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5 Emerging Trends to Expect from the Trucking Industry in 2021

2020 was a massive year for the trucking industry — as consumers sought more contactless options, retail in eCommerce skyrocketed by 44% last year, the highest annual jump in at least 20 years. As such, both consumer and B2B operations are increasingly relying on trucking to receive deliveries on time. 

In 2021, the trucking industry is expected to make some major changes as it adapts to sustained increases in eCommerce long after the pandemic ends.

Our latest Thomas Industry Update Podcast guest Will Chu has been on the front lines of the industry for the last six years. Chu is the CEO and co-founder of trucking technology company Vector, a contactless pickup and delivery solution on a mission to simplify logistics. 

Alongside podcast host and Thomas CEO and President Tony Uphoff, Chu outlined five key trends industry players should be looking out for this year. 

1. Paperless Operations 

Although Chu noted that paper has been the system of record in the trucking industry for decades, he's seen paperless operations set key trucking companies apart in the last year; namely in more efficient operations and keeping truck stops completely contactless through COVID-19.

"Right now, data is the hardest piece to digitize because everyone is writing things... on that physical piece of paper, so digitizing that has a lot of accelerating positives," Chu explained. "Some of these facilities and warehouses get hundreds of drivers in and out of the facility each day, which is a risk for not only their employees but to the truck driver as well. Being able to send paperwork to a driver on their mobile tablet was critical from a social-distancing perspective, but these companies also learned there are a lot of efficiency gains from just keeping drivers in their cab."

Chu expects trucking operations to continue to trend toward becoming completely paperless over the next year, comparing the transition to that of getting a boarding pass at an airport: 10 years ago you'd wait in line to get a pass printed, five years later automated kiosks were offered to print your pass without having to wait in line for a customer service representative to print the pass for you, and today most people check-in to their flights via mobile device before even arriving at the airport. 

"If you're able to digitize that system of record, that's an opportunity in itself, but it opens up this whole ecosystem and allows different services and products to be built on top of that," Chu said. 

2. Sustained Increase in eCommerce 

Although eCommerce was steadily growing long before last year, COVID-19 become a major driving factor for retailers to turn to moving their operations online, whether to reach a larger audience or to conduct operations more safely. Chu described 2020 as a "constant peak season" for trucking, comparing it to a constant holiday season. He expects the move toward online operations to continue in not only B2C operations but in B2B as well.

"A lot of people talk about peak season, which is usually between Thanksgiving and Christmas, but the way they've talked about the last year, it's been just a constant peak. If anything, during the traditional peak season, it's been like a super peak," Chu recounted. "People are consuming as much, if not more, and they're expecting that two-day-delivery experience. So the demand on the supply chain has just been explosive in the last year."

3. Data-driven Decisions

Throughout Uphoff and Chu's conversation, one theme came up often: data. Vector has been helping truckers move their operations to a digital platform, and as such, they're gaining new access to a massive amount of helpful data. Chu expects data to continue to dominate the industry, helping trucking companies anticipate disruptions and adjust accordingly, ultimately dramatically increasing efficiency.

"When you think about a supply chain, everyone is being measured on different metrics, so being able to pull that together and get additional or earlier visibility on what's actually happening with your supply chain has a real impact on your bottom line," Chu explained. 

He anticipates transportation management systems becoming increasingly popular in the industry as truckers look for platforms to keep data organized and readable.

"Being able to adjust more quickly to your operations is critical today — so making sure that you're delivering 100% of your orders, making sure that your transportation companies are showing up on time and delivering on time — marrying that up one common platform is critical right now," said Chu. 

4. Transparency and Visibility

Along with data-driven decision-making, the increase in data collection now allows truckers to give customers increased visibility throughout the supply chain. While this was once only a nice-to-have, it will soon become a need-to-have in 2021. 

"Ultimately, you want to drive accountability and growth through data," Chu advised. "Logistics is a team effort, and knowing how the different partners operate or what their KPIs are is really important for the end-user, the end producer, or the receiver. And having a place where it's transparent across all those parties is really important."

He relates the trend back to the rise of Amazon-level logistics. Two-day delivery and a picture of your package delivered on your doorstep are becoming industry standards, and not just for consumers. 

"When I get an Amazon package delivered today, they're taking a photograph of the package just dropped on my doorstep, and B2B enterprise companies want that same level of transparency," he explained. "Instead of a $20 [purchase], you're talking about freight that's worth thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars, so being able to see how the freight was loaded, pre-delivery, and how it was delivered, that information is great."

5. Digital Payment 

As more of these consumer purchasing trends translate into industrial purchases, Chu expects digital payment will become more popular as well.

"Digital payment has been one of our core areas of focus, especially on the carrier side — helping carriers, trucking companies invoice customers right after delivery. After we receive proof of delivery, we can kick an invoice out to their customer," Chu said. "Through integrations and automation, right when a driver snaps a proof of delivery, we can send the invoice out. On the shipper side, if they work with their customers, right when that delivery is recognized, we can send the invoice out to the end retailer. Smaller shippers have found that very useful."

Chu expects digital payment to become increasingly popular as it continues to make invoicing a much quicker, and less painful process. 

"One of the big areas that inspired us to start Vector was invoicing customers," he said. "It took a while for drivers to get paperwork back to the office, which had huge implications on getting paid, so we saw an opportunity to create a mobile app that allowed drivers to scan paperwork and digitize it so that they didn't have to worry about paper."