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Truckers' Delight

For the independent owner/operators who drive the bulk of the North American trucking fleet, dead-heading -- returning to a base or point of origin with an empty truck -- is the bane of the profession. Second on the list of banes is "forced dispatch" -- when the trucking company dictates where its contractors go next, and with what sort of load.

Now Landstar System, Inc., a large transportation services company based in Jacksonville, Fla., has implemented a mobile "load-alert" system that has the potential to solve both of those problems.

A simple idea ingeniously contrived, the Landstar system -- based on off-the-shelf software from Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) and launched last January -- is a subscription service for Landstar drivers that provides alerts when loads that meet the drivers' criteria become available. The criteria include the fee, the origin and destination, the type of load, the dates for pickup and delivery, and so on.

When a suitable load becomes available, the driver is notified by any of a range of communication methods that includes voicemail, email, and email to a cellphone.

Previously, says Landstar vice president of advanced technology Patrick Wise, owner/operators, who function in the Landstar network as independent small business owners, had to go online and search the Landstar.com database for suitable loads. "They'd only find loads when the right load and their ability to access the information hit at the same time," explains Wise, who presented the new system at the Mobile and Wireless World conference in Orlando. "If the perfect load came up while you're on the road, you were out of luck."

Because Landstar, which has around 8,500 independent drivers in its network, makes a percentage on each load transported, the increase in volume translates into increased profitability for the company. "When you take the inefficiency out, our business improves," says Wise. "If every driver gets one more load a year, that's 8,500 more loads a year -- and we make money on every one."

Wise and his team pulled the application together from Microsoft programs including SQL 2005 and Speech Server 2004. When a sales agent for a company enters a load into the alert system, the software matches it with drivers' criteria and automatically sends out alerts to the appropriate drivers. The system includes a "Follow Me" feature that takes into account a driver's destination for load alerts, so that the driver can pick up a new load in the city in which his or her current trip ends.

The system, says Wise, follows from the Landstar's ethos -- it's the only trucking services company, he says, that doesn't do forced dispatch.

"Our owner/operators drive a truck because they want to be on the road -- they love the freedom of the road," he explains. "If you ask them, 'If you got to choose your own loads, would you?' the answer would be overwhelmingly yes."

That would explain the rapid uptake of the new service. Landstar, which had $2.5 billion in revenue in 2005, had 20 percent of its drivers opt into the new system in the first two weeks of its release. Now the company is at 32 percent, and Wise expects that to go to close to 60 percent. The system is sending out about 350,000 alerts per month.

"It's brought about a profound change in our business model," says Wise. "And I can't tell you how gratifying it is to have these drivers come to me and say, 'This has not only changed my business. It's changed my life.' "

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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