Aligning Driver Schedules to Freight Flow is Key to Profitability and Driver Retention

Technological advancements will help the trucking industry effectively ride the wave of volatile freight markets and have a competitive edge while keeping costs contained and drivers happier.

Pexels Truck Fleet

In the less-than-truckload (LTL) industry, the plan for drivers’ work goes by many names. Bids, runs and schedules all are terms used to characterize a week’s worth of work that a driver will repeat for 6-12 months. In periodic run selection processes, drivers—based on seniority—will choose their schedules, which can include sleeping at hotels 2-3 nights per week.

The schedules that drivers choose during this run selection process can be complicated, since they must ensure that:

·      Drivers’ hours of service do not exceed DOT daily/weekly limits

·       Trailers travel from their origin to destination by specific cycles (break, inbound)

·       Tractors and equipment are balanced

·       Arrival patterns into hub and inbound shifts don’t overwhelm any given dock

The process of updating and maintaining these schedules is both an art and a science, often requiring years of experience to do so effectively. Even with that experience, maintaining the schedules in the face of seasonal volume changes, frequent load plan updates and disruptions like the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and hurricanes is a mammoth task and infeasible to do across the entire network. Making sweeping updates across the network would take days, so carriers often resort to band-aid, reactionary fixes. Without being able to effectively update driver schedules in a timely and efficient manner, the ability to meet demand efficiently is lost.

So, what happens as volume, load plans and other elements change, but driver schedule updates can’t keep up? The design of driver schedules gradually drifts further away from the design of the freight flow. This mismatch results in significant issues for LTL carriers:

1.       More adjustments have to be made by dispatchers on a day-to-day basis, when time is already short and the environment hectic.

2.       More drivers have their schedules changed or cancelled on a day to day basis.

3.       More empty miles are run as the demand originally planned for has changed (such as running a pre-COVID-19 plan during COVID-19).

Each of these adverse effects can have serious implications for a carrier’s bottom line. Daily schedule adjustments and updates can overwhelm dispatchers who already have many responsibilities and little time or visibility. Within a matter of minutes, they are making complex decisions (with significant impact on miles run), ultimately leading to sub-optimal operations.

In addition, frequent cancellations or modifications to a driver's selected run removes consistency that the driver is expecting. They lose out on pay, time at home and the ability to plan a life around loads, which ultimately can lead to dissatisfaction and turnover. In this environment of a driver shortage, carriers cannot afford to have unhappy drivers.

With these mounting challenges and freight volumes becoming less predictable, carriers must look for innovative ways to keep their schedules current and efficient. Current processes cannot keep up with the dynamics of the modern freight environment, and carriers must rely on technology to assist in their driver scheduling processes.

Advanced optimization technologies, which once were available only to highest-end systems and custom development environments, are becoming more and more attainable. Companies are leveraging the algorithms and artificial intelligence to create systems that make it easy for LTL carriers to optimize, update and maintain efficient driver schedules. Technological advancements like these will help the trucking industry effectively ride the wave of volatile freight markets and have a competitive edge while keeping costs contained and drivers happier.