When a General Motors representative spoke at an Idaho Auto Dealers Assn. annual meeting a few years ago, GM dealers queried him on a central issue.
Their questions included: Why are factory vehicle deliveries so spotty? Can’t we know the status of cars in transit? Isn’t there a faster way to get the vehicles we’ve been billed for upon their leaving the factory?
The GM rep’s short answer: “We’re working on it.”
But the questions illustrate the trials, tribulations and imponderables of moving multi-ton products from auto plants to dealerships nationwide, especially to stores in places such as rural Idaho.
Today, digital technology and artificial intelligence is making the process more efficient, says Trent Broberg (pictured, bottom left), CEO of Acertus, a logistics company that oversees the conveyance of nearly 2 million vehicles a year.
Acertus itself doesn’t own auto carriers, he tells Wards. “Instead, we organize that transportation. We are what Uber is to passenger transportation. Uber doesn’t own assets (fleets of cars). Instead, it brings assets together. Our platform does something much similar.”
The company also uses staff and contract drivers (many of whom also work for Uber and Lyft) to move individual vehicles, such as to and from auctions or from one dealership to another in a dealer trade.
The St. Louis-based company’s clients include automakers, franchised dealership groups, independent dealers, rental-car agencies, fleet-management companies "and the Carvanas of the world that deliver purchased vehicles to customers’ homes,” Broberg says.
Acertus connects to carriers nationwide, tracking and managing movements to determine capacity, such as which hauler has room for vehicles destined to the same or nearby area.
The logistics for shipping new vehicles from plants to dealerships has become trickier of late because parts shortages have affected vehicle production levels.
“We’ve stepped in to provide flex capacity,” Broberg says, calling OEMs Acertus’ fastest-growing sector. “If you need three cars moved to a small geographic area, we can find a carrier that isn’t fully loaded and make the delivery of those three cars happen faster.”
The business of moving vehicles has become an economic indicator, says Cox Automotive’s chief economist Jonathan Smoke.
“A key measure is the activity of trucking: how many people are using it and at what price,” Smoke tells Wards. “We’re getting more focused on that space, expanding our understanding of it.”
He says one downside trend is a persistent shortage of truck drivers. That could potentially become more of an issue as auto sales pick up after two lean auto production years because of those parts shortages.
“The driver shortage can keep some people up at night,” says Joe Kichler, vice president-logistics for Cox Automotive’s Manheim auction chain.
“It’s extremely hard to find drivers, but it’s gotten easier this year,” Broberg says, citing changing economic labor conditions. “The biggest logistical challenges are these surges in new- and used-vehicle demand and understanding how to procure people to move these vehicles.”
Both Kichler and Broberg say increasing battery-electric vehicle sales present additional challenges to the vehicle-hauling business.
“EVs are heavier than internal-combustion vehicles,” Kichler notes. A carrier can haul only so many at one time without exceeding highway weight limits.
A Jeep Gladiator pickup with a gasoline engine and a Rivian BEV pickup are about the same size, yet the Rivian weighs 30% more, mainly because of its battery pack, Broberg says. “Logistically, that makes a difference.”