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Transport In 2018: The Year That ELDs, The Economy And The Driver Squeeze All Came Together

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Transport In 2018: The Year That ELDs, The Economy And The Driver Squeeze All Came Together

In no particular order, FreightWaves editors are recapping here what they see as the biggest stories impacting the trucking and transport sector this year. We didn't choose a number one story, and we didn't even make it a top 10; we've got 11 here. As we go into 2019 from 2018, here's a look back at some of the stories that made the biggest splash in the year about to end.   

2018: a strong, unusual year for freight markets

The exceptional volatility of 2017's fourth quarter carried over into the beginning of this year, flipping what is normally a soft, cool period for freight into a much tighter environment, lucrative for trucking carriers. The enforcement of the ELD mandate, which limited capacity, combined with stronger than expected economic growth, which increased demand and contributed to inflationary contract and spot rates in the first half of the year. Contract freight started to be repriced in March and April to reflect the tighter market. With shippers keen to avoid the transport costs-related earnings surprises of 2017, carriers were able to enjoy low double-digit increases in contract rates. Those increases proved to be enough to stabilize most freight markets, and tender rejections gradually decreased through the year, though they rose again during the June surge. Shippers were paying more to stay inside their routing guides, and the spread between contract and spot rates widened to as much as 23 cts per mile by the fall. The two major hurricanes to make landfall in the 2017 season, Florence and Michael, affected relatively sparsely populated areas that were not major logistics hubs. While local lanes were choked off, national capacity did not get sucked up by relief efforts to the extent it did when Hurricane Harvey flooded the city of Houston in August 2017. Finally, tariff deadlines and consequent pull-forward effects to avoid those duties broke peak season in two: West Coast container volumes in August were soft when they should have been hot and October was hot when it should have been soft. --John Paul Hampstead

ELDs are even more here than they were

The year started with the trucking industry adjusting to the "soft" launch of the electronic logging device mandate (ELD). As of April 1, the hard reality of the mandate hit with strict enforcement. While mass exodus of truck drivers did not occur, the industry suffered a capacity hit as drivers no longer had "flexibility" to cover loads. Lanes of 500-800 miles were particularly hard hit. Dean Croke, FreightWaves' chief analytics officer, estimated that drivers were driving 10% fewer miles, and choosing different freight – either shorter hauls that could be delivered in one day, or freight with higher rates to cover a second day of travel time. Joe DeLorenzo, director of the Office of Enforcement and Compliance for FMCSA, held a series of sessions with drivers to answer questions on the mandate, but the confusion persisted with Facebook groups popping up pushing for repeal of the rule. Numerous groups requested exemptions– some were  granted, but a series of exemption requests, including one for small trucking businesses requested by the Owner-Operators Independent Drivers Association, were denied. As the year progressed, though, carriers and fleets started to adjust, but another reality raised its ugly head: the inflexibility of hours-of-service rules, which until the ELD mandate drivers managed, often through manually adjusting their paper logs, perhaps illegally so.--Brian Straight

How our view of the ‘driver shortage' evolved this year

The so-called ‘driver shortage', or the difficulty that large OTR carriers have in sourcing and retaining quality drivers, is one of the ATA's favorite talking points. After studying the problem for more than a year, though, we think we've developed a more sophisticated way of thinking about the problem. First, capacity constraints are about far more than the nationwide number of truck drivers as measured by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Capacity can be constrained by external forces like hours-of-service regulations and it can be loosened by digital technologies that greatly reduce deadhead miles by matching loads more efficiently. Different lengths of haul have varying levels of constrained capacity, with mid-length hauls and tweener lanes becoming the priciest in the post-ELD landscape. Small and regional fleets have been able to add trucks and drivers much more easily than the mega carriers. We have spoken to midsize fleets that give their drivers at least 40 hours of home time every week, and we've spoken to one midsize fleet that has switched to compensating its drivers on a salary basis. It should be noted that driver wage inflation (12% in the past year or so) has brought more drivers into the industry. Our new metric estimates the number of working truck drivers by combining daily diesel fuel consumption data with daily hours-of-service data pulled from ELDs: we think that the number of drivers has increased by 2% since May. Finally, remember that the "driver shortage" can never simply be an absolute number, but has to be calculated in relation to freight demand, which is always more volatile than employment levels. If we experience a macroeconomic downturn in 2019, trucking rates will plummet, driver shortage or not. --John Paul Hampstead

When running a railroad, a lot of companies want to be very precise

There are now two types of class 1 railroads in Canada and the U.S.: those that have adopted or are adopted precision railroading, and those that have not yet declared their allegiance to the Hunter Harrison-founded system. As CSX (NASDAQ: CSX)—where Harrison was CEO until late 2017 when he unexpectedly died—produced decreasing operating ratios significantly less than 60, pressure ramped up on other railroads to adopt PSR. To sum up PSR and keep it short is difficult, but it involves less of a hub-and-spoke system, a tighter schedule that demands customer adherence to it and as a result fewer locomotives and fewer employees. The pressure on CSX eastern rival Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC) to switch was intense; it will tell the world in February what it plans to do but it clearly plans on doing something.  Union Pacific is all in, making the switch; Kansas City Southern (NYSE: KSU) shows few signs of making the move, and BNSF, as a division of Berkshire Hathaway, has no outside shareholder pressure but an OR that would inevitably have caused it grief if it was a public company. The two Canadian railroads are early adopters. The Norfolk Southern February declaration will be the one to watch in early 2019.--John Kingston

The Dynamex case, New Prime and the battle over contractor classification

The past year saw many legal battles, but none perhaps, has as broad a potential impact as Dynamex Operations West Inc. v. Superior Court. The case involves Dynamex, a package and document delivery company, which plaintiffs said misclassified its drivers as independent contracts. In a lengthy opinion, the court ruled that the Dynamex must apply the "ABC" test, requiring that for the worker to be classified an independent contract, they must be free from control and direction of the hiring entity, that the worker performs work outside the usual course of the hiring entity's business; and  that the worker is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business of the same nature as the work performed. The court ruled against Dynamex and the California Supreme Court declined to rehear the case. The ruling could be felt across the transportation industry, which depends on independent contractors in many applications. The Supreme Court's ruling could make it more difficult for companies to label workers as independent contractors rather than employees. The Court embraced a standard presuming that all workers are employees instead of contractors and placed the burden on any entity classifying an individual as an independent contractor establishing that such classification is proper under the ABC test.--Brian Straight

Two big verdicts take liability payouts to a whole new level

There's no single barometer that says whether trucking companies are losing bigger liability verdicts in the court. As far as we know, nobody aggregates the awards and puts them into an index. But a lot of people in the industry don't think that's necessary for them to know that the awards against trucking companies are getting bigger. There were two in particular in 2018 that bolstered that view. One was against a company that is well-known: Werner Enterprises Inc. (NASDAQ: WERN) . The almost $90 million award was criticized roundly in social media discussion groups on the ground that the facts of the case should have exonerated the driver and his employer, not stuck it with a high eight-figure judgement. The second was against a lesser-known company, FTS International, that works in the oil fields where the facts of the case pointed to significant driver error. But in that one, the judgement of just over $100 million appears to be the largest single award ever handed down against a trucking company.--John Kingston

The ATA listening tour and its proposed amendments to HOS

The ELD mandate triggered concerns about the hours-of-service rules. It turns out that drivers may have been manipulating hours to some extent, and that ended once those hours were monitoring by electronic means. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, though, has recognized this problem and in the second half of the year began taking steps to fix it. In August, the agency published an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) seeking comment on how hours-of-service rules could be adjusted. It did so after a "listening tour" in which interested parties could discuss their views on HOS modifications. The big takeaway is that FMCSA has recognized there is a problem affecting drivers and the delivery of freight and is trying to work with the industry to solve that problem. Among the issues the agency is trying to address through a rulemaking is the on-duty time of drivers using the current 100-air-mile short haul exemption; extending the work day to account for adverse driving conditions; the 30-minute required break; and split-sleeper time. The last item could potentially give drivers more flexibility in determining when they stop to rest. The hope is that a formal rulemaking could begin early in 2019. One issue it did take care of late in the year: it ruled against California's plan to have its own break and rest rules. --Brian Straight

Mining for Money along the last mile

The gold rush into the last-mile delivery segment continued apace in 2018 as providers entered the market while incumbents expanded their service offerings. In the former, FedEx Freight, FedEx's (NYSE: FDX) LTL unit, piloted a dedicated last-mile delivery operation in Dallas with plans to expand into 4 more markets in the first-half of its 2019 fiscal year, which starts June 1. J.B. Hunt Transportation Services, Inc. introduced the first of 5 electric trucks that will be used for last-mile services. In the latter, XPO Logistics Inc., (NYSE: XPO) the market-leader for last-mile deliveries of heavy goods, started "XPO Direct," an ambitious initiative that combines distribution centers, LTL and local delivery services in what the company has called a seamless, end-to-end alternative for firms put off with the cost of operating their own DCs. Then there is Amazon.com, Inc. (NASDAQ: AMZN). The behemoth relentlessly built out its air and ground transport networks to support its wildly popular Prime ordering and delivery program. It agreed to lease 10 more freighters from flying partner Air Transport Services Group, which will bring to 50 the number of cargo craft leased to Amazon from ATSG and fellow Amazon partner Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings (NASDAQ: AAWW). It also acquired 25,000 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter vans for its new ‘Delivery Service Partner' program, which it has described as helping people launch small delivery businesses. If 2018 was busy, 2019 promises to be even more so. At about 12 percent of total U.S. retail sales (18 percent if one excludes transactions like fuel purchases that can't be digitized) e-commerce is just scratching the surface. The surging volumes are likely to neutralize last-mile's historical characteristics of unpredictable network density and seasonal volatility. The US Postal Service's "Parcel Select" product, where pallets of packages are broken down and delivered from USPS' local delivery units to every U.S. address, has succeeded because it allows private players to avoid the last-mile pain points. Now, however, UPS Inc. (NYSE: UPS) ., FedEx Corp. and Amazon, which are Parcel Select's three biggest customers, want to divert an increasing amount of that traffic into their own networks, and they are determined to find ways to make it profitable. The last-mile hills are paved with gold for those players who can find ways to master its economics.--Mark Solomon

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VC funding for transport tech startups accelerated exponentially

This year, venture capital funding for transport tech startups came into its own, with more than $3B committed worldwide. Check out our white paper on the trend here. The first important number to grasp is the sector's hockey-stick growth: VC investment in transportation technology companies grew 24x since 2014. The sector was in its infancy in 2014, and that showed in the distribution of funding: out of a total of 56 deals, eleven were Angel rounds, 32 were Seed rounds, and six were Series A. In 2014, there were only two Series B rounds and no Series C or D rounds. In 2018, the landscape looked much different. Globally, venture capital news was dominated by the emergence of the Masayoshi Son's SoftBank Vision Fund, which raised a whopping $100B to invest in late-stage startups. Softbank poured $1.9B into China's Manbang Group, itself the result of an earlier merger of the two largest Chinese ‘Uber Freights'. Other big rounds this year include online maritime freight marketplace Freightos' $44M Series C and Convoy's massive $185M Series C raise, which took the digital brokerage to unicorn status. There are some signals that point to frothiness in the transport tech space: we wrote just a week ago that Transfix's Series D may be overpriced at 10x revenue. As the three largest digital brokerages (Uber Freight, Convoy, and Transfix) continue to build technology and absorb market share, expect a new wave of smaller software companies to enter the pipeline in 2019, firms providing boutique solutions to more specialized problem—startups that may eventually be acquisition targets for the tech heavyweights. --John Paul Hampstead

The $100 million intermodal battle between two industry giants

A legendary deal between J.B. Hunt (NASDAQ: JBHT) and BNSF years ago laid the groundwork for the growing intermodal sector. J.B. Hunt is overwhelmingly an intermodal company: in the third quarter of 2018, its intermodal revenue was $1.22 billion, while its combined dedicated and truck divisions had combined revenue a bit more than half of that. But Hunt and BNSF have been locked in multiple arbitration battles for years regarding the division of revenues and earnings in the agreement. In the last few months of the year, we learned a few things we didn't know. First, the size of the current despite is $100 million. Second, it appears that BNSF is doing well in the arbitration process, as J.B. Hunt has announced several separate charges to its earnings as a result of decisions coming out of the arbitration process. Third, it may be getting near an end. But will the end truly be the end? A similar dispute was settled in arbitration I 2005 and declarations about the future relationship dissolved into this latest round of dispute-settling. Still, the containers from Hunt are still riding BNSF rails; there's just too much business at stake to shut it down.--John Kingston

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