Has Trucking Finally Found the Automated Holy Grail?
At least two new trucking companies say they are close and are getting closer to the automated holy grail.
One is a new company called Variant that operates within an older and more familiar company – US Xpress. The other is a startup from Austin, Texas called AI Fleet. It’s safe to assume that AI in this case is synonymous with artificial intelligence, an important factor in the development of both companies.
Both claim they’re super driver-friendly, offering more frequent return times, fewer delays, more miles, and everything but free ice cream. Both claim that their technology automates the process of acceptance and load balancing. The machine finds, negotiates and selects the right loads to maximize kilometers paid and minimize delays at stops. It’s also constantly updated, adjusting to weather, traffic, delays and all the unpredictable things that plague trucking. The drivers are sent entirely by algorithms that take into account their availability in service, the expected time of home, etc. Artificial intelligence, or machine learning, improves technology with experience. At least that’s what they claim.
AI Fleet has bragged to CCJ Digital that no driver has left for another carrier since it began operations in April 2021. They concede, however, that it will inevitably happen someday. AI has around 35 drivers, a third of whom are women, according to Forbes. The company guarantees a minimum annual salary of $ 67,600 and time at home each week. Running on investment money, AI Fleet has a long way to go before it hits the big time and we’re learning whether drivers really like them or not.
The variant is larger and has been running for a bit longer. It is also a big step ahead with the charges of its parent company, US Xpress.
Variant claims to have 1,500 pilots as he grows within the US Xpress organization. Its recruiting homepage says it “puts drivers in their place” – a bit of a headache even when you know what they’re trying to say.
With growth in mind, Variant has come up with a variation of recruiting traditional drivers. Variant encourages current drivers to recruit new ones. A Variant driver who brings another driver to the fleet receives 2 cents for each mile the recruiter travels. A recruiting driver is called an “ambassador”. He or she and the driver (s) they hire are called a “team”. When another member of the “squad” recruits a driver and begins to collect their 2 cents per mile, the original Ambassador will receive half a cent for each mile traveled by that new recruit. The system currently goes down four levels, and there is no time limit on mileage dividends, according to Variant’s Brad Carmony.
Granted, it sounds like a direct sale or even a pyramid scheme, but it’s neither. The drivers don’t put in any money. The money is coming back to them and Carmony has said that a driver’s penny per mile dividend is not from another driver’s salary. He is paid by the company. Yet the idea of Variant’s kilometer pyramid is less about improving the lives of drivers and more about hiring more. Maybe they should all wear military stripes, medals, and epaulettes.
Oddly enough, AI Fleet and Variant have more in common than the automation of the trucking business.
According to his LinkedIn profile, AI Fleet CEO Marc El Khoury worked for US Xpress as Chief Strategy Officer for “less than a year” in 2019. US Xpress launched Variant in June 2019. I doubt this is a coincidence. It’s also worth noting that in December 2021, US Express suddenly fired Cameron Ramsdell, then president of Operation Variant, along with other responsibilities within the company. No explanation was given, although US Xpress reaffirmed its commitment to Variant. It may just be a coincidence.
Either way, Variant and now AI Fleet may be the start of a new era, something big haul has dreamed of since the day the first transporter met their first computer.
By this time, in the 1960s, programmers sat in the departments of trucking companies for months. They tracked, recorded and analyzed every step and every decision, no matter how small, in every business process managed by a department. Then they would try to convert this intricately detailed knowledge into code for the mainframe mainframe housed in its own temperature-controlled room. More than one major carrier has nearly failed after a newly programmed computer blocked billing and checks stopped arriving.
Large trucks survived those early days and spent more and more resources on machines that would eventually replace virtual armies of clerks who once typed out bills of lading, manifests, freight invoices, declarations and more.
But the core business of finding, booking, routing and shipping freight seemed immune to automation. There were simply too many constantly moving parts for programmers to program and computers to calculate. Automating all of this would take decades and supercomputers well beyond the resources of the most successful trucking company. It was the holy grail of trucking.
Well, maybe someone has finally found it, or at least part of it. While US Xpress has not been the most technologically innovative carrier, they have certainly been among the most likely to share their achievements. I’m surprised there hasn’t been much more ado about Variant. Of course, AI Fleet doesn’t have a story.
It will be interesting to see how that plays out and whether these two automated carriers are in fact the first of a new wave of technology. LL