Friday, August 27, 2010

Why Doesn't Every Owner Operator Have an iPhone?

Since the beginning of time man’s ability to communicate has correlated directly with human progress and standards of living. The better the means of communication the more advanced, powerful and wealthy a society becomes. More impressive still, incremental advances in communication tend to confer the most benefit upon people at the margin. Build a cell tower in Los Angeles and you might save some dropped calls. Build one in rural Africa and you might save some lives.

The analogy extends to the trucking industry. Twenty years ago big carriers jumped on satellite tracking to their great advantage. The new found ability to follow shipments and communicate with drivers in real time ushered in a huge wave of productivity. Unfortunately, those living on the margin - owner operators and small trucking companies - failed to catch that wave as the high cost of satellite tracking kept them out of the game.

Today, that game has changed owing to the emergence of smart phones. The owner operator with an application rich iPhone (or similar device) no longer needs a clunky satellite keyboard in his cab. He can communicate with anyone from virtually anywhere via voice, data or text. He can generate turn by turn directions to nearly any destination. He can relay his position in real time to any number of followers. He can plot a route around traffic jams. He can snap pictures from an accident scene and initiate a claim with his insurance company. He can store images of his expense receipts. And unlike his larger competitors, he can do all these things - by no means an exhaustive list - without an IT department. In sum new smart phones give owner operators all the communication capabilities of large trucking companies at a fraction of the cost. If utilized to full effect, we’re talking a new wave of productivity for the little guy that has the potential - for the first time in history - to tilt the scales of trucking more in his favor.

Of course there’s just one problem: owner operators won't use these things. Sure they all have basic cell phones, but that's where it stops. Even more discouraging, many owner operators exhibit a perverse sense of pride in remaining technologically disengaged. “I don’t have an e-mail address.” “I don’t know how to send a text message.” “I don’t know anything about computers.” These catchphrases - all more or less accurate quotes from owner operators who attended MATS 2010 - encapsulate a disheartening attitude that fails to comprehend a fundamental truth about the profession. Owner Operators are not truck drivers. They are business owners. And like all business owners, they must constantly assess new ideas, tools and technologies to retain a competitive edge.

This verity leads me to float some unpleasant conjecture. Might the recent decline in owner operators have more to do with foot wounds than recession? Certainly for any given business the scars of missed opportunities always look suspiciously self inflicted.

Even in the worst of times our economy remains dynamic. Anyone unwilling to adjust to new ways of business will sooner or later find themselves pushed out to the margin. Most owner operators see the writing on the wall, but for some strange reason too many choose not to read it. Let's hope this mindset changes. The trucking business has never suffered the satisfied and complacent too kindly.

In the meantime, I need to send you an important form. You can sign it electronically. Hey, what's your e-mail address?

Thanks for checking in…

Ed, III