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Trucking Through the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Q&A with Trimble’s Chris Orban

As the vice president of data science, Chris Orban leads Trimble’s data science team in developing new and industry-leading solutions.

Chris is in frequent contact with Trimble customers, and has heard directly from fleets about the trucking industry’s challenges and adaptations due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

We sat down with Chris to get his insights on how the industry continues to respond to these challenges, especially as it relates to drivers and the connected supply chain.


Q: Let’s start with your background. What do you work on at Trimble?

I've been in the transportation industry for about 15 years, serving in a variety of safety analytics roles.

I have been a part of the product team at Trimble for more than three years, and as the vice president of data science, I lead teams that are developing new, advanced products that use data, predictive modeling and machine learning to take us into the next generation of transportation.

Prior to joining Trimble, I worked for a refrigerated transport company in Tennessee, and was fortunate enough to get a first-hand look at what it takes to run a fleet. Safety is one of my truest passions – identifying risks and saving the lives of both drivers and members of the public.


Q: The COVID-19 pandemic has brought unique challenges to every aspect of life. How has the trucking industry responded?

This pandemic has brought several unique challenges, and a few customers come to mind as prime examples of two sides of the same coin.

One customer hauls paper goods, and early in 2020, they struggled to get enough trucks and drivers on the road to move all the home essentials like toilet paper that consumers were ordering. They needed to balance the safety of their office workers, now working from home, and the needs of their drivers, who were suddenly being asked to do more with fewer resources. The company had to adapt and find ways to deal with the increased volume, like hiring more drivers and using advanced technology to optimize drivers.

Another customer whose business focuses on delivering marketing installations for new mall openings, struggled as malls closed and weren’t opening new stores. They partnered with Trimble to find more freight and identify potential opportunities to change their business plan. By connecting the customer with Kuebix, a leading TMS provider and creator of North America’s largest connected shipping community that Trimble acquired in January 2020, we helped them find new areas of opportunity in the supply chain.

These examples point out two things: one is the interconnected nature of transportation. Shippers, carriers and brokers rely on each other even though they may often feel like they’re in contention around rates or quality of service. The global scope and severity of the pandemic has brought all parties closer together.

The second is changes for drivers as regulations have been altered throughout the pandemic. For instance, early on, Pennsylvania announced they were going to shut down their rest areas because they couldn't keep them clean. Certainly, we want rest areas to be clean and disinfected, but it's also important for safety for drivers to be able to stop, take breaks and get rest. Thankfully, the state reversed the decision, but it’s something I never would have imagined happening before the pandemic.


Q: What have you been hearing from fleets in the field who have continued to navigate the roads throughout the pandemic?

We’ve heard that drivers’ stress levels have become much higher. Early on in the pandemic, drivers wanted to be home with their families to stay safe, but at the same time, the nature of working in trucking often requires them to be away from home. Then, there’s an added fear that they could pick up COVID-19 while on the road and spread it to their families.

Drivers have also had to navigate changes like the closure of rest stops and restaurants. At first, the industry wasn’t prepared for how to deal with that. Initially, fleets weren't equipped with enough recovery trucks, masks and disinfectants to handle the situation.

Shippers and receivers have been dealing with similar issues, and miscommunication between them and the drivers has caused problems – once again showcasing the importance of collaboration: everyone must work together to overcome this crisis.


Q: What are some of the bright spots in the transportation and logistics space that you've seen?

In my opinion, the brightest spot has been the incredible resilience of drivers. In the early days of the pandemic, I saw a picture from Chattanooga, where I used to work, where the only vehicles on the road were a couple of trucks. I just thought to myself, “Wow – the only people on the road right now are those drivers bringing us the food and supplies that we need in order to stay home and stay safe.”

As restrictions have lessened, traffic on the roads has increased again, and drivers’ jobs have become more dangerous. Drivers have continued to adapt and have done a phenomenal job. The wheels haven’t stopped turning, and now, with vaccine distributions underway, we’re at the final mile. I hope that all the driver appreciation efforts we have seen since last year continue, as the public becomes more aware of just how essential trucking is to our daily lives.


Q: What have you heard from fleets as it relates to distributing the COVID-19 vaccine? Have they had to make any specific changes or add any additional safety measures?

Tracking is absolutely critical. Fleets have to know where the vaccine is and be ready for pickup, and confirm when the final mile delivery sites are ready to receive the vaccine. They must ensure that the vaccine maintains the proper temperature, and if it’s not at that temperature, there is much less time to distribute it and actually get it into people's arms.

Since the Pfizer vaccine is incredibly temperature-sensitive, fleets are using specialized totes with dry ice that drivers need to monitor along with the temperature of the trailers. As additional vaccines roll out, fleets will be able to transport the vaccines in reefer units – allowing for more time, eliminating the need for escorted loads, increasing the number of vaccines on each truck and creating less stressful situations for drivers.

The cold supply chain is a specialized system, and refrigerated loads require some expertise. We have to examine how we train drivers quickly and prepare them for monitoring and maintaining the temperature of these loads and identifying problems.


Q: Any predictions on any long-term changes in the industry as a result of the pandemic?

We are unfortunately experiencing a driver shortage due to training schools being temporarily shut down, as well as the risks involved with being on the road. The lack of drivers needs to be addressed. How do we encourage drivers to come back into the industry? We know that, statistically, increasing driver pay on its own is not sufficient, so I hope fleets continue to offer more comprehensive benefits that help take care of drivers.

We hope the increased partnership between shippers, carriers, brokers and all the members of the supply chain will continue, including the government and private industry who might not typically think about the supply chain. We need to be thinking about supply chain sensitivity all the time, not just when there is a global crisis or major new product launch.

When is the next crisis, or something we haven't thought of? We can address potential future issues by reinforcing the supply chain, focusing on the connectivity and sharing data in a free and fair way. That way, we can become more aware of the vulnerabilities in the system, and work together to address them. We are all in this together, and it will be critical to remember that once the pandemic is over.


Check Out These Additional COVID-19 Resources 

Interested in learning more about the impact of COVID-19 on transportation and technology’s role in helping navigate these challenges? 

Visit Trimble’s COVID-19 Resource Center to discover news, customer stories and topics related to how the transportation industry is responding to the pandemic.