PRINCETON, NJ. While “technology” is part of his title, J.B. Hunt Transport executive Richie Henderson believes that new information technology can only help the industry address its most pressing problems when fleets recognize that “experience is the new differentiator.”   Going forward, fleet  investment needs to “revolve around the experience powered in part by technology,” the Hunt senior VP of technology and administration said in opening the 2014 ALK Technology Summit.  “It all needs to begin and end with the employee and customer experience.”

The shortage of qualified drivers is the single most important issue facing for-hire fleets, according to Henderson (seen at right), who pointed to a current gap in new drivers entering the field and demographic changes leading to many older drivers exiting the industry.  At Hunt a new hiring process call Driver Dedicated looks to package all recruiting, training, orientation and management functions into a single platform to improve that experience for its recruits.

The second, and related issues is tight freight capacity, especially in the truckload market. With new regulations like CSA and changes to hours of service reducing the experienced driver pool by 3 to 5%, Henderson said current active capacity utilization had now reached 100%. “The last capacity crunch in almost reached 100% in 2004, and I believe it’s even worse in 2014,” Henderson said.  While freight rates are rising in response, shippers with better visibility into their distribution costs now understand that supply chain failures can be 30 to 60 times more expensive than a 4 to 6% rate increase.

The third experience related issue for fleets involves “the omni-channel,” which he described as consumers combining e-commerce, mobile access, social media, and brick-and-mortar.  “They expect to research on one channel, purchase on another, and have it delivered tomorrow,” Henderson said.  “And they want it to be a seamless experience.” New routing/scheduling and fleet management software, as well as siting distribution facilities based on demand are all new technology solutions that will have to be used by fleets, but the end user is focused only on their experience, he said.

The fourth technological issue for fleets driven by the need to deliver a satisfying experience is big data and the related analytics.  “Every touch point in the supply chain now gives us a view,” Henderson said. Shippers want real-time visibility into that chain and they want answers quickly, he told the summit.  “Better analytics impact better financial performance and help make better decisions faster.”

The final issue is the general and steady improvement in the overall economy.  Citing steady GDP growth, continued low interest rates and a housing market rebound, Henderson said “we  believe the economy is advancing, which in turn means more supply requirements [for shippers] just as capacity is becoming completely constrained.”

For Hunt, “technology is critical” to addressing those five key issues, according to Henderson.  “But we understand that we’re investing to deliver a better experience to our customers and our drivers. That’s the bigger picture.”