September 1, 2023

Humans are a critical part of freight – and they always will be


For nearly a decade, the freight and logistics industries have become increasingly automated. That expansion of technology has brought with it a simple question: will humans no longer be needed in this industry? 

The answer to that question is an emphatic ‘no.’ 

Humans remain a critical and vital part of freight, and there is no reason they should be removed from the process.

Quite the contrary, in fact. 

2021 saw historic increases in trucking employment, and December 2021-February 2022 was the best three-month stretch in terms of jobs filled for long-distance truck hiring since the 1990s. Additionally, more than 876,000 commercial driver’s licenses have been issued since January of 2021.   

The role of human-in-the-loop solutions

Human-in-the-loop (HITL) solutions–a model which requires human interaction–will play a significant part in the automation of the freight industry. Human operators will be needed to provide feedback on the outputs created by machines and help train and refine algorithms until the desired results are achieved.

A 2020 McKinsey report found that among companies with successful automation efforts, 65% were using HITL solutions. Additionally, these organizations were more likely to ensure their employees had the automation-related training that they needed. 

One of the main benefits of HITL is that it allows humans and machines to work together to create a more efficient and optimized machine learning model. A good example of HITL in action is load recommendations generated by machines studying market variables and user preferences. In this process, a machine is tasked with distributing loads through an application and then finding the best matches likely to book a shipment.

Humans played a role in every aspect of this example: they designed the algorithm to look at user preferences, application activity, market variables, and other key variables.

The algorithm then sent out recommendations, which were evaluated by trucking operators who provided immediate feedback. 

A version of this interaction is becoming increasingly common as digital freight apps grow more sophisticated. Companies such as Uber Freight, Convoy, Transfix, Schneider, C.H. Robinson, and others are investing heavily in an automated carrier experience, and capacity aggregators/virtual carrier applications are adding layers of automation between traditional operators.

Investing in training will be critical

As these traditional operators slowly graduate into automated systems, humans are a vital part of the loop. The semi-automated 3PL systems will require people to train them and create efficiencies over time. 

By automating certain routine manual tasks, organizational data analysis and prediction work, human capacity will be freed up to take on more of the non-routine problem-solving. This ultimately increases capacity and productivity, and drives demand for labor. Additionally, partial automation highlights the continued need for and strategic importance of the human worker to ensure the performance of the algorithm meets the company’s requirements and changes. 

Unlocking the potential for automation

One of the keys to successfully adopting automation is to operationalize trust. The freight industry has historically operated in a fragmented environment, which creates barriers.

A commonality that has a powerful impact is data. We are launching an application, Capacity Link(now in Beta), which is designed to help carriers keep their trucks booked with profitable freight jobs by optimizing the usage of their trucks. 

At the center of this experience will be the relationship between carriers and the ELD data they generate through the normal course of operations. By giving carriers control over their data, they will be able to eliminate the underutilization of trucks and start to build schedules that are optimized to their preferences and operational history. In return, an environment of cooperation is built that can be transformed into optimized opportunities over time.

By keeping carriers and humans at the center of automation, the potential is even greater for a more cohesive, trusted, and reliable logistical process across the trucking industry. 

Our industry remains fragmented, and although digital tools are helping, we have a long way to go. While we believe people will remain at the center of the story even as automation rises, it’s the human and machine relationship we want to make meaningful. 

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