Endangered Species: Truck Drivers


October 22, 2018

The shortage of truckers in the United States is expected to hit a scary 174,000 in the next eight years.  In a time when we demand our goods within a 24 to 48 hour window this is becoming a large problem.  And not just for those waiting on a last-minute gift from Amazon Prime either, but also for large companies distributing food, water, gasoline, and other everyday essentials who depend on high speed supply chains.  If drivers were to decide to go on strike, such as in Barcelona in 2012, or retire en masse, there could be significant ramifications throughout the global economy.

The current median salary for a truck driver in the U.S. is $40,000.  At that level the industry is struggling to find workers who will spend nights on the road without seeing their family.  Congress has also put in place rules to lengthen drivers’ rest periods making it harder for them to earn what they had in the past.  In Germany, 30,000 truckers retire each year, while just 2,000 are joining the workforce, mostly because of today’s interest in having a strong work-life balance. Some companies like Walmart have had to raise their drivers’ median salary up to $73,000 to combat the issue.

The shortage of drivers isn’t the only problem going on. There are three other inefficiency issues. Nearly 20% of miles are driven with empty trailers, or “dead-head.” Every year, that adds up to about 65 billion empty miles.  This can happen when there is not a shipment lined up after the last delivery, and many drivers will elect to wait in place for a nearby job to become available, wasting precious time that could otherwise be spent on the road.  The second issue is that most drivers spending three or more hours at shipping facilities waiting for their load to be brought on board.  Companies often don’t coordinate their freight with the driver’s arrival and might not even have people on hand who can load the freight.  Paying drivers for detaining them for more than the two-hour limit can be costly, but so can bringing on more warehouse workers.  Lastly, brokering a shipment between the driver and the shipper can take hours.  This includes the broker winning the load from a shipper, finding a driver, negotiating rates on both sides, and then billing and collecting.  This process has become big business recently as the volume of shipments has gone up and the number of drivers has come down.

One common solution is that self-driving trucks will solve many problems, right? Not exactly. “We’re relatively close to Level 4 autonomy (hands-off driving for extended periods) on highways,” Henrik Christensen, the chair of robot systems at the University of California, San Diego, said. “The problem is what happens when you get off the highway into mixed traffic with pedestrians and bicycles.” Self-driving vehicles also perform badly in poor weather or any kind of unpredictable conditions — not to mention the threats of theft or vandalism. Even if trucks are eventually able to drive on their own, a worker may still have to remain in the vehicle to handle emergencies and security issues. And with the profession deskilled by automation, they will probably be paid much less than right now.

It will be interesting to see how the trucking industry changes in order to accommodate the changing needs of the global economy.  One thing is for sure, now that we have gotten used to free two-day delivery of nearly anything you can think of, the problems are likely to get worse before they get better.

Dan Hall