Summer Fling Fizzles

Great Falls, Montana

It was a summer fling, a May-to-September affair, Memorial Day-to-Labor Day, but the romance with FedEx Custom Critical was waning by the Fourth of July.

The long weekend in San Francisco, spent bicycling under the gaze of the Golden Gate bridge and visiting friends not seen in several years was both a delight and a warning because we sat almost five days without freight.

Sun sets on Black Beauty and her faithful FedEx companion Reefer at the Rolling Hills Casino south of Corning, California.

Blinded by lust — promises of miles at a Sunday-drive pace and an open relationship — we were disappointed when our lady showed a needy side and her promises failed to materialize.
We had two issues: miles and quality of life. We were not getting the promised 4,000 miles a week to pull a company-owned, temperature-controlled trailer at a flat rate plus fuel surcharge. Nor were we getting the 3,600 miles a week that I used for our financial projections. At our average 2,800 miles per week, we would need to be on the road 50 weeks a year to make our numbers. This is working for The Man. We dumped The Man when we hit the the road. We want a life of 36 weeks a year on the road.

In the end, it was the corporate collar that choked the relationship. Knowing us, knowing her, it was the best thing we could do, we returned our trailer in late September.

We are now as close to being independent truckers as a trucker can get without having her own authority to run as a motor carrier. This means we are now truckers whose first job is running a business if we want to stay in business. We are our own dispatchers. We have all the freedom, where to go, what to pull, what price we will accept and we have all the responsibility, there is no one looking for a load for us. We are competing with thousands of other trucks for freight listed on a computerized load board, and in the situation where making relationships with individual freight brokers will determine our financial survival.

FedEx Custom Critical, like Forward Air, our first carrier, relies on Owner Operators for power (to bring the tractor) and uses central dispatch to keep their freight moving.

Central dispatch, a person with a computer, who works with sales people with computers, monitors tractor locations via Qualcomm, a satellite computer installed in the tractor, with an eye on their booked freight. It sends load offers or opportunities to the owner operator, who theoretically can accept or reject. However, in the central dispatch system, the dispatchers are employees, they have their own deliverables, which means they must get the loads covered, so if an owner operator rejects too many loads – and it is tracked by the carrier – she might find her lease canceled, or that she only gets lousy loads. She begins to lose money and she can either pick up the pace or leave.

FedEx, a global corporation, has an advanced tracking and central dispatch system, a computer which monitors the trucks depending on the type of freight moved. We were a White Glove team, the cream of the crop, which pulled high-value, secure, temperature-controlled loads. Parameters about the loads, pick up and delivery time, temperatures, routes etc., were loaded into the computer, which then started to communicate with us once we departed.

If the computer decided that we were stopped too long, it poked us with a “critical checkout” message. If we did not respond in the correct manner within the correct time frame, the computer poked dispatch, who sent its own messages, if we still didn’t respond dispatch phoned.

Anyone who has known us five minutes knows that we are responsible, planners, careful, mindful of deadlines. Growing up in the media, our first jobs were in radio, which is all about timing, to the second. My idea of “on time” is 15 minutes early. Bad news for dinner party hosts.

We are also driving the truck, we see traffic conditions, weather conditions and make decisions accordingly as we travel. The last thing that the Schneider instructors told us when they threw us the keys to their $120,000 tractor was: “Don’t let anyone else drive your truck.” They were saying, you make the decisions because you will have live with them.

The FedEx computer always seemed to be wrestling with us for control of the truck. When we complained — we were never late for pick up or delivery, and I had to phone several times to have our stats corrected because of input errors to the computer — we were told FedEx sells communication to its customers and it was our responsibility to answer all these computer queries. Easier said than done in many locations where there are few places to safely park a 70 foot vehicle to answer the Qualcomm. We avoid talking on the phone while driving, even with a headset.

We paid FedEx $35 a week to rent their chosen Qualcomm with WiFi, GPS and satellite, so we could be tracked. Why was this system inadequate? Any number of $10 iPad apps will tell them not only our direction of travel and speed but what lane we are in on the Interstate. But continually, we were beeped with messages that we needed to hurry up, one of my favorites — “moving yet?”  Not once were we off route, unless you consider getting off the Interstate, to a truck stop, to pee as being off route and we were never late including on our second to last load, which needed to meet a plane.

Before that pickup, with a six hour window, Greg decided to have the tractor lubed, typically a half hour job  — it’s regular maintenance that saves problems — the mechanic found leaking HUB seals, which required a complete drive axle brake job, immediately. We informed dispatch but we were the only unit available, so they pushed back the pick up time. We kicked up our speed from 58 mph to 65 and I stopped once from Syracuse to Buffalo, MacGyver stopped once from Buffalo to Indianapolis. “Wow, we didn’t expect you,” said the terminal employees when we arrived 15 minutes before the plane’s departure.

The computer sucked the joy out of my day. I could have been in a cubicle, albeit with a better view, with a Kevin Spacey-style Horrible Boss. When we adopted the trucking lifestyle, we had three criteria, no employees, no customers and especially no boss. The absolute joy I have experienced in the past three years of being on the open road — confined only by the pickup and delivery times and locations — had dissipated. A new load offer was met with dread. Will this be a secure load? How many times will be told we are running late when we’re not? How many times will be told we are off route when we’re not? How many times will we be told to check the cargo temperature even though they can see it on their own computers? We checked the temperature every time we stopped, but they only asked when we were running. How many phone calls?

Our experience with the Qualcomm is a peek into the future for all American workers. Everyone is waiting for the economy to revive so corporations will feel confident enough to hire. It’s not happening. In fact we will lose more well-paying middle-class and upper middle-class jobs as we go forward. Work life is becoming highly computerized and robotized and the result is that less-qualified, less-expensive workers can be hired to watch over the computer, including workers not even in this country. Think more minimum-wage jobs and how much the economy will grow with that pay level.

Our Qualcomm was a sophisticated system that required only minimal human touch. It eliminated the portion of the job that a human brings to work, the thinking portion. The p
art that can read, understand and react.

On one load the Qualcomm was beeping and dispatch was phoning because we were late for delivery, except we had not yet picked up. The wrong information was entered into the computer, dispatch was following the computer, no one had read the load information.

Our new carrier is Landstar Ranger. We dropped load number four in Texas.

4 thoughts on “Summer Fling Fizzles

  1. Your post reminded me of stories I heard of people working piecemeal in the mills back in the 60s and even earlier. Congratulations on your new carrier. I heard that they are good to do business with.

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  2. We've had our own businesses for many years, and we're used to making all of our own decisions and being resourceful to get the job done. So once we corral yet another system of paperwork, policy etc., we're confident this will suit us well. MacGyver has had his eye on Landstar since we were driving with Schneider, but due to the Great Recesion in 2008-2009 I wasn't sure if I was ready for that much freedom, so we took the scenic drive.

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  3. I think we're headed that direction. Now that you've had a few loads I'd sure like to know more specifics of how it's going there compared to FedEx. We sit almost every weekend. If we could drive weekends we'd do great here but that just doesn't happen.George will be sending Greg and email of an article that he found on the internet. It made us mad.

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