Pony Express-style freight? Startup hopes to shorten long hauls, transform rural America

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FR8relay, an Arkansas-based tech company that hopes to take the long out of long-haul trucking for drivers by dotting the nation with a series of rural “relay exchange nodes,” has won a $650,000 United States Department of Agriculture Small Business Innovation Grant.

The money will go toward developing a beta version of software that would allow owner-operators to find long-haul loads, which they’d only haul a portion of the way. FR8relay CEO Aayush Thakur gave the example of hauling a load from Dallas to Chicago, but using software to allow the operator to accept the load and only haul it as far as, say, Tulsa. There, that trucker would then meet another who would haul it the rest of the way, giving both the ability to get home more quickly while still participating in long-haul trucking.

At the exchange point, the operator on the first leg could accept a return load using FR8relay's technology. 

Overdrive's own polling and reporting has shown a decrease in average length of hauls for most drivers, partly due to the "Amazon effect," but Thakur points to FR8relay's patent on its relay technology as proof that it's creating something truly new in the trucking space. 

Thakur pitched the software as a way to increase home time, cutting idling and emissions, and to move freight quicker via a Pony Express type model. He cited interest from Tyson Foods and other reefer customers in a pilot program. In addition to the app, the FR8relay network would need the “exchange nodes,” or places where the trucks would meet. 

“Where trucks park and the exchange happens, there could be mechanics, food options and fueling stations,” explained Thakur. He said that he’s seen “overwhelming support” from rural community figures like mayors and administrators who would like their town to participate in the pilot program.  

[Related: Is long haul trucking fading away?]

Thakur explained he hopes the exchange nodes and the commerce they generate could help to revitalize many small towns, though he wouldn't shy away from partnerships with major truck stops.

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Thakur acknowledged that many OTR drivers prefer the long haul, and that having a big sleeper attached to a tractor might in some ways commit the driver to the long-haul lifestyle. But he also hoped that the technology could help turn trucking into a more accessible occupation. Additionally, relay systems could make electric vehicles and alternative-fuel vehicles more practical, given limited range. 

But right now, Thakur shies away from making any sweeping promises about revolutionizing the business. "We're not talking a big game" he said, being realistic about the theoretical state of the technology now. "We are working hard, we don’t want to over promise and under deliver."

The $650,000 USDA grant will go towards both the app’s development and exploring the buildout of the physical network over the next two years. 

“We’re honored to receive this second grant award from the Department of Agriculture. It provides us the opportunity to further establish traction as we commercialize our novel technology," said Thakur. 

Interested drivers can contact FR8relay to get information about the pilot program and how to participate in the pilot starting next year. 

[Related: The not-so-long haul: Operational challenges to owner-operators after the ELD mandate]