When Ethan Young decided to start his own shipping company, he didn't have a truck, just one cargo van. One year later, he's generated enough business to own three large trucks and hire a team of six drivers. Business is booming, and he says it's all because of a smartphone app.
"It makes the small guy easily compete with the big guy," Young said about the app Cargomatic, which connects trucking companies with local shipments. "Business has gone from zero to 500 percent."
Cargomatic is one of a number of start-ups using crowdsourcing and the so-called gig economy to make American trucking more convenient and profitable. And like many start-ups, it's built around the smartphone.
Cargomatic uses an Uber-like model, letting individual truckers or fleets pick up local shipments that need to go out. For small, independent fleets—which the American Trucking Associations says make up 90 percent of all trucking—the app means more business, said Young, co-owner of Los Angeles-based Exclusive Industries LLC.
"They go out there, do the marketing, get the companies [to participate]. You just have to turn on your app and make sure you're ready to rock and roll," said Young.
For companies, it's essentially a virtual freight or shipping broker that finds local trucks in the area with free space in their containers and tracks the delivery of your products.
"In local and regional shipping, there was fragmentation. Mom and pop companies know the pain of not being able to find trucks when you need them," said Cargomatic CEO Jonathan Kessler.
Then there's Drivewyze, which allows drivers to legally bypass weigh stations and inspection sites through agreements with 35 state commercial vehicle enforcement agencies.
As a truck approaches a weigh station or inspection site, Drivewyze runs the truck's Department of Transportation (DOT) information through a federal database, which then produces a safety score. While there is random testing, drivers with a good history can keep driving the majority of the time.
"It's kind of like a TSA pre-screening for trucks. By joining this program, in exchange for passing this DOT information electronically ahead of time, you have a good chance of skipping the line for the scale completely," said Doug Johnson, Drivewyze's director of marketing.
Passing a weigh station saves a trucker $9 or more in fuel, according to Johnson. By this calculation, if a trucker gets two bypasses a month, the $15-a-month app pays for itself.
Another company—PrePass—offers similar bypass services but is available only through a transponder-type device, not as a smartphone app.
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TruckerPath uses input from users to helps truckers find stops, rest areas or weigh stations based on other users adding locations into the system, rating them and giving feedback.
"If you're a trucker, you put your route in and it put pins for different types of establishments like Pilot truck stops, weigh stations or rest areas," said TruckerPath's Charles Myers. "Say, you're looking for a rest area. It'll send you a message on whether is it open or closed. Because of crowdsourcing, the information is very up to date."
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The increased convenience afforded by smartphone apps could help solve another problem the industry faces—a shortage of drivers—by bringing younger people into the industry.
The median age for a trucker in the U.S. is 46, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The median salary for a truck driver of a medium load is about $37,000 a year but can range from about $24,400 to $47,700 according to Payscale.
But like everywhere smartphones and vehicles intersect, there are safety concerns.
"At the end of the day, our main concern is distracted driving," said Ted Scott, American Trucking Associations' director of engineering. The ATA is "very cautiously" supportive of new technology for truckers, he said.
"The problem isn't if an app on a cellphone is touch free. It's about eyeballs, where the driver's eyes are," said Scott.
Enforcing rules against distracted driving is difficult. While truckers might not be holding or typing on their smartphones and these apps may be designed to be zero-touch and in a dashboard mount, most of the apps will likely be on while a trucker is driving.
Voice-controlled apps, like the iPhone's Siri function, as well as an app talking back to you, may be a way to reduce distraction, said Scott.
"The rule is simple, stay off the phone when you're driving."