600,000 truck drivers are using an app that could eventually take their jobs

  • December 30, 2019

The Uberization of the trucking industry is well on its way, merging Big Tech with Big Trucking in a way that threatens to upend the industry and its workers as the technology helps ease the way toward self-driving truck fleets of the future.

The Uber Freight app and its competitors have promised to democratize the industry and revolutionize the way drivers connect with shippers. So far it hasn’t sent truck drivers to the unemployment line, but some disruption to the job market seems inevitable in the long-term, raising the possibility that the apps making drivers’ lives easier now will eventually help put them out of a job.

Uber says it has 600,000 drivers using its app in the U.S., Canada, the Netherlands, Germany, and Poland. Thousands of shippers are customers, ranging from small businesses like a boba tea provider to Fortune 500 companies like Nestle and LG. Convoy, which predated Uber in the market and called itself the “Uber for trucking” when it launched in 2015, has more than 100,000 drivers on its platform.

At one level, Uber and Convoy are standard freight brokers. They link up a business that needs items transported and a carrier that has a truck free to take them. Shippers upload information about their loads, including the pickup and drop off, type of freight, weight and more. Drivers log on and scan through a list of loads near them to find a trip they want to take.

But at the same time the sleek smartphone apps, and others like them, are changing the game and are poised to be a big disrupter.

“We are at the beginning of a fairly significant transformation in the spot market, the brokerage space,” said Noel Perry, a freight analyst who is a principal at the firm Transport Futures. “It’s a move from largely manual methods of collecting loads and carriers and matching them and handling the paperwork to a much more automated process.”

Rather than calling a broker or going onto its website, “the future will be something like a cell phone with a ding that will tell the carrier, for instance, that there are loads that seem to fit his or her profile,” Perry said.

Uber, which has come under heavy fire for how it treats its rideshare drivers, is trying hard to angle away from that maelstrom and position itself as a tool that empowers truck drivers.

For example, Uber recently created a feature to let drivers rate and review facilities, which the company says not only gives drivers a voice but gives Uber data it can take to shippers to help them fix inefficiencies. Another recently added feature is “bundling,” which allows drivers to book loads and reloads at the same time, removing the empty miles and wasted time that they frequently experience getting from Job A to Job B.

“From day one, one of our cultural norms has really been driver or carrier obsessed, in doing everything we can to help them in their daily lives and grow their business,” said Lior Ron, the head of Uber Freight, in a recent interview.

Despite the happy talk from Uber, there are some tough critics in the space, such as small truck drivers who see the app as an interesting tool, but who are concerned with the contract Uber has drivers sign, among other things.

“It really protects Uber and shippers but it doesn’t protect the guy with a truck,” said Lewie Pugh, a long-time trucker and executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.

Uber only pays drivers for up to four hours of “detention time,” when drivers are waiting to be loaded or unloaded. Pugh said the waits can be more like eight hours at times. He also has concerns with the way Uber pays claims.

“I would love to be able to say ‘Here’s a place you can go get loads and you’ve got some protection,’ but I’m not putting OOIDA’s name on there if I wouldn’t feel comfortable hauling under it,” he said.

Pugh also highlighted one incident that he suggested raised a red flag. He asked the company to send over a copy of its broker carrier agreement for review. Then he had another OOIDA member sign up with the app to be a driver.

“The agreement they gave him was completely different than they give me,” Pugh said. “We ended up with two different contracts.”

And in a classic, Silicon Valley trope, the company’s massive scale — thousands of employees, and growing — and fast pace can sometimes make it hard to keep up. “We met with them four times,” said Pugh. “The four times we’ve met with them, different people.”

The app and others like it could replace labor and take away jobs, both at brokerages and companies involved on both ends of the process, including people who in the past were making phone calls instead of using an app.

“The technology is a major challenge to the brokerage space. If the traditional guys don’t respond and learn how to use it and leverage it, they will go away,” said Perry.

It’s also possible that the technology Uber is developing now could ultimately help do away with truck drivers’ jobs.

Ron of Uber Freight’s last job was at Otto, where he led the company’s work on developing self-driving trucks. That’s not what his division at Uber is focused on now, but it’s hard to avoid talking about it when looking at the technology Uber Freight is developing.

“I fundamentally believe that you need a liquid, reliable network as a precondition for any deployment of self-driving, so I do think it’s sort of a step on the way for the future,” Ron said.

“Once you have a self-driving truck, it’s going to be like an airplane where you want to utilize that very expensive asset as much as possible. The best way to deploy that is on a network,” he added. “We’re building the safest, most reliable, most scaled network” which Uber or its partners can take advantage of down the line, he said.

Drivers, including some who use and appreciate Uber Freight, recognize there’s a risk to their livelihoods from the technology.

One trucker calling himself Big Al, who posted a review of Uber Freight on YouTube a few months ago, said he likes how easy it is to book loads on the app, but sees it as an inevitable part of a revolution that could ultimately cost him his job.

“When they get automated truck driving, they’ll get loads they can haul. A little piece of me is like, by supporting Uber Freight right now, it could be one day the death of the trucking industry as we know it or the job I do,” he said, echoing Ron’s point about how the infrastructure Uber is creating now could someday serve as a network for self-driving trucks. “If it’s coming, it’s coming, there’s really not much we can do about it.”

On the shipper side, Uber argues that it can appeal both to bigger companies and smaller shippers by providing flexibility, visibility, and access to demand.

That’s largely been borne out, said Jess Dankert, vice president for supply chain at the Retail Industry Leaders Association.

Uber and its competitors offer the opportunity for shippers to diversify, especially during peaks or surges when they’re looking for extra capacity, she said.

“Regardless of the size of shipper, the digitization of shipping and that additional visibility has been really good for them in general,” Dankert said. “It’s exciting to see how many options there are to improve the performance of the shippers and make them better at doing what they want to be doing, which is serving the customer.”

So for the short-term, it seems like the Uberization of trucking has benefited the industry writ large, despite the long-term threat.

Uber and other tech-focused new entrants to the space themselves are certainly counting on coming out as moneymakers.

One of Uber’s most prominent competitors, Convoy, initially backed by Jeff Bezos among others, was recently valued at $2.7 billion.

And Uber says the division has been growing, and that the company recently moved Freight out of its “other bets” category and made it its own division.

“We’ve done that to signify that this is a central part of the company’s strategy,” said Ron. “This is definitely one of the core pillars of Uber today, and specifically also in the future as we continue to scale.”