The recent announcement of massive layoffs and the closure of 45 offices at Uber Technologies – and in particular, its CEO’s stated commitment to re-evaluating non-core, cash-burning businesses like Uber Freight – set the logistics world abuzz.
However, I would argue that it’s not in the way contributor Ryan Schreiber described. As he makes the case for Uber as an innovative disruptor in freight, he encouraged us to hear him out “before everyone starts celebrating the possible demise of Uber Freight.”
Celebrating the collapse of Uber Freight is not on the agenda at any brokerage of which I am aware. The industry professionals I know are disheartened that thousands of people have been left unemployed; that economic uncertainty and instability have been an unfortunate side effect of the health crisis that is COVID-19. Yes, Uber’s technology has transformed the industry in some ways. However, the capacity to undercut competitors by using transportation as a loss leader within a more profitable enterprise has had a far greater impact (and Uber isn’t alone on that front).
Technology isn’t new to transportation. People were already using technology to benefit customers and employees alike; they just weren’t using the same strategy of being an application-only device. We know that automation is the way forward, enabling us to reduce redundancy, cut inefficiency and free up human time for more creative and impactful tasks.
What has happened, though, is that some have attempted to automate what was never meant to be machine-driven – the relationship between the shipper and its broker and/or carrier. That interaction between a freight customer and the person who understands the intricacies of its business cannot be automated. A freight transaction is far more nuanced and complex than, “Pick me up here at 8:15pm and drop me at the movies.”
In the current business environment, companies that deliver cost savings by sacrificing the human element in logistics should be thriving. Many shipping and receiving companies have been forced to close during the pandemic, but trucking companies stayed open. With fewer shippers and the same amount of trucks on the road, prices have come down over the last six weeks. These conditions should be the best thing going for companies with a less interactive model; one that requires less haggling and relationship management.
The importance of people
What we are seeing though, is that the need for smart, creative people who are passionate about their work – about helping other people solve the very real challenges of moving all manner of goods from A to B – has never been greater. The sheer magnitude of this international emergency has demanded all-hands-on-deck to keep the supply of critical healthcare supplies, groceries, fuel and other commodities moving. This has been a very humanizing crisis; millions have been affected and you would be hard-pressed to find a corner of the world that hasn’t felt the impact.
It has required every ounce of creativity, critical thinking and caring we’ve collectively been able to throw at it. Jacob Wegrzyn, my colleague and Vice President for the Caribbean here at Trailer Bridge, put it best recently when he said, “Seeing the goods we have brought to Puerto Rico in supermarkets, hardware and department stores, car dealers, and manufacturing plants makes me extremely proud.”
We need people who care about outcomes, who are accountable to their customers, involved every step of the way.
Shipping is fraught with constraints and each one you add to an algorithm makes it less effective. When something doesn’t go right (as we know happens frequently in this industry), the technology cannot always be depended on; people usually can be. In an all-technology environment there is no industry expert who is already up to speed on the situation just a phone call away, ready to jump in with alternatives. The technological solution hasn’t been designed by a professional who factored their knowledge, relationships and experience into the equation; who is ready to pivot quickly and move to Plan B if the situation requires.
It just doesn’t work (in any industry) to choose the tech first and attempt to find a problem for it to solve. Innovation and efficiency don’t necessarily mean lower touch, less personal services. In fact, the technology we have at our disposal today is helping transportation and logistics experts make more creative, innovative solutions all the time.
The human element is key. Computers and automation don’t fix traffic, trucks breaking down, appointments missed, or anything else that can go wrong in the supply chain. People do.As we look to help customers recover from the personal and economic turmoil caused by coronavirus, it’s as clear to me today as it ever was that empowering our employees with technology, not replacing them with it, is the way forward. Innovative, personalized, customer-centric transportation services pave the path to our collective recovery – and you just can’t automate that.