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Convoy research takes deep dive into trucking’s empty miles problem

It goes without saying that empty miles has long been an issue impacting the trucking sector, given the often lengthy, not to mention, unprofitable, distances they represent. In fact, industry estimates peg the current amount of empty miles at around 20% of total miles driven, not a small percentage by any stretch.

Recent research issued by Seattle-based digital freight broker Convoy takes a long look at the empty miles issues impacting trucking, including how when miles are wasted so is fuel, coupled with more carbon emitted, and drivers spending more idle hours on the road and at docks.

Convoy’s research, entitled “What you need to know about empty miles in trucking,” by Aaron Terrazas, Director of Economic Research, Convoy, identifies myriad trends and themes related to empty miles, including:

  • reducing waste is critical to the freight industry and the miles that truckers drive empty are an important part of industry waste;
  • available data suggest remarkably little progress in reducing the miles that truckers drive empty over the past two decades; and
  • recent estimates of empty miles typically put the phenomenon around 20% of total miles driven, but these numbers include a wide range of trucks and trailers. 

For the most familiar type of interstate freight -- heavy trucks with dry van or refrigerated trailers -- the number is probably closer to 33%

While the issue of empty miles continues to be pervasive in the trucking sector, Convey’s Terrazas raises the point that there are no industry-wide standards or guidelines for calculating and reporting empty miles, while noting that some carriers voluntarily do so voluntarily or to inform investors, with the caveat that it is unclear the degree to which these metrics-even when similarly labeled-are comparable across carriers. And he added that there are two main sources for empty miles estimates: surveys and tracking devices, which he said each comes with its own advantages and limitations.

As for the differences between the two, he said surveys provide broader coverage but are vulnerable to a number of known biases like decisions made in designing the survey, as well as decisions about question wording, order, and length, which can shape the outcome.

Tracking devices like ELD (electronic logging devices) and smartphones, wrote Terrazas provide more detailed location data that is based on actual truck movements and have the potential to produce more estimates of empty miles. And he added that this approach also requires complimentary data or some degree of interference to identify when a truck is loaded and when it is empty.

In an interview, Convoy’s Terrazas stated that the empty miles-related biggest pain point for carriers is obvious, in that they are not getting paid for being on the road. But on the shipper side, he said, that the challenge is less obvious.

“Shippers don't necessarily see the extra costs that carriers price into all their rates to account for deadhead miles, but they are paying them,” he said. “Many shippers have just become accustomed to either passing these extra hidden costs along to consumers or factoring them into their expected freight spend.” 

When asked why there has been limited progress in reducing the miles that truckers drive empty over the past two decades, Terrazas cited the various issues related to that. 

“Carriers are always trying to reduce their own deadhead miles, but each individual carrier only can control their own routes,” he said. The industry as a whole hasn't had much of an incentive to reduce deadhead and, beyond some individual carriers, no one is tracking this phenomenon in a systematic way.” 

Looking at steps that could be taken to reduce the cumulative percentage of empty miles, Terrazas said that advances in data and technology should make it easier to both track empty miles and to reduce them.

“This should be top of mind for everyone in the industry,” he said. “While my own focus is on the data side of things, one example you recall from late June is the launch of Convoy's Automated Reloads offering  developed to help drivers earn more and minimize their empty miles by finding pickups close to where they finish a previous load.”  

And when asked about the role that ELD and smartphones can play in better gauging the percentage of empty miles being driven, Terrazas replied that many asset based carriers have long used electronic tracking devices in their vehicles and have more control over and information about the loads that their drivers run.

“This is one reason they are able to report aggregate empty miles statistics in financial reports,” he said. “For brokers who work with a network of independent carriers or owner-operators, the challenge is more difficult because they rarely have full visibility into a driver's schedule.” 

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About the Author

Jeff Berman's avatar
Jeff Berman
Jeff Berman is Group News Editor for Logistics Management, Modern Materials Handling, and Supply Chain Management Review and is a contributor to Robotics 24/7. Jeff works and lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, where he covers all aspects of the supply chain, logistics, freight transportation, and materials handling sectors on a daily basis.
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