When work began on Uber Freight a year and a half ago, I was excited to have even a small impact on such an important industry. The movement of everything around us — from clothes, to food, to furniture — happens with the semi trucks you see along the highways of the world. In the US alone, the trucking industry is a $700 billion annual market, providing more than 3 million jobs to drivers.
While there’s a good deal of tech already in the industry, it’s fragmented and inefficient. That inefficiency has a cost; a human one. As we’ve come to learn, truck drivers are the ones that end up short-changed when the existing system fails. With Uber Freight, the service we create can help advance how this industry works, but also have significant ramifications for the economy as a whole.
To better understand how truckers live and work, and the struggles they face, we use a variety of research methods: surveys, phone interviews, and truck-stop intercepts. But my personal favorite is what we call the ride-along; a journey with a driver moving a load that spans several hours. I’ve done several ride-alongs, but the most memorable is still the first.
Charlotte to Atlanta
That first ride-along was with a man named Frank, back in December 2016. We met him at noon about an hour outside of Charlotte, North Carolina. My product manager and I hopped into Frank’s Freightliner Cascadia sleeper cab, drove to the pick up facility, and started the loading process for 40,000 pounds of bottled water.
Since this was our first time witnessing a driver’s day-to-day, the trip gave us a wealth of foundational insights into the lives of truckers: the way they’re often treated with disrespect, the challenges of staying healthy on the road, but also the parts they value. Truckers love the feeling of freedom, a sense of purpose in their work, and the exhilaration and satisfaction of gracefully navigating a massive machine across the roads of our country.
Over the course of that first, fourteen-hour day, more and more of Frank’s individual story emerged. Nearly thirty years ago, fresh off a Navy career operating construction equipment, he started driving an 18-wheeler. He’s had several trucking jobs ranging from running short distance drayage loads to long distance freight across the southeast.
This career has enabled him to earn a living that supports his wife and six children. Family is everything to Frank, he told us; all of his hard work is in service to them. As we continued to get to know each other, I was more and more impressed and inspired by Frank’s clear love and devotion to his family.
Shooting for an early drop-off
Frank had a plan that day. We were scheduled for a midnight drop off near his home in Atlanta and he knew the drive would take a few hours less than planned. He hoped to use that extra time to get home for a few hours before having to get back on the road. One of Frank’s sons was home from college for Christmas but was heading back to school in the morning. Frank was eager to use that sliver of time to see him.
At 8pm we arrived at the facility with plenty of time to spare, yet the security guards told us we had to turn around — the workers scheduled to unload the truck wouldn’t arrive until midnight. So instead of going home, Frank drove to a nearby gas station, powered down, and slept for a few hours. His son returned to school the next morning. Frank was disappointed, but seemed resigned to this reality. It was part of being a truck driver. He’d missed so many family moments over the years, he’d lost track.
“Get me home more”
That’s why Frank’s response wasn’t a surprise when we asked him what he wanted most from Uber Freight. His answer was immediate and definite: “get me home more.”
Now, at the start of 2018, that’s happening. As the trucking industry moves from a world where finding an acceptable load can be a struggle to one where systems like Uber Freight bring loads directly to carriers and their drivers, we’re able to serve users in new ways. First, we can help Frank and drivers like him get home more, by notifying drivers when a load enters the marketplace that will take them on a journey home. That feature, on top of the ability to find and book their own loads whenever they want, gives Uber Freight app users the power to control their own schedules like never before.
We’re just getting started advocating for our users through the products we build. There is an incredible amount of work ahead of us, but starting with trucker needs is core to the organization we’re building. We’ll continue to spotlight people like Frank and the work we’re doing to make trucking better. And if you’d like to help, we’d love to have you: we’re hiring user-focused designers, engineers, PMs, and more in SF and Chicago.
Huge thanks to Christopher Starr for editing