Believe it or not, e-commerce over the Internet is about to take off in trucking

No, we're not hopelessly behind the times calling 2001 “The Year of E-Commerce.” We recognize that the general media is having a field day with “the dot-com meltdown” as one high-profile Internet company after another tells its investors that the party's over. Their eagerness to report on every dot-com shutdown or stock plunge almost equals the hype and hysteria of the dot-com boom stories over the last two years.

But we're still ready to declare that 2001 will be the year e-commerce comes into its own, at least for the trucking industry.

Most of the failed or struggling dot-com businesses thought they were part of a new economy that made them exempt from old business strategies. Being part of the new Internet movement alone was reason enough to attract capital, and somehow revenues and then profits would miraculously follow. The classic pyramid scheme, with the classic pyramid scheme results.

In trucking, the situation is fundamentally different.

By its nature, trucking is a dispersed business: Trucks bring things to customers, rather than customers coming to a central location to do business. While EDI is an e-commerce tool that attempts to make it faster and simpler to do business with such a dispersed customer base, it's costly, hard to implement and limited to only the largest shippers and carriers.

The Internet, however, provides a low-cost, standardized, easy-to-use network for communicating with virtually anyone who has a phone — wired or wireless.

The availability of such a data network makes e-commerce a practical tool for cutting operating costs while improving productivity and customer service. And that's an irresistible proposition for anyone operating commercial trucks.

Over a decade ago, the concept of transmitting data over satellites and other wireless systems was supposed to revolutionize the way people lived their lives and conducted business. Today, wireless data is still looking for mass-market acceptance. There are cell phones with web browsers and pagers with e-mail, but no one has come up with a use for wireless data that makes it a “must have” for the general public.

Trucking, on the other hand, became the first commercially viable market for wireless data over 10 years ago for one simple reason — longhaul fleets could use it to improve their operations. Today, fleets of all types have discovered ways to profitably use data sent from their trucks and drivers.

So while high-profile ad campaigns try to sell reluctant consumers wireless web services, trucking quietly goes along putting the technology to good use.

E-commerce over the Internet will be the same story. Trucking has a need for the things it offers and a willingness to adopt any new technology that actually has demonstrable value. So certainly learn by example from the crash of the dot-com high-flyers, but don't let their shortsighted failures blind you to the tangible benefits e-commerce holds for trucking.