An engineer and a social worker, who are also husband and wife, believe that an innovative relay system can solve myriad problems in the trucking industry.
Aayush Thakur and Deme Yuan are the co-founders of FR8relay of Bentonville, a technology company that is trying to use Thakur’s patented algorithm to create a relay network in the supply chain. The promise of the technology has convinced the federal government, through its departments of agriculture and energy, to provide grants of close to $1 million to FR8relay.
FR8relay’s idea is to create “relay nodes” in rural communities where a truck driver headed in one direction can swap his or her load with another driver coming from the opposite direction. The drivers would then take their new loads back to where they had come from.
Federal regulations restrict long-haul truckers to 11 hours of driving before a mandatory 10-hour rest period. As a result, many long-haul drivers are on the road weeks at a time, one of the obstacles the industry faces in attracting and retaining drivers.
Thakur and Yuan believe that their relay platform could change all that. Devising a system that plots out deliveries and relay nodes would allow drivers to transfer outgoing freight close to their home bases in return for ingoing freight.
Thakur compared it to the Pony Express mail system used in the 1860s. Riders would ride horses from one station to the next, transferring either the mail or changing horses, before continuing on.
The federal grant money — one grant is still pending — is allowing FR8relay to start a pilot program on the corridor between Dallas and Chicago. It’s an offshoot of an idea that had been percolating in Thakur’s mind since he began working in logistics data analysis and noticed so many trucks stopped in the same places.
“I started thinking about how can I make a change in the trucking industry?” Thakur said. “When I am driving I don’t want to spend my time on the road. I was baffled by that.
“I started talking to industry folks and they were, ‘Oh, yeah, it’s the regulation.’ Why would anyone take a job where you are staying away from your home for weeks and months at a time?”
This is where the social worker comes in. Yuan had a long career working with nonprofits when her husband asked her help in starting a logistics company in Memphis in late 2017.
Yuan was unsure at first but quickly realized her skills at working with multiple stakeholders to craft beneficial social solutions was a perfect match to Thakur’s data expertise. FR8relay moved to Bentonville after participating in Startup Junkie’s Fuel Accelerator cohort in 2020.
“He self-identifies as a numbers nerd,” Yuan said. “I never saw myself as a businessperson. It is a big switch for me. In the beginning, it was wow — it felt like, ‘How did I end up here?’
“I’m using resources to make something transformative happen. That is the part that is really motivating. The work we get to do with these grants is really up my alley.”
The clear benefit of the relay network is that it would allow long-haul drivers to stay closer to home. The federal government sees the potential for more upsides: the USDA’s grant is focused on the economic benefits that relay nodes would have on rural communities.
For example, the Department of Energy’s grant is to see how having conveniently spaced relay nodes could help with the electrification of the trucking industry and the overall reduction of carbon emissions. One of the drawbacks of electric tractors is that their range is much less than a diesel truck’s range; having relay nodes could make that point moot as electric vehicles could have designated places to stop, recharge or even switch to fully charged vehicles, like the Pony Express having a fresh horse saddled and ready.
Yuan said the idea is to turn long-haul truck driving into a “day job.” Otherwise, she and Thakur fear that there will always be a shortage of drivers in the industry.
“Drivers that we have talked to so far are very interested in it,” Yuan said. “Many people enter [the industry], but not that many stay. Even with the decision to go into it, so many people say I can’t do this because there is no way. It is making [driving] more accessible and more attractive and more available to more people.”
Not New, Innovative
Relay driving is not a new idea. It has been used by the U.S. Postal Service and other delivery companies for years, and not just with horses.
Desiree Wood is the founder of Real Women in Trucking of Lake Worth, Florida, and is a former postal driver. She said relay driving was popular before the deregulation of the industry in 1981 and some unionized trucking companies still use it.
“A lot of older drivers will tell you they didn’t have this lifestyle of being a pingpong ball going across the country randomly, never knowing where they were going to land,” said Wood, who is a consultant for FR8relay’s Department of Energy grant. “They always went back to the terminal and went home. We have gotten so far away from that: How do we get that driver to be able to come home?
“We want to start focusing on doing it on a broader level so companies can adopt this formula with the objective of getting the driver home more frequently.”
Thakur said he has worked with the American Transportation Research Institute, the research arm of the American Trucking Associations, on data analytics. While he laughed that large trucking corporations — or companies such as Walmart Inc. that have a huge transportation fleet — don’t need his technology, he believes that an effective logistical relay system could help smaller trucking companies that have fewer resources and tighter profit margins.
“The impact that it could have on 95% of the companies in the trucking space that have less than 20 trucks — it would have huge benefits for the small mom-and-pops,” Thakur said.
After Thakur and Yuan formed the company in 2017, they received a startup grant from a Memphis organization in 2018. Fuel Accelerator, a 12-week program, accepted FR8relay into its 2020 cohort, and after participating in the mentorship program, Thakur and Yuan decided to permanently relocate to Bentonville.
“What impressed us about the FR8relay business was not only their ability to increase profitability for local enterprises but also positively contribute to the region’s environment and well-being,” said Matthew Ward, the director of the Fuel Accelerator program. “With their solution, they are able to help enterprises attract and retain drivers through better work-life balance and contribute to a healthier NWA through less consumption of fuel. We were also quite impressed with the team’s industry expertise, business savvy and warmness as well.”