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How tech is transforming Indian trucking

India’s trucking industry is characterized by small, low-capacity and old trucks—eight out of 10 trucks that run in the country are owned by small fleet owners.  (Photo: Mint)Premium
India’s trucking industry is characterized by small, low-capacity and old trucks—eight out of 10 trucks that run in the country are owned by small fleet owners.  (Photo: Mint)

  • How tech aggregators are bringing in a wave of digitization to the trucking industry
  • Trucking technology has a ‘Bharat’ problem. Most of truck owners live in tier III cities or smaller towns. They have limited access to digital solutions and distrust online transactions.

Syed Rehman does not know how to use a smartphone. Every morning, someone from his team fires up the Blackbuck app —a digital network that is somewhat like an aggregator, but for transporters—and helps him look for consignments.

The app opens up to a list of brokers who, right at that moment, are looking for trucks to ship their packages. All that Rehman, who owns a fleet of trucks, now has to do is call up the numbers and fix the trip. “Earlier, trucks used to remain idle sometimes for days. But ever since I started using the app, loads are easy to find," the transporter from Vijaywada said.

Before he got on the app three years ago, he had to cold-call brokers, checking if any of them had a consignment for the routes his vehicles operate on, or how much they were willing to pay. “Now, I know the fare beforehand and take on the trip only if I agree with it," he says. In the three years he has been using Blackbuck, his trucks make more trips on an average, and his income has gone up by 10%.

Big lumbering smoke-spewing beasts of the highways, trucks are what keep the economy going, transporting vital goods over long distances to bustling markets or remote states. But it is a process riddled with inefficiencies: most of the trucks are old, overburdened and prone to frequent breakdowns; not to mention the fact that truck owners are dependent on middlemen to find them shipments.

But a clutch of truck aggregators—companies which match consignments with vehicles and offer solutions like financing, payments and vehicle tracking—are showing them a better way to do business: by going digital. As a small slice of the trucking industry gets on the app, it is leading to a reduction in overall logistics costs, faster transportation of goods (even over long distances) and better utilization of truck capacity.

For instance, Shiek Mustafa, a road transporter based in the west Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh, prefers Blackbuck because he can depend on the aggregator for assistance on the highway in case any of his trucks breaks down. He also has more control on his expenses—instead of giving cash to the driver, he buys a fuel card on the app and pays for the toll through it. “I only give the driver money for food for the journey and pay him after the delivery is made," he said.

While searching for shipments is free, for now, the aggregator makes money through the add-on services it provides — fuel expenses, FASTag top-ups, and GPS devices.

Going the distance

Till about 2005, two-thirds of all goods manufactured in the country were transported by rail and only about a third by road. But in the last 17 years, this math has been turned on its head; roads account for over two-thirds of freight transport.

According to a NITI Aayog report of 2021, commercial activities in India generate about 4.6 billion tonnes of freight annually, which results in over 3 trillion tonne-km of road transportation demand at a cost of 9.5 trillion. The logistics sector employs more than 20 million people. According to trucking industry estimates, there are nearly 15 million operational commercial vehicles across India.

NITI Aayog estimates that the demand for goods movement would grow at a compound annual rate of 7% in the next five years.

But India’s trucking industry, characterized by small, low-capacity and old trucks, is not the best placed to exploit that sizeable opportunity. Eight out of 10 trucks that run in the country are owned by small fleet owners, who own just five trucks or less. A fragmented market implies that small fleet owners are unable to optimise driving patterns nor bring in required efficiencies.

India is a long-distance trucking market, with 95% trucks moving intercity. But truck productivity is low: a truck travels 300 km a day on an average in India compared to the global average of 500-800 km a day. Much of that—40%—is dead miles. This is a measure of empty trucks out on the road, either because they have no shipment or are travelling empty to pick up freight, or are returning after delivering a consignment but have not found a return load. Too many small trucks also lead to rampant overloading. This last factor has been mitigated somewhat by the recent increase in axle load limits by the government but the problem has not gone away.

Enter truck aggregators such as Blackbuck, Truckbhejo and Raaho. Much like Ola and Uber for intra-city urban commute, they offer a platform where customers wanting to transport goods by road can match with fleet owners who have ready capacity. Most of these aggregators get the order for shipments and then pass them on to the truckers.

Contrast this with the prevalent practice of empty trucks waiting for cargo for days on end, or of shippers with smaller packages struggling to find transport at a reasonable rate. Truck aggregators have been around for a few years, but covid-19 has accelerated the adoption of technology and the digitization of business. The government’s push for GST, eWay bills, and the uptick in the use of UPI payments has also dented truckers’ suspicion of technology.

According to Rajesh Yabaji, co-founder and CEO, Blackbuck, the above reasons have driven a 10-fold growth in the number of trucks on his platform in the last two years. “Now, $12 billion-plus worth of freight is being transacted through our platform annually versus $350 million just about two years back, thanks to increasing digitization of the market," he said.

While trucks that transport goods for, say, e-commerce platforms within cities had seen rapid digitization even before the pandemic, it is in the deliveries from warehouses to retailers, over long distances, that tech adoption has accelerated now, said Anjani Mandal, CEO and co-founder, Fortigo Network Logistics. Fortigo is a supply-side aggregator, contracting with large customers and then using its technology platform to source trucks for delivery.

Cutting out the middlemen

Md Imthiaz, CEO and co-founder of Raaho, a digital freight network, points out that one of the biggest problems of the industry is the dominance of about 200,000 middlemen who manually match freight consignments with trucks, based on limited demand and even more limited supply.

“They maintain registers with three columns : origin, destination, vehicle type. Each middleman then tries to match freight to truck manually. But they can contact at most eight-10 fleet owners, when there are actually millions of them. This results in a lot of dead miles, as empty trucks have to often travel long distances just to pick up loads. This is a huge operational leak that can be plugged by using a digital freight network like Raaho, where technology and data science are leveraged to make real-time optimal matches," Imthiaz said.

And while much of the trucking industry is still struggling to adopt digitization, some players are trying to integrate the old with the new. The Chetak Group, a veteran in the road transport business, already has a digital truck aggregator arm called Mavyn.

Chetak counts the automobile industry among its major customers. It has now begun piloting a premium service which, it says, will be useful for India’s vehicle makers in optimising inventories as well as production.

This service promises delivery of automobiles and parts from the factory to the customer (door-to-door) within 24 hours. This could well be one of the first instances of a long-distance logistics company offering any service guarantee, said Chetak’s director Sachin Haritash. If the 24-hour delivery promise is broken, Chetak will take a 5% per hour hit on its charges for the delay. Of course, the service also comes at a premium, at 15% more than the usual fees.

Haritash says a dedicated team has been set aside for this purpose and that Chetak offices will come up at airports to assist in this service. “We are piloting this service guarantee for the automobile industry since availability of parts is key for their seamless production. The process involves road as well as air transport, and we have begun the pilot with tractor-maker Swaraj Mazda. They needed some parts to be shipped from Bengaluru to their factory in Mohali, and we are making sure it gets done," he said.

For this service, the team has been provided with branded bags (just like e-commerce delivery persons) and bikes for smaller consignments (larger vehicles for heavier deliveries). The entire process - from pickup to delivery – can be tracked on an app.

Bharat problem

Despite a push for tech solutions in trucking and the acceleration of this trend after the Covid19 pandemic, myriad challenges remain. The first is that trucking is not a metro problem but a ‘Bharat’ problem, requiring grassroot-level intervention, said Yabaji of Blackbuck.

“This requires building a Bharat-centric product and technology stack, and a far-reaching network that can digitise truckers at scale," he said. Three in four truckers live in tier III cities or smaller towns and the lack of awareness, limited access to digital solutions and mistrust/fear of online transactions is bound to slow down overall digitization.

Mandal of Fortigo says intra-city delivery cannot afford to manually find brokers and truckers, as that will not meet the expectations of end customers in terms of speed or supply chain visibility. But this remains a common way of doing things in inter-city movement.

As a result, despite the acceleration in the use of technology, only about 10% of the overall industry has even now been digitized.

Many of the aggregators, however, point out that this will only grow. Government interventions in the last few years, they say, have helped the industry in shedding its fear of technology: such as the introduction of GST and eWay bills, rapid digitization of payments during and after the pandemic and the accelerated pace of highway development in the last several years.

For instance, a truck driver now has to learn to upload the eWay will and lorry receipt at the start of the journey. This helps in speeding up payments from the aggregator since the estimated value of goods and the time of arrival are known upfront through these documents; this information was hard to come by in the pre-GST days before the truck left for its destination. Also, rapid digitization of payments has helped in making payments across the ecosystem faster and more reliable, including payments to the driver.

Yunus Khan, for example, operates a fleet of 17 trucks from Palwal in Haryana. He registered on the Raaho app two years ago after a friend told him about it. He says the best thing about it is timely payments.

“The trip advance money comes into my account from Raaho as soon as my driver uploads the bill after the consignment has been loaded. And even the remaining payment is quick after delivery has been completed. Earlier, getting timely payments was a struggle," he said. While the road to digitization is a long one, the aggregators in the trucking industry are hoping that more truckers, like Khan, decide to hitch a ride on the app.

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