Fat truckers and will Uber kill the trucking goose?

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I’d like to close the year with a few comments. First of all the Strida fold-up bicycle I was trying out is still available as a demo to some trucker who might be interested. The Canadian distributor Bill Willby has sold a few to truck drivers and would rather not have me ship it back. As I mentioned in my last blog, it’s a unique design that folds up neatly, weighs 23 lbs and has no oily chain to mess up your pants or upholstery. It’s really an urban bike, rated for 225 lbs, but quite a pleasure to saddle up. Leave a note if you’re interested in trying it and you’re located somewhere around the GTA.

I was talking to fitness adviser for a large US company just the other week and he told me the Strida wouldn’t be a viable option for most of his drivers, as they average 260 lbs!!!! Now I know truck drivers are heavy on average but I don’t think Canadian truckers are quite as hefty as our US counterparts. I have some big colleagues at Purolator driving tractor truck but I would prefer to guess that the average weight is somewhere around 220lbs. Of course many of these drivers come from a courier culture and are probably more active on the whole than your typical gear-jammer. But there’s only one way to find out—put them on a scale and weigh ’em. That’s why these fitness challenges are a good idea, as they focuses attention on issues of health and personal fitness which are often ignored by drivers and employers alike—to the detriment of both. But you have to have a champion. Management has to come to believe that this is good idea or it won’t happen, just like the truck driving championships—if your company doesn’t want to participate, you’re SOL.

So I posit that Canadian truckers are mostly over weight, but not necessarily as obese as Americans drivers. But we are aging as fast or faster than our southern cousins. Some manager was bandying about 54 as the average age of the 200 or so Class A truckers working out of Purolator’s Metro West yard. And that’s a little scary isn’t it? It means the pipeline to new and younger drivers is running dry. Other carriers must be feeling the same creeping aging process with few or no replacements on the horizon.

For decades Canadian truckers were mostly home-grown, often coming from a rural background, of European descent and usually either French or English-speaking. For some time now we are no longer a homogenous bunch, though males continue to dominate the craft, women are drastically under-represented, and even fewer female drivers are coming from the communities of new Canadians.

But male truck drivers are getting extremely diverse. Waiting for an empty the other night I asked a group of my colleagues where they we from. The young fellow handing out gate releases was from St. Vincent, while the drivers were from Yemen, Cote D’Ivore, Kenya and Somalia. And this is just a small sample. Perhaps Purolator is a multi-ethnic leader in this regard, but our drivers could could easily host a model UN representing many dozens of countries. So if you’re looking to talk to “joe trucker” these days, he’s a multitude of ethnicity and rainbow of diversity. That’s why you see ads catering to different ethnic groups these days.

Lastly, what about this Uber phenomenon, and how might it impact trucking? “What, isn’t Uber is a taxi service?” you ask. Well, yes and no. They insist that they are a business helping people share rides. But what’s important is that Uber refers to itself as a logistics provider, and the leap from moving people to freight is not as big a gulf as one might think. Taxis do deliver packages as well as people as you might well know.

Uber is an extremely successful venture that began in San Francisco and is now located in 53 countries and 200 cities. It is valued at somewhere around $40 billion US and works by connecting drivers and riders through a Smart Phone application. Passengers and carriers have to register in advance and all payment is by credit card, with a commission going to Uber. Customers like it because they can find out what kind of vehicle and and driver is going to pick them up and they can track the progress on their Smart Phone or computer. Drivers like it because of the increased volume of business and the no-hassle payment system.

As expected Uber has faced opposition from politicians, regulators and taxi cab drivers and companies. The taxi industry is tightly regulated in most Canadian municipalities. In Toronto potential taxi drivers have to take a course to learn where the hospitals and hotels are located. Taxi-driver applicants are also screened by licensing commissions.

Uber drivers are screened but I’m not sure what the criteria is, and they completely bypass the regulatory authorities. Cab companies in Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto are all in a pitched battle with Uber, but the new kid has deep pockets, and no-doubt they will probably cut some deals with municipalities to let their drivers operate. The debate seems to be between public safety and government regulation on one side, and an unimpeded free market on the other. Even the newly-elected mayor of Toronto, John Tory, has come out publicly as being interested working with Uber.

Truly I’m less interested in the taxi industry than I am in trucking. But it wouldn’t be too hard to draw a parallel between the entrenched taxi companies and the established trucking companies of Canada. Taxi companies now have free apps available for Smart Phones, but it is the sheer size of Uber that is overwhelming. In the end, I don’t think individual taxi brokerages stand a chance against a colossus like Uber. It’s interesting to note that some cab companies, like Co-op in Toronto, is allowing their drivers to book calls on Uber while using a company-plated cab.

Should Uber decide to move into the freight business, it will likely impact couriers first. Instead of calling a courier company to deliver a parcel from a business to a client, Uber freight could have a vehicle close by that could deliver the parcel directly without using a courier as an intermediary. Even more troubling, when capacity is tight, an Uber-like service could find available trucks when the carriers’ units are stretched too thin.

Load brokers might feel righteously nervous and indignant about a potential Uber incursion. Members of brokerage syndicates pay a monthly fee to access a load board. But an Uber-type system would make its money from the service transaction itself and might waive the registration fee.

It should be noted that there are Uber-like start-ups already operating in the trucking hemisphere. Keychain Logistics and Cargomatic are two companies who are using the Uber paradigm, and claim to eliminate third party brokers. And like Uber they are most effective in cities with a large enough shipping-density like New York and Los Angeles. For a program like this to succeed you need a dense shipping area with lots of trucks and drivers and lots of freight to be moved. I suspect that an region like the GTA or Vancouver’s lower mainland would be ripe for this kind of operation.

So I’m thinking that trucking-as-we-know-it could be in for a shake up if Uber comes to play. This from a guy who refuses to get a cell phone let alone a Smart phone. I’d like to hear your thoughts. Do you think a version of Uber trucking will revolutionize motor transport?

Otherwise, wishing you all a happy and prosperous New Year. We are living in interesting times!

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Harry Rudolfs has worked as a dishwasher, apprentice mechanic, editor, trucker, foreign correspondent and taxi driver. He's written hundreds of articles for North American and European journals and newspapers, including features for the Ottawa Citizen, Toronto Life and CBC radio.

With over 30 years experience in the trucking industry he's hauled cars, steel, lumber, chemicals, auto parts and general freight as well as B-trains. He holds an honours BA in creative writing and humanities, summa cum laude.

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  • I think one of the reasons that makes Uber so successful, is its customer service and ability to learn and adapt. I used their services and had one of their taxi drivers arriving a few minutes late to pick me up for an important meeting. They called to apologize and said they should have used a different driver and will change their algorithm accordingly. If Uber implements this strategy into the trucking business, they will succeed. Best of Luck to everyone and Happy New Year.

    • Do you know any carriers that would call a shipper and apologize if their driver was 5 minutes late? I once worked for a now-defunct trucking company that would assign a “checker” to call the customer to see when you arrived. One time I was doing a Canadian Tire Store in Barrie and the sycophant wanted to know why I was 10 minutes late. I asked him, “well did you check the weather report or call the MTO or OPP? Did you know it was freezing rain and a Beckers truck was jackknifed at Hwy 89? You should be thanking me for getting it there only ten minutes late.”

    • I’ve heard that the weight rating on a bike is really dependent on the quality of the wheels. Now these are pretty good 18″ wheels on the Strida EVO 3 along with the disc brakes. But if you’re really heavy you can invest in premium wheels and never have to worry about collapsing them.

  • Updating their algorithm is what was impressing. The fact that they took that incident, and learned from it, trying not to do the same mistake twice – that’s a good practice.

    • Speaking of Uber’s algorithms, I’d be interested to know what the rate was in downtown Toronto on New Year’s Eve. Uber has gotten into trouble with its algorithms, i.e. people trying to flee downtown Melbourne Australia, during a terrorist action were charged exorbitant rates via Uber, but again Uber pledged to adjust their algorithms during catastrophes. Generally the Uber rate is cheaper for the average ride with a licensed hack. And I’ve heard the drivers carry $5 million liability insurance, more than the average cabbie. Do you think any carriers use algorithms to set rates. I suspect they do, but I know nothing about the science of rate setting. But I know that the science of “logistics” is all about moving things quickest and most efficiently and cheapest possible, so if an Uber Freight driver is available why not?

      But I’m wondering if an Uber-like “dispatcher in your pocket” system might usurp the role of load brokers for independent drivers and small fleets alike. I think there is a story here worth pursuing. Your comments are welcome. Harry

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