Consider a high-horsepower Pony Express for freight

What if the trucking industry harnessed the power of mobile communications, vehicle tracking, and computerized optimization systems to move at least a portion of the nation's freight in relays - in a 21st century, technology-enabled take on the old Pony Express? While there are plenty of real-world problems to address, in some cases routine relays, utilizing a network of truck stop "relay stations," just might deliver enough benefits for everyone to make them a winning proposition.

For starters, think about the effects on drivers. Sure, some like the long-haul, gone-long life, but for others the days spent away from home are a serious downside. With shorter relay runs, drivers could be home regularly and often. Assuming it costs $2,000 to $4,000 to recruit and train a new driver, the savings from reduced driver turnover alone could be significant indeed.

USA Truck Inc., Van Buren, Ark., is already utilizing the Drop & Swap system from to help its company implement a new Driver Home Time initiative. The system recommends en route trailer swapping options based on real-time vehicle tracking data. According to Brandon Cox, manager-special projects for USA Truck, the new system enables the company to give drivers more control over their own driving schedules. (See article on page 148 for more details.) So far, he notes, drivers' responses have been very positive.

If drivers are either coming home every night or sleeping at agreed-upon relay points (that offer designated areas for executing trailer swaps and motels for bunking drivers) then productivity might also get a big boost from a freight relay system. After all, the tractors used in relays would not need sleepers, so the weight and length of sleepers could be converted to payload capacity instead.

The fuel costs associated with idling for long periods would also largely vanish without the sleeper on relay trucks. If diesel costs keep climbing and emissions regulations keep tightening, renting motel rooms that drivers don't have to idle to heat or cool could look like economizing to your accountant - even if it feels like splurging to your drivers.

Highway safety might also be enhanced by the Pony Express method because it removes so many truck design constraints, such as the need to accommodate driving teams during work and sleep periods. Truck cabs, for instance, could be optimized for a single driver, with all-window "cockpit" concepts that wrap the controls around the driver and push visibility and maneuverability to new heights. Drivers sleeping in motel beds instead of in noisy truck parking lots might also be safer drivers, less prone to fatigue-related accidents.

Of course, relays are not for every load, or even most loads. "Relays look good on paper, but in real life there are so many variables. Often a driver doesn't get unloaded on time, or somebody gets sick, or the weather slows the driver down on one relay leg and the other driver has to wait," notes Herb Schmidt, senior vp-sales and marketing for Contract Freighters Inc., which uses relays only to handle exceptions. "When things go wrong, there's a domino effect and it impacts everybody up and down the relay line," he explains. "There are pockets where relays work well, but it is with 5 loads out of 100, not 50 out of 100."

Schmidt speaks from solid experience with relays and he makes a very important point. Still, 5 loads out of 100, when multiplied across all loads moved per year, is a lot of trucking. The relay opportunities and benefits will also be far greater for some operations than for others. If the Pony Express model works well for even a few fleets, however, it could mark the start of a whole new competitive horse race.