Opinion: E-commerce will reshape trucking in final mile and beyond

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My computer encourages me to be lazy and impatient.

Don’t get me wrong. The keyboard is the tool of my trade, and supports plenty of work-related activities. But when it comes to shopping during any downtime, I find it evermore convenient to point and click at the products I want.

And once I decide that I want them, I want them now.

The impatience has always been there, I suppose – either the by-product of a deadline-obsessed career or a character flaw that led to my career choice. The tools of e-commerce have simply tapped into my inherent need for instant gratification. Is there an option to have something arrive in one day rather than three? Here’s my credit card. It’s becoming harder to imagine a product that can’t be sourced in this way.

I’m not alone. As buyers point and click with increasing frequency, e-commerce is reshaping trucking activities in a way that we haven’t seen since automakers first embraced Just in Time delivery schedules.

The growing reliance on the real-time updates available through telematics is just the beginning. Fleets that once focused on pin-to-pin trailer movements are introducing “white glove” delivery services that directly interact with end consumers. And the ever-tighter delivery schedules are forcing suppliers to rethink where they locate physical distribution centers and warehouses. Long-established traffic lanes are being redrawn along the way.

Volvo Group and Paccar, for example, recently cut the ribbons to officially open massive distribution centers, ensuring that truck parts are stored closer to their ultimate destinations. The Volvo site in Milton, Ont., and Paccar site in nearby Brampton, are both triple the size of the locations that came before them.

Everyone with goods to move seems to be searching for the all-important tracts of affordable land needed to support massive warehouses in key markets.

But the municipalities that enjoy riches in the form of such land would be well-advised to think beyond vacancy rates alone.

Truly successful warehousing districts pay careful attention to traffic patterns, ensuring clear and unobstructed links to arterial roads and highways. Package cars and small vans may handle the outbound traffic, but the warehouse racks themselves will always be stocked using larger commercial vehicles. (So stick the tight roundabouts elsewhere.)

The best zoning practices also maintain a clear buffer between industrial activities and local residents, keeping any encroaching subdivisions in check.

Forward-thinking planners will even lay the groundwork for support that might be needed in the future, such as the charging stations for electric trucks.

I’ve made no secret about by skepticism around electric trucks and their ability to travel any significant distances, but there is no denying the business cases that are emerging for equipment that runs shorter routes.

This is where the planning comes into play. Adding a couple of electric trucks is easy. All you require is the connection that might otherwise support an arc welder. A fast charger to support more than a handful of electric trucks would demand 1,500 volts, 3,000 amps, and a whopping 4.5 megawatts of power. Those require some careful thinking.

Wouldn’t it have been nice if all warehousing districts were established with some careful thinking?


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John G. Smith is Newcom Media's vice-president - editorial, and the editorial director of its trucking publications -- including Today's Trucking, trucknews.com, and Transport Routier. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.

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