From trucking to air transit, the coronavirus pandemic has brought forth many changes to the transportation industry. While it remains to be seen which changes will positively and permanently influence the way we do business, one of the most prominent ways we can gather real-time insight is through one of our most reliable friends: data.
This month, we sat down with Omnitracs Chief Data Scientist Dr. Ashim Bose. He and his team of data experts continuously monitor and analyze industry data, and they have been gathering informative data amid this pandemic. Read on to learn what he had to say on COVID-19 data trends and what they can tell us about the pandemic’s influence on our industry.
Q1: What data metrics has your team focused on since COVID-19 has emerged?
At Omnitracs, we collect a lot of data from our customers. In terms of the pandemic and some of the indicators that would provide insights on the health of the industry in the U.S., we look at various anonymized, aggregated, and normalized metrics, like total miles driven by state, by region, and the number of active drivers and vehicles.
We look at critical event data, such as frequency and types of critical events. We also look at fleet and fuel efficiency metrics. Then, we slice and dice the data based on the industries and sub-industries our customers operate in to understand each segment’s trends better.
Q2: In terms of how COVID-19 has impacted the trucking industry as a whole, what has been your most significant data finding?
COVID-19 has significantly impacted our industry. Unsurprisingly, our data showed a massive dip in April due to the nationwide pandemic shutdown that started in March. There has been a month-to-month improvement since April, but it has been a gradual one. As of August, there seems to be a bit of a plateau.
A significant takeaway is that different segments of the industry were impacted differently. Some segments saw an uptick, causing higher utilization of assets and expansion. Others saw a downturn and reduced their fleets and drivers accordingly. The relaxation of the Hours of Service rules helped some of our customers deal with increased demand.
Q3: Based on your data findings, which industries have been the most and least impacted by COVID-19?
We cover and monitor a lot of industries in various segments. The e-commerce industry saw a significant uptick that has continued. Manufacturing saw a severe downturn as the plants shut down, but there has been a gradual uptick since plants have started opening again. The grocery and paper goods industries saw an early uptick due to the panic buying, and then demand steadied. The sporting goods and leisure industries saw an uptick as gyms shut down, with people looking for ways to stay active while staying home. Over time, the supply chain tightened, resulting in a downward trend. Port activity dropped to lower levels, which indicated a tightening of the supply chain.
Transportation and warehousing as industry subsegments have remained steady. Since these are the general-purpose carriers who operate in multiple industries, the demand for their services has been stable during the pandemic.
Q4: Your data focus has been mostly on the over-the-road industry. Have you been able to draw connections and comparisons between how the pandemic has impacted over the road and the last mile?
We’ve been able to draw some connections. For example, in e-commerce, the last-mile segment has been very active and much needed during the pandemic.
We’ve taken a different approach in our data analysis for the last mile. For example, on-time deliveries for the last mile are among the most critical KPIs, and they align with the expected SLAs for e-commerce. Companies tend to apply whatever resources they can to meet the SLAs. Real-time visibility to available capacity and demand becomes even more critical.
Q5: Which segments of the transportation and trucking industry do you believe will be impacted most by COVID-19 in the long run?
I would say it’s retail — particularly brick-and-mortar. As people do more online shopping and stay home, they are spending less time shopping in stores and are growing more comfortable with the safety and convenience of online shopping. This trend is having a direct impact on the transportation of goods to these retail outlets. Unfortunately, this trend seems to continue to be moving in a negative direction. It’s a bit of a vicious cycle because many stores are closing without that demand, which may lead to fewer choices over time and less need for goods to be shipped to retail outlets.
Q6: How can industries negatively impacted by COVID-19 utilize digital transformation to achieve tremendous success, based on your data findings?
Successful businesses will have a diversified portfolio, and all of those will be enabled with digital transformation. Diversification, the process of having customers in multiple industry segments, is especially critical now given the pandemic’s impact in specific industries. Companies who have harnessed the growth of the e-commerce side of retail are reaping the benefits.
Let’s say you’re serving a segment that isn’t doing well; you can diversify to another segment that’s doing better — whether it’s e-commerce, manufacturing, or something else you’re able to serve.
Q7: Does your approach to data continuously improve and evolve over time?
Absolutely. We certainly continue to broaden the data we look at — from over the road to last mile. With SmartDrive’s acquisition, for example, we can now enhance our video-based intelligence and some of the KPIs around safety. We’ll also be looking at enhanced predictive and preventive models based on these trends.
Q8: How has this pandemic reshaped the way we look at data?
I would say it’s given a new meaning to the term, ‘Data is the new oil.’ That term has been around a while, but it makes it more significant. It reinforces the need to treat data as an asset and look at the trends while ensuring that the data is clean, anonymized, etc.
It also reinforces a need to collect and evaluate even more data. So, it reflects this a virtuous cycle of collecting data, cleansing it, anonymizing and aggregating it, extracting insights, building machine-learning models, and identifying the need for more data. In a lot of cases, this directly ties into the digital transformation trend.
Q9: Based on your historical data findings, which positive impacts do you see COVID-19 having on our industry as a whole?
Well, specific segments saw an uptick, and that’s always a positive. There will be a greater need for digital transformation to harness the data and apply it for diversification and productivity improvement. The focus on data and the trends has provided more impetus for that.
Q10: With the current pandemic in mind, what past and present business approaches should converge for businesses to achieve a more prosperous future?
Diversification, agility, and digital transformation are all key to a more prosperous future. Businesses need to leverage their data and associated trends as an asset to enable this.
Q11: What should industry leaders prioritize in terms of data?
As an industry, we need to prioritize more near real-time intelligence to improve safety, productivity, compliance. When we talk about predictive and preventive models, the faster you can get insights, the more actionable they can be. That’s something that’s even more important now — from micro-weather at a particular location to COVID precautions to available parking and available dining. There’s a continued need for alerts and intelligence at the edge in the cab. With that enhanced intelligence, we can take the right actions. This need has been there for a while and is becoming more critical now.
For more on data in freight, read our blog post with Dr. Bose from earlier this year on the significance of deployed data