WILSON’S LOCAL PRINT AND DIGITAL COMMUNITY INSTITUTION SINCE 1896

Is there a viable future for America’s truck drivers?

By Oliver Hedgepeth
Posted 7/15/19

The interstates, bridges, roadways, rest areas and truck stops are a trucker’s office. However, some of these offices have closed. Others are in disrepair or just dangerous. Trucks you see each day …

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Is there a viable future for America’s truck drivers?

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The interstates, bridges, roadways, rest areas and truck stops are a trucker’s office. However, some of these offices have closed. Others are in disrepair or just dangerous. Trucks you see each day along those highways and bridges are the lifeblood of the U.S. economy and those truckers’ families.

The American Trucking Association reports that more than 70% of all retail and wholesale products — cargo of all kinds, groceries, military equipment, waste disposal and recycled materials — are moved by truck drivers. That includes drivers in the long-haul business such as driving a container more than 250 miles or a short haul of fewer than 150 miles.

In 2015, the ATA reported that nearly 4 million tractor-trailers and trucks were in operation in the United States. The ATA estimates that moving freight today requires about three and a half million tractor truck drivers. Also, nearly 400,000 of these drivers are owner-operators of their trucks.

As of 2016, more than “20 million standard containers” traveled by oceangoing ships. In port, one truck driver pulls one container.

But outside the port, not all of those 20 million standard containers are being pulled by a trucker. On the interstates, truck drivers can haul tandem trailers, which are two connected trailers. Other factors taking away truck driving jobs include double-stacking, one trailer on top of another, and autonomous tractor-trailers.

IS THERE A DRIVER SHORTAGE?

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association insists that there is no truck driver shortage today, nor will there be a shortage in the future. However, the ATA says the opposite; there definitely is a shortage of truck drivers.

According to the ATA, this shortage is the transportation industry’s top concern. The ATA predicts that “if current trends continue, the shortage may explode to as many as 245,000 by 2022.” Another estimate places this shortage “at 70,000 this year, and may rise to 175,000 by 2024.”

A GROWING PROBLEM

While men and women can obtain a driver’s license at age 16, they cannot drive a tractor-trailer across state lines until they are 21, even if they have earned a commercial driver’s license.

The DRIVE Safe Act is trying to resolve this dilemma. The act allows drivers over 18 to drive tractor-trailers across state lines, so 16-year-olds have to wait only two years instead of five before they can legally get behind the wheel. Also, they need only 20 days of classroom and hands-on training to receive a CDL.

DRIVE was enacted with the idea that drivers are “aging and retiring, and companies must work to bring fresh, younger drivers into the industry.” Among American truckers, only 6% are women as part of the female workforce in America of 47%. Female drivers are growing in number in all 50 states.

The ATA and OOIDA are once again on opposite sides of this young driver program. The ATA supports training truck drivers at 18 to 20 years old. Along with the ATA, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration supports this lower age, stating “drivers 18, 19 and 20 years old may currently operate commercial motor vehicles in intrastate commerce.” The OOIDA, along with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, opposes licensing drivers that young.

Tractor-trailer drivers are also losing out on job assignments due to the growing trends in cargo-moving technology. The problem is not about truckers being replaced by technology, but how long this transition will take. Will the replacement be for short-haul as well as long-haul truckers?

AUTONOMOUS TRUCKS ON THE RISE

Many transportation companies are investing in self-driving vehicles, including Embark, Daimler, Einride, TuSimple, Waymo, Volvo and Tesla. The U.S. Postal Service is also planning for a fleet of driverless trucks.

Federico Guerrini, writing in Forbes, estimates that by 2025 there may be no need for truck drivers due to autonomous trucks. “Starting from 2025 onward, ‘the driver is practically no longer required,’” he says, citing an independent analysis.

Fleets of local home delivery trucks are growing in popularity as a competitive edge for many companies. Kroger and other grocery chains, such as Safeway, Whole Foods, Walmart, Harris Teeter, Trader Joe’s, Costco and Target advertise home delivery. This means a growing need for truck drivers to deliver small packages in a short-haul scenario.

A SHRINKING SOLUTION

Is a revolution in cargo transportation about to begin? The answer is yes. In fact, it already has begun, much as the revolution in the use of cargo containers that began in the 1950s.

Marc Levinson’s book “The Box” sheds light on the future of truck drivers. The book is a history of the tractor–trailer and why it began for long-haul trucking. It also offers a scenario for the demise of the long-haul and maybe short-haul truck driver.

Just as the container shrank the world starting in 1956, “[by] dramatically lowering the cost of shipping goods,” autonomous vehicles will shrink the truck driver world. Ten years from now, the history of the tractor-trailer driver may be reported as having lasted 70 to 80 years for long-haul drivers. It may take a few more years for the short-haul driver of today to disappear.

The value of autonomous vehicles is not in the vehicle, but in how it is used and will be used. That use is part of the autonomous vehicles’ impact on every moving cargo container rushing along a supply chain. Local and global economies will feel the effect of increases in the nearly constant delivery of goods from manufacturer or from warehouse to warehouse, and to retail stores.

economic disruption

As Levinson’s history of the “box” shows, the cost of packing a container and shipping that container has “dramatically” gotten cheaper. Autonomous vehicles will destroy the current tractor-trailer economy, but they will open up a new transportation, warehousing and manufacturing economy.

Time will be a significant factor in the new economy. No longer will containers be limited by the truck drivers’ 14 hour-per-day service rule. Autonomous vehicles’ usage will be limited only by refueling stops and regularly scheduled maintenance.

Factors that may shrink today’s truck drivers’ career options include:

• Cargo volume will increase at the receiving end of the supply chain.

• The cost and time of storage should decrease as the limit on initial storage will be dependent on how often an autonomous vehicle can pull up to the loading area.

• Manufacturing rates will increase as well as the number of warehouse workers.

• There will be longer supply chains as well as new ways in linking supply chains due to the use of autonomous vehicles.

• Business models will emerge as entrepreneurs discover new business opportunities because of faster and continuous movement of fresh farm produce.

• The cost of transporting goods will go down, so too will retail costs.

• The competition for cheaper goods will increase.

• The world economy and global supply chains might not be dramatically affected, but they will somehow be influenced.

One solution for many of today’s truck drivers is to change careers. This can be accomplished by:

• Education in the form of a college degree such as an Associate of Arts or Bachelor of Arts degree in transportation, logistics, supply chain management, reverse logistics, disaster logistics or a similar field. These degrees will require a two-to four-year completion time.

• Training at a local college to earn a certificate in a focused area such as logistics or supply chain management or warehouse operations. This may take up to one year to complete online.

• Starting a new business.

• Reaching out to other transportation modes — rail, air and shipping. Experience is valuable in understanding the issues of transportation.

If you are a long-haul or even short-haul driver, you have time to make a change. Over the next 10 years, changes in the trucking industry will increase.

Time is on your side. Don’t wait to start that new educational endeavor.

Oliver Hedgepeth, a native of Wilson, is a full-time professor at American Public University. He was director of three academic programs: Reverse logistics management, transportation and logistics management and government contracting.

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