This keynote interview is part of FreightWaves’ LIVE @HOME virtual event

Unprecedented product, equipment and labor dislocations will persist through most, if not all, of 2021, putting all supply chain stakeholders to the test and elevating technology’s role in driving customer solutions, Shelley Simpson, the chief commercial officer of J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. (NASDAQ:JBHT), said Wednesday.

Keynoting the FreightWaves LIVE @HOME two-day event, Simpson said the current operating environment is the most challenging she has experienced in 27 years in the industry. Expenses have “far outpaced” Hunt’s expectations, Simpson told FreightWaves founder and CEO Craig Fuller. In addition, the company and its customers continue to cope with an uneven labor market, the ongoing legacy of the impact wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, she said.

“We know it’s going to be chaotic,” Simpson said, referring to conditions for the rest of the year.

In response, Hunt has ramped up its technology investments, led by a major push to integrate its J.B. Hunt 360 digital freight-matching platform across its five divisions. The platform was launched in brokerage because it was easier to operationally implement than in its other units, Simpson said. The platform has since evolved to encompass all of Hunt’s operations.

The next big step is to combine the technology and Hunt’s expanded over-the-road fleet to make equipment immediately available to handle live loads booked on the 360 platform, Simpson said. The Lowell, Arkansas-based company recently spent $1.25 billion to procure 3,000 360 trailers along with tractors and 12,000 intermodal containers with the objective of building more seamless truckload solutions.

To further its technological reach, Hunt has entered into an alliance with search engine giant Google Inc. (NASDAQ:GOOG). The alliance is aimed at leveraging Google’s expertise in data science and machine learning to support Hunt’s customer-solutions strategy, Simpson said.

Simpson disputed the conventional wisdom that lifestyle issues are at the heart of a continued shortage of qualified truckload drivers. Hunt has drivers in the intermodal and dedicated contract carriage segments that enjoy driving long-haul, irregular routes and look to change things up from time to time, she said. “You can’t pigeonhole any one person into one area” of truck driving, she said.

The far bigger problem for drivers, and for everyone in the industry, is the colossal amount of time wasted just waiting to move a load, she said. On average, the nation’s truck fleet spends one-third of their 11 hours of daily on-duty time either idling or parked, Simpson said. 

The harsh realities of today’s trucking supply chain don’t make it easier to recruit and retain qualified drivers, she said.