Guest Post from David Broering, President, North America Non-Asset
There are few in business who will argue with the notion that the smartphone is the single greatest productivity tool of the past 15 years. Nothing has revolutionized the way we do business more since the desktop computer became available to the masses in the late 1980’s. Moreover, the transportation industry has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of mobile phone technology. Merely the idea of contacting a driver while he was on the road was a massive step forward in the availability of “real-time” information. Over the past 15 years, the mobile phone [and smartphone over the past 10 years] has continued to shape business and drive rapid change throughout the world.
In the present day, the expectation is that EVERYONE has a phone, specifically a smartphone. The computational power and technology that most phones possess today make a desktop computer of 15 years ago look slow and feeble, and our worldview has come to expect that. Similarly, the technology and software written for it has progressed equally as fast [if not faster] to the point where a layman has next-to-no chance to keep up with what the device in their hands is doing for them, and what it is sharing to the world. That second part is at the heart of the momentum in the world today as users of these devices start to realize just how much information about us they really know, and we’re starting to learn that anyone willing to pay for it has a way to access it.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal opened people’s eyes. Facebook’s lack of transparency about the user information it was sharing with people who were willing to pay for it was startling for quite a few people. The power of our own devices turned against us makes it much harder to trust, and to engage with those devices in the same way. While the idea of privacy over the years has certainly changed, it has not changed so much that the public outrage felt from the ongoing revelations surrounding the Cambridge Analytica scandal weren’t massive. More importantly, as the wool began to be pulled from the public’s eyes, it was clear that there were many other ways that our privacy could be compromised. One big area that is being compromised is location tracking.
Today, we in the logistics industry have come to expect a much higher degree of transparency related to shipments in transit than ever before. Much of this stemmed from the fact that drivers had a phone in their hands. However, as states adopted laws around hands free driving, many drivers cannot answer their phones while driving. Here is where the glorious world of cell phone triangulation began to enter the space. Spend the time [and money] to integrate with the right partner and you can set up a process that will text a driver an opt-in message that will allow you the user access to that driver’s cell phone location as long as he or she will have you [or until the load delivers]. Companies like 10-4 Systems, Macropoint, FourKites and others created simple and easy solutions for truck tracking that were either built on or heavily reliant on this technology.
As the major U.S. wireless providers began to scour their networks, systems, and integrations for places where they might be exposed, they did come upon some places where they found gaps that were exposing their users to potential privacy issues. A big gap that was identified was the way in which people could access user mobile phone location information via third parties. Companies like LocationSmart provided the ability to access the wireless network of the major U.S. providers via a simple integration. Through this integration all you needed was the user’s permission [via a text message confirmation] to receive their location through the integrated technology.
All of this was being done on the up-and-up since it was permissive and based on a rules engine that ensure that drivers were opted in and staying opted in. Unfortunately, there were other companies that were not as on-board and that has caused some unsavory location-based activities to take place. These situations are bad enough that several wireless carriers [AT&T, T-Mobile] have pulled the ability to generate location data on users, and the rest are either halfway out [Sprint] or have committed to being out of this market shortly [Verizon]. As this technology is phased out, this leaves a very big gap in the way that transactional location tracking comes to shippers and 3PL’s.
Thankfully, there are other ways to receive tracking information AND there have been some new technologies integrated in trucks that provide more information [ELD’s]. Companies like FourKites have been building integrations with Satellite and ELD providers for some time now because they are more sustainable in committed or highly repetitive situations. What will be left behind for transactional tracking once these wireless providers fully pull the plug on triangulation tracking will be app-based. This is where the driver must download a version of that provider’s app and enter their shipment number in order to be tracked. It’s a bit more of a process than responding to a text with Y, and apps are absolutely white noise for drivers in the current marketplace.
So where does that leave us that have been enjoying the value of easy connectivity and somewhat ubiquitous tracking and tracing experience? It leaves us in a place where the overall market is taking a major step back with respect to the ability to track a truck on a transactional shipment. What was once an expectation just a few months ago, has once again become a tougher conversation. Yes, all carriers hauling anything other than local freight brought ELD’s on full speed this time last year, but many are using them for their core purpose and nothing more. Additionally, the ability to be able to turn a carrier on for an ELD integrated tracking concept is not something that can happen in the span of minutes, but in hours or days it absolutely requires the written consent of the carrier, not the driver on an individual shipment.
These next few months of figuring out how to make our world as transparent as it was just a few short months ago are going to be challenging. Meeting the expectations that have come along with the triangulation-based initiatives many shippers and 3PL’s have employed is going to be tough, and we are all going to have to work together to find solutions for providing more transparency through the tools we have available to us. There is certainly great value in the transparency that we have all come to expect, but it must be via the right mechanisms.
Technology in logistics has helped to create a reliance on the cell phone that made our lives easier and really helped to shed light on a gray area of our space. Now we are all venturing into a place with a little less light and we’re going to have to figure out how to cope with it.
Joining NFI in 2012, David is in charge of NFI’s North American brokerage, transportation management, intermodal, and drayage businesses. David is leading this rapidly expanding division by offering a more robust suite of services to new and existing NFI clients.