The trucking industry, like all others, is evolving to address contemporary issues. From highway safety and infrastructure funding to diversity and sustainability — topics discussed at the 2021 American Trucking Associations’ (ATA) Management Conference & Exhibition — trucking executives, manufacturers and policymakers are refocusing efforts to better serve customers and communities. As with other professions working to provide high-quality services but faced with new challenges, many of these issues are not unique.
What is unique about the trucking industry is the outsized role it plays in goods distribution and across supply chains throughout the United States. According to ATA, 10.23 billion tons of freight were shipped via trucks in 2020.
The supply-chain issues impacting the economy can be linked to some of the issues facing the trucking industry. Among attendees of the conference, there was a consensus that truck parking, detention time at docks and warehouses, port capacity and efficiency, and the potential for fleet electrification were among the main challenges facing the industry.
Parking Is an Economic Issue
In 2015, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) published a rule outlining the use of an electronic logging device (ELD) to record the number of hours a driver works each day. This rule required commercial truck and bus drivers to switch from paper logbooks to electronic logging devices by 2017.
Using ELDs creates a more accurate enforcement mechanism because the device records driving time. According to the FMCSA’s hours-of-service rules, truck drivers are allowed 14 consecutive hours of work each day, during which they can drive a total of 11 hours. The ELD rule was intended to increase compliance with hours-of-service rules. During the past few years, drivers have become more diligent about finding a parking spot before their 11 hours runs out. The trucking industry adopted ELDs to reduce incidents of fatigue and correlated motor vehicle accidents.
Most truck drivers are paid by the mile. Drivers who need to stop earlier than they would prefer will lose money for driving less time and fewer miles. But drivers often have to stop early due to the lack of available truck parking — it is simply too big of a risk to be near 11 hours of driving time and gamble on whether a parking spot will be available. The lack of available parking spots is also a concern for retention and supply chains, as truck drivers aren’t reaching their destinations faster and are more likely to leave the occupation because of lost wages.
Travel centers and departments of transportation can ameliorate parking issues by installing more parking spots for freight trucks and monitoring who parks in designated spots. Truck drivers at the conference said recreational vehicles are taking up spots assigned for trucks at travel centers and rest areas, due to the increased demand for recreational vehicles throughout the pandemic. By expanding the number of parking spots at travel centers and rest stops, truck drivers will have more places to sleep and more time to drive, thus reducing turnover and improving supply chains. Another step travel centers can take is to develop enforceable rules or reservation options to help truck drivers secure parking spots, while directing recreational vehicles to a more suitable location.
Detention Time Hurts the Bottom Line
Similar to the constraints on truck parking availability, detention times hurt the bottom line for truck drivers and trucking companies. The trucking industry defines detention as any time after two hours spent waiting for the truck to be loaded or unloaded. Typically, drivers don’t get paid for this time because they aren’t driving, and fleets prefer to have their trucks moving toward their next destination.
Traffic modeling provides initial solutions to increase efficiencies, but no clear course of action has been identified to reduce detention times. For truck drivers, any time off the road affects their wages. Conversely, if a port or private company is shipping or receiving goods, detention times have little to no impact on its operations and financial objectives. The freight carrier may charge the port, retailer or private company a fee for the extra time, but drivers paid by the mile don’t always share in the revenue for long loading and unloading times.
Solutions to reduce detention time are sorely needed within the trucking industry.
Electric Trucks Are the Vehicles of Tomorrow
Among attendees of the conference, there was a consensus that electric trucks will play a vital role in the freight industry, but the timeline is dubious and costs currently limit access.
Most truck manufacturers are preparing for an all-electric future, but motor carriers are waiting for prices to come down, charging infrastructure to expand and adoption to pick up before putting drivers behind the wheel of electric trucks.
While the freight industry is taking a measured response to the adoption of electric trucks, there are long-term benefits. One of the most obvious benefits of adopting electric trucks is the reduction in fuel consumption. Consuming less fuel is not only beneficial for the environment, but it also reduces operation costs for freight companies, as fuel is the second-highest operating cost for trucking companies. The jury is out on when or how electric trucks will be widely adopted in the trucking industry, but with early adopters integrating electric trucks into their operations, manufacturers offering more electric vehicles, and federal and state governments investing in charging infrastructure, there will be substantial developments in this space during the next few years.
The Chip Shortage Hampers Truck Production
The auto industry is mired in a shortage of semiconductor chips, which is impeding production of heavy-duty trucks. During the summer of 2021, assembly of Class 8 trucks fell to its lowest point since May 2020, when COVID-19 halted a significant portion of economic activity.
The lack of semiconductors has ripple effects, impacting the ability of freight companies to purchase new trucks and perform maintenance, consequently leading to more supply chain issues.
The trucking industry’s outsized role in goods distribution and supply chain efficiency puts it in a unique position. To help alleviate some of the concerns raised during the conference, departments of transportation, port authorities, travel centers and shippers can help address these issues. Entities like state departments of transportation and ports must continue to work with their trucking partners when executing major planning efforts and infrastructure projects. Whether a port authority has more capacity available, a rest stop has designated spots for trucks, or the cost of electric vehicles goes down, practical solutions are critical to reduce turnover and improve supply chains.
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