U.S. Xpress president on economy: ‘We are going to power through this’

At the fifth annual ALK Transportation Technology Summit in Princeton, N.J., the president of U.S. Xpress, John White, said the trucking industry entered an economic freefall during 2007 and has not yet hit bottom.

“Today is the most difficult environment in the last quarter century,” White said. “The federal government is trying to become the little engine that could by driving our economy. I don’t know if we’ll ever get back to a time like growth in 2005 and 2006.”

The trucking industry lost about 45,000 jobs in the first quarter of 2009 alone, White said. With the exception of refrigerated freight, demand is down in all sectors by about 25 percent. “The only silver lining is that the strong will get stronger. In meantime, significant harm is being done.”

Even in the most challenging times, White said he remains an optimist. “We are going to power through this thing.”

The ALK Transportation Technology Summit is a thought leadership symposium sponsored by ALK Technologies and multiple software partners and providers. ALK Technologies is a provider of the PC Miler routing, mapping and mileage software.

Acknowledging the troubles in the trucking industry and the economy in general, Alain Kornhauser, the founder and board chair of Princeton-based ALK, recounted several past challenges that he faced in his early academic and business career.

After completing a Ph.D. in astronomical guidance in 1970, Kornhauser said the job market was bleak, especially in his chosen field of study. The U.S. space program had collapsed after completing the successful Apollo program in the 1960s. Kornhauser said he decided to apply aerospace technology to solve urban transportation problems.

“I dreamed of being able to interactively design personal rapid transit (PRT) networks,” said Kornhauser, who is also professor of operations research and financial engineering at Princeton University. A PRT network is an area-wide network of automated passenger vehicles that would provide auto-like service to everyone, he said.

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The PRT network was never funded by the government or private investors, so Kornhauser turned to creating digital map databases for railroads. The timing was bad: A series of corporate upheavals in the late 1960s and early ’70s led to seven bankruptcies of railroads by 1975.

As part of a congressional study, Kornhauser created the first digital map database of the northeast railroads and created ALK Technologies in 1979. While working on the database, “we realized that a major competitor to railroads were trucks.”

To build a digital map of the nation’s road network, the company needed to buy an IBM mainframe for $400,000. No one was interested in lending the fledging company money, but finally a loan was secured at 23 percent interest.

“Motor carrier deregulation required a rating system that was based on actual routes and real miles, not government tariff routes,” he said.

About 15 years ago, ALK started creating a database of door-to-door routing and launched Road Trips Door-to-Door in 1997. ALK leveraged the Global Positioning System in 1998 to launch a laptop version of its CoPilot truck navigation system.

ALK is close to releasing a PC Miler product that will be based on historical traffic information throughout North America. At some point, CoPilot will include real-time traffic information based on speed and position data collected from other vehicles and CoPilot users and harvested by ALK’s servers, he said.

“We are getting very close to a situation in which we can do that,” Kornhauser said. “We’re setting ourselves up to be that middleman to collect probe information. We should be able to share it.”