Build vs. Buy:

How Top Fleets Navigate Custom App Development

Motor carriers are ramping up investments in drivers, equipment, and technology. Since 2019, driver wages have risen by 18% on average. Orders for new trucks and trailers are now backlogged into the second half of 2023. For technology, a top priority is transforming the driver experience.

An online search of the 20 largest for-hire fleets shows 14 now have custom mobile driver apps to simplify work for drivers and keep them connected inside and outside the cab. Updating traditional driver communication and workflow apps are making a big impact on drivers and the bottom line.

How do you go about getting a custom app, you ask? When considering a custom app, fleets have one of four options:

  1. Develop an app with internal IT staff resources
  2. Contract with a software developer outside the trucking industry
  3. Partner with a custom app developer within the industry
  4. Use a semi-configurable off-the-shelf app
The unique needs, budgets, and technical resources of your fleets will impact the decision. Speed of development and total cost of ownership are other weighty considerations for custom apps. In this article, fleets share the pros, cons, and results of their chosen development and investment strategies.

Option 1:

Develop Internally

Pro: Address fleet-specific driver needs

The world’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart, also has one of the nation’s top fleets. Last June, the company released a new driver workflow app developed internally by an IT team that consistsof more than 250 product managers and 1,200 software engineers.

The fleet rolled out its new NTransit driver workflow app to more than 13,000 drivers on in-cab tablets also used for its ELD and telematics solution. The company credits the technology for reducing dwell times by 13% and improving communication, on-time deliveries, and driver satisfaction.1

Results from the fleet’s driver surveys show a mammoth spike in job satisfaction. Before the new app, the surveys Net Promoter Score (NPS) was in the teens. The score, on a scale of 100, is in response to the question, “How likely is it that you would recommend this company to a friend or colleague?” The driver NPS jumped to above 90 with the custom app – a clear sign drivers felt listened to and valued. A score above 80 is considered world-class for any industry.

Pro: Create a distinct advantage in a niche market.

Load One, based in Taylor, Mich., and the third-largest expedited carrier in North America, starts each day with about 25% of fleet capacity booked. In an unpredictable industry segment, CEO John Elliott wanted new technology to help dispatchers and drivers optimize their work.

To optimize Load One’s utilization, Elliott decided to add in-house developers in 2017 to create a custom app with dynamic load planning tools. The Load One Ultimate Advantage app has since transformed the work experience of drivers, most of whom are owner-operators.

Drivers use a dynamic mapping tool to view historic and real-time freight demand and capacity for different markets. The data insights help drivers strategically position their trucks in markets to await their next loads. Load One has benefited from efficiently covering more loads to grow revenue and increase customer service. The app also facilitates less driver down time and higher earnings to createa recruiting and retention advantage.

Load One has a remarkably low turnover rate of 42%. When drivers do leave Load One in search of greener pastures, and then come back, the fleet’s driver survey data shows 30 to 40 percent credit Load One’s technology as a reason for their return, Elliott says.

“Having the best-of-the-best driver technology is what sets us apart in a niche industry,” he says.

As an expedite carrier, Load One developed an Ultimate Advantage custom mobile app with predictive analytics and map views that help drivers proactively position their assets.

Con: Custom app development – and added internal expenses – never ends.

Load One’s John Elliott welcomes the ongoing evolution of the company’s app, but prioritizing new development of features and enhancements requested by drivers is a never-ending project. To keep up with the demands of the fleet, the company funds a permanent team of software developers to support the app and other initiatives.

“Drivers provided a ton of input about things they wanted [for the app],” Elliott says. “Our current product is five times more complex and robust than what we envisioned.”

Option 2:

Hire an Outside Development Team

Liquid Trucking developed a custom app that replaced large books of paper knowledge that drivers used to create on their own.

Pro: Focus project on specific fleet and driver needs

In 2016, Liquid Trucking was exploring solutions to counter rising insurance costs. Fleet executives wanted a mobile app to help drivers prevent mistakes that were causing injuries and accidents. Specifically, they wanted to enable knowledge sharing about customer locations and route details.

The Plattsmouth, Nebraska based tank carrier’s search for a commercial product turned up empty. “We looked hard to find it, but ultimately gave up because we couldn’t find an off-the-shelf solution that fit our needs,” says Jason Eisenman, vice president of human resources at the 150-truck fleet.

Liquid Trucking was using an off-the-shelf mobile app for document capture. The app was costing the fleet between $1,000 and $2,000 per month. The owners knew they could direct this money, and make additional investments, to develop a custom app with document scanning and features that would facilitate knowledge sharing among drivers.

Liquid Trucking contracted with a software developer to build something custom. The initial budget of $50,000 was quickly surpassed. The owners decided to continue investing. Ultimately, it cost between $250,000 and $300,000 to get a production-ready custom app in the hands of drivers. The fleet rolled out the app, named DeliveRecon, in 2017.

Drivers use the fleet’s custom app to quickly find information about each stop — where to turn, things to look out for, who to call, pictures to help navigate customer sites, and more. All the content is generated by drivers and approved by management.

Liquid Trucking has realized significant cost savings since deploying the app. The fleet’s turnover rate dropped to as low as 28% and has remained below 40%. Incidents and accidents have decreased 25% to 45% annually, keeping more drivers on the road earning revenue. Policy renewals for the fleet’s truck insurance premiums continue to beat industry averages, Eisenman says.

Eisenman leads the custom app project and says the most rewarding experience has been creating a culture that encourages and rewardsdrivers for sharing knowledge and feedback.

Con: Difficult to budget costs

Dramatic swings in unexpected costs are difficult to predict and cause unnecessary frustration.

For Liquid Trucking, some costs for developing and supporting a custom app are predictable. Fixed costs and support from its vendor average $1,650 per month, Eisenman says, but the costs of additional feature development are wide-ranging.

“We have had years with no new features (mainly during COVID) and years where we invested another $50,000 to $100,000 in development for new features and UI/UX changes,” he adds.

Con: App developers new to trucking lack pre-built components and integrations.

Vendors new to the trucking industry have a steep learning curve when developing fleet-specific custom apps. Understanding how different pieces of an app need to work and connect — such as ELD telematics, transportation management system (TMS), weigh station bypass, communication tools, training software, and security — is a difficult and ongoing process.

Roadmaster Group, a Glendale, Ariz.-based motor carrier that operates more than 800 power units, contracted with a custom app developer that was unfamiliar with the trucking industry. This presented a major challenge to integrate the app with Roadmaster’s transportation management system (TMS).

The integration required cooperation with the fleet’s TMS vendor. Project delays led Roadmaster to partner with a custom app developer that specializes in trucking. The fleet launched its custom RMGconnect mobile app quickly, thereafter, says Michael Fisk, Roadmaster’s vice president of hiring, safety, and development.

“Instead of investing $75,000 to $100,000 upfront, we chose to partner with a company that we knew would get us there,” Fisk says. “Our new partner already had a relationship with our TMS vendor and had already developed a lot of the features we needed.”

Option 3:

Innovate with a Custom App Platform

Fleets can use a SaaS-based platform to develop a custom solution that unites disparate systems into a single app that is as mobile as their drivers. With a custom solution, drivers make better use of their time and get back on the road faster by receiving dispatches, scanning documents, planning trips, checking hours of service, and more, from anywhere.

Pro: Predictable monthly cost for app development and ongoing support.

US Xpress prides itself on delivering best-in-class technology to drivers. In early 2022, the Chattanooga, Tenn.-based fleet was considering a new driver app.

The company has an internal team of developers and analysts. Corey Goux, senior director of IT at US Xpress, knew internal development would require many months of work to complete. He also knew the project would incur additional expenses for system integrations and ongoing maintenance and enhancements.

Goux and an extended technical team at US Xpress weighed another option: updating an existing custom app the fleet was using, which was powered by the Eleos platform.

The team outlined the needs and determined how to accomplish the company’s goals using the existing custom app. After reviewing the Eleos platform, the team determined they could deploy creative updates and sidestep the major costs that would be added from developing an app with their internal team.

The technical team could instead focus on developing custom workflows and integrations.

“The initial costs of building our app were well known and defined, but then you have the ongoing costs after that. There are a lot of unknowns, and those costs can quickly increase based on unforeseen factors,” said Goux. “ With Eleos, we know what our set costs are. We can budget for the year exactly what that’s going to be. Plus, the result is an amazing custom application, built to our specifications, that our drivers love using.”

Pro: Leverage pre-built app components and integrations.

Roadmaster Group turned to Eleos to develop its custom RGMconnect app. The SaaS-based Eleos platform has a large selection of pre-built components and integrations. The app connects with RoadMaster’s TMS from McLeod Software and is customized to meet the fleet’s needs.

The custom app gives drivers a “quick and easy” itemized menu to access payroll history, dispatch info, truck-safe navigation, safety training content, load permits, and more, Fisk says. One of the unique features shows drivers how much bonus money they have accrued as soon as they log in. Roadmaster drivers can earn up to $14,000 extra per year based on their safety and job performance metrics.

A unique feature in Roadmaster Group’s custom app, powered by Eleos, shows drivers how much bonus money they’ve earned year to date.

Option 4:

Deploy an Off-the-Shelf App

Pro: Fast time to market

Fleets can address some basic needs with off-the-shelf apps. Many products have configurable settings that allow fleets to add their company logo, and brand colors, as well as enable or disable certain features and functions. Generally, less customization means faster deployment.

Con: Evolving technology needs impact product viability

Off-the-shelf configurable apps are developed for the masses. As such, they may have basic features like document capture and dispatch-driver messaging but often lack depth in terms of functions and customizations for meeting complex requirements. Difficulties adapting the app to meet evolving needs will increase the total cost of ownership as well as end-user frustration.

Con: Being on a vendor waitlist for product updates

Drivers continue to expect more from technology. Off-the-shelf apps often lack the tools and capabilities that fleets need to make changes to respond to user feedback. A fleet can always ask for enhancements but may have to wait in line for vendor support and roadmap prioritization.

Unlock the Power of Custom App Development

The trucking industry presents unique challenges for custom app development. Fleets that invest wisely can build a competitive advantage by giving drivers all the tools they need to do their jobs in one convenient place, inside or outside the cab.

Fleets that develop custom apps using a SaaS-based platform can leverage a vast selection of pre-built components and integrations. The platform is continuously updated with new features and capabilities developed in partnership with the nation’s most advanced fleets.

Rather than incur the added costs and risks of mobile coding, fleets are taking the platform approach to accelerate custom app development. In return, they get their own app coupled with best-in-class system support, security, and uptime.

See how Eleos can help you create your own custom mobile driver app

If you’d like to see how we’ve helped other fleets create their own custom driver app, simply contact us.

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