuel and tires. He said the com­pany also may add a guide of truck stops and rest stops for driv­ers.

He de­clined to give the num­ber of ac­tive users in Texas or the U.S. But he did say that a re­cent party drew about 100 cur­rent users — both driv­ers and fleet own­ers — to Dal­las. It fea­tured free bar­be­cue, shirts and hats, and al­lowed driv­ers to get their ques­tions an­swered.

“We plan on con­tin­u­ing to do things like that be­cause we know we have to earn their trust,” he said. “We want to elim­i­nate any skep­ti­cism and show them we’re here for you.”

He said the apps could make the in­dus­try more ap­peal­ing for younger peo­ple as truck driv­ers age and start re­tir­ing. “They want to be heard. They want to be treated with re­spect,” he said. “We want to make truck­ing at­trac­tive again.”

Texas’ cen­tral lo­ca­tion and large work­force makes it a ma­jor player in the truck­ing in­dus­try. Nearly 10 per­cent of the na­tion’s truck trans­porta­tion work­force lives in Texas. The Lone Star State has about 137,300 peo­ple in the in­dus­try, ac­cord­ing to the most re­cent data from the Bu­reau of La­bor Statis­tics. The Dal­las-Fort Worth area has the third-high­est num­ber of trac­tor-trailer driv­ers, trail­ing only New York and Chicago, ac­cord­ing a re­cent study by Dal­las con­sult­ing firm Site Se­lec­tion Group.

For the tech com­pany, the new model cuts out the mid­dle­man — the truck­ing bro­ker — and could lower the price for smaller com­pa­nies that don’t want a long-term con­tract or need ad­di­tional pick­ups.

Uber has shown in­ter­est in truck­ing be­fore. About a year ago, it bought self-driv­ing truck com­pany Otto. The startup has now been wrapped into a re­search group fo­cused on au­ton­o­mous cars and trucks.

The Owner-Oper­a­tor In­de­pen­dent Driv­ers As­so­ci­a­tion, an ad­vo­cacy group that rep­re­sents pro­fes­sional truck driv­ers, is watch­ing the apps closely to see if they ben­e­fit mem­bers, said its spokesman, Norita Tay­lor.

She said she’s not sur­prised tech com­pa­nies have rec­og­nized the money that can be made in the truck­ing in­dus­try. “The ques­tion is ‘Can they of­fer some­thing that ben­e­fits in­de­pen­dent truck­ers or not?’” she said. “And I don’t have an an­swer to that yet.”

The Dal­las Morn­ing News/NATHAN HUNSINGER

Dal­las-area in­de­pen­dent trucker Sam Car­rillo said he uses two apps, one of which is Uber Freight, and now earns $200 to $400 more per trip.

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