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Representatives from Uber Freight, a segment of Uber that focuses on matching trucks with loads to be shipped as well as on self-driving truck technology, met Wednesday with supply-chain experts in Bentonville.

At a meeting of the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals, Bill Driegert, Uber Freight's director, said Uber had been developing a load-matching app, while Otto, a San Francisco-based startup that Uber acquired in August, was working on autonomous truck technology.

The Uber Freight app was released "quietly" a few weeks ago, Driegert said, adding the platform has been gradually building capacity.

Unlike brokerage companies that match trucks with loads, Uber Freight does not take a commission and generates real-time pricing.

Driegert said the existing process of matching a load to a driver can take hours or days.

"That's a highly friction-able process with a lot of steps and a lot of time delays," he said. "That's not a liquid process."

Just as companies such as Uber have changed the way many people request a ride, "the same sort of change needs to happen in the trucking space," Driegert said.

"We are a technology company. We have some of the best engineers and data scientists in the world," said Brian Cristol, head of Uber Freight's strategic partnerships. "But as we are building this, we are relying on folks like yourselves in this room to help us understand your businesses and help us fundamentally change things that can improve your businesses."

"One thing about participating in this market is you can't do it in stealth mode," Driegert said.

Driegert stressed the importance of maintaining an "ongoing conversation" with companies as Uber Freight grows, particularly given the small size of the supply-chain community and the transactional, load-by-load nature of the market.

Cristol said part of this learning process involves drivers, too.

An Uber Freight team spent a few months at truck stops talking to drivers and heard a common theme, Cristol recalled.

"'We always get the short end of the stick," Cristol recalled the drivers saying. "It's always our fault. If we're late, it's our fault. Even if we're early, we don't get loaded. There's no accountability, and we don't have a voice."

John Kent, director of the supply-chain management research center at the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, said other companies have tried to enter the automated freight booking space. Many trucking companies, including J.B. Hunt, also have similar internal brokerage businesses, and some are building similar tools.

"This is really the second generation of a company focusing on this idea," Kent said. "[Uber Freight is] learning from the mistakes that the first generation of companies made."

"You can't just create this technology and plug it in. It doesn't work," Cristol said. "A lot of these other startups underestimated the importance of operations and having an infrastructure to actually support the business."

Uber has services in about 600 cities across 83 countries.

Driegert would not provide specifics about the launch but said "we're not concerned" about getting parties to sign up.

Otto -- the self-driving technology brand w̶i̶t̶h̶i̶n̶ ̶U̶b̶e̶r̶ ̶F̶r̶e̶i̶g̶h̶t̶ that's a division of Uber* -- said in October that it had completed the world's first commercial shipment by self-driving truck, which delivered beer over more than 120 miles of Colorado's Highway 125 while the driver sat in the cab's sleeper berth.

Driegert estimated that Otto's retrofit kits for autonomous trucks will be ready in 12 to 18 months. Rather than building its own fleet, Otto plans to sell these kits to trucking companies.

Cristol estimated that workers can install the kit in a day, though the company hopes to bring that down to "a couple of hours."

But first, Driegert said, the company must "definitively prove" the safety and value of Otto's technology. "Ultimately this is a game of data and generating the most data and the best data" to do that, he said.

"We don't want to go to market and launch new technology until we can prove that it's definitively safer than the alternative," Driegert said. "And to prove that it's safer, we have to run miles. We have to test."

Tom Zondlak, the event's coordinator and an international customer service and logistics manager at Colgate-Palmolive, said the takeaway from the meeting is "just how fast [Uber Freight] is moving."

"Some in the industry are alarmed, maybe some are trying to catch up," Zondlak said. "I think if you don't get on board, you may be lost. You may get left behind."

Business on 02/23/2017

*CORRECTION: Otto, a self-driving automobile technology brand, is a division of Uber. Its place in the company was incorrectly reported in a previous version of this story.

Print Headline: Uber Freight touts tech at state event

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