Descartes UK

Combating driver shortages through route optimisation

Combating driver shortages through route optimisation

A ‘perfect storm’ of Brexit, Covid-19 and growing ecommerce demands are exacerbating the UK’s HGV driver shortage. The shortage has put pressure on transport operators struggling to recruit HGV and van drivers and the situation is unlikely to change for years to come. It’s not just the logistics industry that is suffering from this issue, the lack of qualified drivers is having a severe knock-on effect on many different sectors, including retail, manufacturing and the public sector.

The Road Haulage Association believes that there is currently a shortfall of about 60,000 HGV drivers while other sources are reporting figures closer to 100,000. The HGV driver shortage is so critical that the Federation of Wholesale Distributors (FWD) is recommending the government should have army trucks on standby to ensure there are enough vehicles and drivers to distribute food. Fresh food is rotting while supermarkets and restaurants are facing shortages and shoppers are facing higher prices for goods. These issues associated with driver shortages are becoming more and more problematic for both businesses and consumers alike. 

The driver shortage is creating immense pressure on fleet operators to retain and find new drivers to meet market demands. So what can be done to combat driver shortages? From overcoming ecommerce challenges to combating decreasing supermarket supplies, logistics providers need to make the most of their existing drivers whilst adhering to drivers’ hours regulations through implementing route optimisation and effective fleet management solutions. As Andrew Tavener, Head of Marketing at Descartes UK outlines, fleet operators can mitigate the impact of the driver shortage by introducing efficiencies and improving the productivity and retention of existing drivers. 

The ecommerce challenge

The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the growth of ecommerce with years of predicted growth achieved in just a few months in 2020. This has added to the shortage of HGV and van drivers distributing and delivering for retailers. With numerous lockdowns and restrictions throughout 2020 and into 2021, consumers have become increasingly reliant on home deliveries. This upward trend isn’t going to change as consumers have realised the convenience of deliveries to their door and this is putting further pressure on fleet managers as demand is greater than capacity to deliver. 

With calls for more delivery drivers to cope with this increasing demand, fleet managers are under greater strain than ever before. The forecasted growth rate of online shopping in the UK in 2023 is 34.5% and this continued growth will lead to yet more demand for drivers in the future.

As the demand for home deliveries is increasing, consumer expectations are also increasing. People are looking for convenient and dependable deliveries at a price they are prepared to pay. More responsibility is being placed on retailers to ensure successful and timely home deliveries. Faster, more efficient and convenient deliveries that prove to be value for money are increasingly important to the consumer. More recently, the environmental impact is becoming more important to consumers and will influence buyer behaviour in the future. Retailers choosing to capitalise on this uptick in ecommerce and home deliveries must therefore attempt to find solutions that work for the customer, meet expectations and release the pressure on delivery drivers and protect the environment. Adjusting delivery offerings accordingly to meet demand and maximise fleet efficiency, will enable businesses to more readily meet the ecommerce delivery challenge which is compounded by the driver shortage.

Delivery to store

While home delivery companies and ecommerce providers are struggling to cope with demand, the driver shortage is also threatening supermarket supplies, with many household names in the news concerned about meeting deliveries to UK stores because of the lack of drivers. Not only are supplies low in stores causing rows of empty shelves but home deliveries are having to be limited in order to cope with demand. 

Being able to effectively manage deliveries to supermarket stores can help to alleviate some of the pressure. When it comes to sharing delivery capabilities, an online, remote, centralised system is essential, so that everybody – from drivers to store workers – can access it in order to provide maximum visibility and capitalise on technology to get more out of the existing resources in place. Dock appointment scheduling can become a critical component of efficient supermarket operations. Being able to manage demand in line with resources and capacity, prioritise deliveries and create a foundation for better carrier/supplier collaboration – addressing this significant pinch point during such a critical time will help to streamline the delivery process.

Improving driver productivity

The driver shortage problem is critical – from ecommerce deliveries to supermarket operations – companies need to act now in order to prevent further disruption. The solution lies in using technology so that retailers, distributors and delivery companies can combat the fallout from the crises. 

Training and attracting new drivers is not a quick or simple fix but one solution that can make a difference now is to utilise advanced routing and scheduling software to unlock greater efficiency gains to minimise the need to recruit new drivers. Companies can transform performance and maximise the utilisation and efficiency of their existing drivers and vehicles.

Fleet operators should therefore look to make delivery routes more efficient and deliveries less stressful for the driver to increase capacity and improve driver productivity and retention. Advanced route optimisation software will take excess miles out of the delivery process by evaluating all the delivery options available to find the right combination of routes and stops to maximise delivery capacity. Software that uses data based on the time of day and directional flow of traffic, rather than an average for the road, can accurately predict driving times and expected arrivals. Descartes’ advanced routing software can show drivers exactly where they need to go and in what order so they arrive at their destination safely, increasing efficiency and reducing driver stress. Additionally, in-day route optimisation helps organisations manage real-time challenges, proactively adapting to change as it happens, for example re-routing to avoid accidents and delays. In turn, this will help businesses to avoid inevitable delays that could impact business operations.

Using the latest optimisation technology and automating route planning processes will increase driver productivity further by reducing miles per stop. For large organisations, this could be the equivalent of hiring dozens of additional drivers. Existing Descartes customers have increased their capacity by 35% by using Descartes’ advanced route optimisation and delivery scheduling software. 

Additionally, by implementing dynamic delivery appointment scheduling, fleet operators can further improve productivity by increasing delivery density. Customers can be offered delivery appointment options at the point of sale and given incentives to select delivery slots that are closer to existing planned deliveries. Furthermore, with the growing focus on the environment, allowing the customer to pick an ‘eco-friendly’ delivery option that uses less CO2 is a benefit to both customers and fleets and is likely to increase customer satisfaction with the delivery company and retailer. Improving route quality, delivery schedules and collating deliveries close to each other together can therefore improve delivery density for drivers, benefitting both consumers and drivers in terms of productivity and efficient deliveries.

Increasing driver retention

Driver retention and reducing staff turnover is further vital in combating the driver shortage. Driving commercially can be stressful and poor route plans could leave drivers scrambling to meet their delivery assignments within the drivers’ hours limits and work overtime, increasing stress and causing drivers to retire or look for work elsewhere. Using optimised routes that accurately represent the road network, driving conditions, stop times plus the grouping of deliveries, will reduce driver stress and improve retention. Drivers will be more confident they can execute the day’s work and will not find themselves making corrections mid-route, breaking speed limits or drivers’ hours obligations to make timed deliveries because the original plan was not feasible. This will help fleet operators grow their driver pool as they hire additional drivers and not replacements.

New technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning can also help improve driver retention by identifying down-to-the-driver factors that create personalised driver routes based upon the productivity or knowledge of the driver. For instance, an experienced driver may be 10% more productive than someone who has just started. Machine learning can also identify which drivers complete their work in less than planned time and can take on more deliveries, increasing visibility and ensuring the driver is capable of more deliveries in advance.


Utilising technology has an important role in improving driver productivity and retention. Operators that have adopted telematics and mobile data communications have found it encourages efficiency and best driver practice. Integrating telematics and mobile data communications allows the fleet manager and end customers to see exactly where a vehicle and delivery is in real-time against the plan and schedule set by the routing and scheduling software. For transport operators this gives them the ability to add new jobs in or implement corrective action to re-route a vehicle to avoid traffic, keeping vehicles committed to a collection time, or automatically warning the end customer in advance should the driver be running early or late.

Telematics combined with advanced routing and scheduling software can transform supply chain performance. Not only by optimising delivery efficiency through intelligent routing, but also through reduced mileage and fuel consumption. Telematics data can be used to produce fuel efficiency reports by monitoring drivers’ habits including idling, revving, speeding and comparing vehicles’ and drivers’ fuel consumption. This data also helps to identify improvement areas when training drivers to drive in a more efficient manner. In turn, this can reduce the requirement for vehicle maintenance and servicing – all contributing to lower costs and maximising profits. 

Additionally, for HGV drivers, telematics can identify driving styles not suitable for the load, coaching the driver in a timely fashion rather than days after the event. This helps to improve driver retention and productivity, allowing for fleet managers to feel secure their drivers are receiving the best information possible to help them perform successful deliveries. 


With a shortage of drivers, some road transport operators may be pushing or blatantly breaking drivers’ hours rules to make deliveries and meet the customer demands they face. This not only compromises road safety for all road users, potentially causing accidents from drivers being too tired to react quickly but puts the business at risk of fines or more severe penalties for the seriously and serially non-compliant operators if they are stopped by the DVSA.

Operators need a simple and convenient way to stay on top of their compliance requirements and fleet managers can do this by maximising operational efficiency, minimising driver stress and maintaining compliance with drivers’ hours and vehicle maintenance. No driver wants to be put in the position of making the choice between missing a delivery or breaking drivers’ hours to make it. 

Combining fleet and compliance management ensures that delivery capacity and driver utilisation can be optimised without compromising drivers’ hours compliance. By using automatic remote download of digital tachograph data for analysis and reporting, combined with driving licence and driver CPC verification with the DVLA, as well as driver vehicle safety checks, all in one compliance management platform, operators can practice proactive driver compliance management to underpin optimisation of their fleet’s efficiency.

Time savings can be unlocked using remote, automated download of tachograph data via installed telematics devices as vehicle unit and driver card tachograph data can be downloaded whilst the vehicle is being used. Drivers can be prompted to follow the required vehicle safety checks before they start driving via a mobile app, ensuring the correct process is followed with an audit trail of location, duration and time of the checks conducted. While the ability to attach photographs enables drivers to highlight any potential issues in real time before they embark. Any vehicle maintenance issues can be reported in real-time and operators can be assured that safety isn’t compromised by roadworthiness. 

Having the right tools to combine efficiency and compliance will go a long way to relieve some of the pressure and maintain operations, as close to ‘business as usual’ as possible in the face of the driver shortage. 

Getting into gear

With technology that provides continuous background optimisation of resources, operators can get more out of their existing resources. Advanced route optimisation will improve driver experience and telematics and mobile data communication will improve fleet management. These are testing times for every business, but those that can adapt now and capitalise on technology that can unlock valuable efficiencies will be the ones that will come out the other side stronger and in a better position to ride the wave of future demand fluctuations. 

From integrated transport management to leveraging and sharing real-time data across the supply chain, transport operators and retailers can better manage assets and achieve the ‘do more with less’ mantra. These solutions can ensure that now and, in the future, companies will have less demand for drivers because they are maximising their existing fleet’s potential. 

Combating the driver shortage is essential, but is not a challenge that will be solved overnight. While fleet operators should continue to find ways to attract new drivers, they should also place more importance on getting the most out of the resources they already have, but without overstretching their drivers or compromising safety and compliance. So, to get the industry moving again, and to keep it efficient in the long term, technology solutions can go a long way in supporting fleet operators to go the extra mile. To overcome the challenges of driver shortages and cope with the demands facing the industry today and in the future, putting the right solutions in place now is essential.