The Future of Truck Driving, not so fast…

The Discovery

Let me take you back momentarily to a very dark period of time. Some have referred to as a year of peril, or a time better forgotten, a scare or roughly a blemish in time. You may remember it simply by how it’s most commonly referred to as, the year 2014.

Luckily, despite all its ugliness, it did have some highlights. Like Jonah being swallowed by a whale and then emerging afterwards newly awakened, I too was able to forge some benefit from an otherwise troubling experience (in a much less biblical sense of course).

In its wake, 2014 left Malaysian flight 370's suspicious disappearance, Boko Haram’s mass abduction in Nigeria and ISIS declaring a caliphate igniting their vicious campaign of marauding through Northern Iraq. President Obama economically sanctioned Russia and closer to home, the Michael Brown shooting occurred in Ferguson Missouri.

On a lighter note, the Vatican canonized 2 deceased popes and Brazil, despite the odds, successfully hosted the World Cup. (American soccer fans will remember that year as the year we thought we actually had a chance.)

And fittingly, Google revealed to the world its first prototypes for driver-less cars.

And while parts of the world were seemingly walking on a razor’s edge, I myself, spent most of the year absentminded and aloof of the chaos, canonizations and technological breakthroughs. My work-life balance was reduced to a “man-on-a-mission” status and rendered to a work-work balance. But at 32 years old, a man is at a good age to do that. There’s nothing unhealthy, at that age, from prioritizing career as choosing work as your primary responsibility. It helped too that the pay was good. I was all in!

Thanks to an insightful consultant, some crafty showmanship and a bit of good luck, my team won a very lucrative courier contract covering the state of Montana. With that, I was appointed Project Lead, given a hard launch deadline and told to “MAKE IT WORK!”

From day 1, that meant 10 to 12 hour work days, a disconnection from anything looking like a news feed and a social-life placed on sabbatical.

At the risk of sounding cliché, it must be said that this project forced me to “wear many hats”. (An itchy symptom suffered by any Project Manager). Some of that illustrious crowning included:

Excel Jockey

Vehicle Inspector

Security Detail

Warehouse Foreman

Ironically, despite all that different headgear, it was the role of Route Driver that imprinted on me the most (probably because of all the driving that comes along with a courier contract, said Einstein).

During the project launch and in the span of 3 weeks I logged over 2,700 driving miles, drove 5 different vehicles, cracked 1 windshield, burned hundreds of dollars of fuel and stayed in about a dozen different hotel rooms. Oh and I drank a lot of coffee (better known by truckers as Jumpy Juice). All the while, my smartphone’s GPS guided my every direction and automated my every routing decision.

To start, I drove from Denver CO to Billings MT in 2 separate legs. The first leg was a short haul northbound from Denver running parallel to the Rocky Mountains, past Fort Collins and the Anheuser-Busch factory (which can be seen form the highway and is also know for the first commercial haul by a driver-less truck 2 years later) and then further onto Cheyenne Wyoming.

Cheyenne is a tiny blue collar city that sort of just appears out of nowhere as you approach it on interstate 25. It takes no more than 30 minutes to travel the city end to end. It has a hokey feel and is weathered with a dusty patina. Its rail yard is big and gives the impression of at one time bustling with activity.

The city has a connection to its past, and without trying hard, maintains its wild-west reputation with a sort-of southern charm. It’s like listening to a Merle Haggard song or watching a John Wayne movie (a cowboy one, not an army one).

At 7:30pm MST, after checking into my hotel, I felt compelled for some reason to go to a steakhouse. It may have been all the Wyoming license plates in the parking lot that were subliminally directing me towards one but I really cannot say for sure.

Luckily, I guess not surprisingly, there was a famous steakhouse right across the street. So I crossed the street and swung the door open to a very lively, very Wyoming, and very “the-same-as-any-other” Outback Steakhouse.

I took a seat at that bar next to a couple of guys probably my age and wearing Carhartt jackets. To my right, an older fella was enjoying a bottle of Budweiser positioned a couple of empty bar stools down.

The two guys in Carhartts both looked my way and I returned their glances. I felt a strange urge to say “howdy” but instead, chose to simply grin and nod in their direction. They both nodded back welcomingly.

The “fella” to my right was tall against the bar. He had a sort of sunburned complexion, a thick head of silver hair, wore blue jeans, an off-white button-down and a pair of well worn-in boots. He had a Leatherman sheathed to his belt.

His voice had a deep rustic timber. He spoke loudly but not offensively. Despite his big size and appearance he seemed approachable and lighthearted. He was not exactly sober but not exactly drunk either. He was speaking with one of the pretty looking bartenders.

“Guess I just haven’t seen you in a long while. I forgotten how pretty you were.”

“Aw Rusty, now you just stop that ya’ old charmer you. How’ve you been?”

“I’m happier than a rabbit lost in a carrot patch.”

She laughed and then continued their conversation but I lost it momentarily as I began to read the menu. Their voices began to blend with the other surrounding noises of the restaurant. The scraping of silverware against plates, servers repeating back customers’ orders, the occasional sound of a soda gun dispensing into a mug, kwooought.

Then as I finalized my order in my head I heard Rusty talking again.

“Alright darlin, I’m headed outside for a smoke. How about you join me?”

Sounding sincere she said, “I would Rusty but the boss man don’t want us leaving the bar during busy hours. He doesn’t let us smoke while we’re working”

Rusty, “Oh! Well you oughta’ write your congressman about that.”

The other bartender came by and offered to take my order. She was as equally pretty as the other and smiled when she listened. Her ID tag read “Bess”. She tapped my order into the POS system automatically sending the meal order to the kitchen.

Shortly thereafter, she served me a frosted beer mug filled with a properly layered foamy top. Without a coaster, a cocktail napkin stuck to the bottom of the mug’s icy perspiration. I thanked her, raised it a bit towards my new friends in Carhartts (they returned the gesture) and took a thirsty gulp before putting the mug back down onto the heavily epoxied bar top. The mug made a gentle but heavy thud.

After the sound of my gulp drained away, Rusty’s voice again took center stage. I wasn’t sure what had just been said but I picked up the conversation at the right moment.

“Aw shucks darlin’ whataya mean be that?” He sounded confused and slightly concerned.

Lightheartedly she responded, “Oh Rusty you know I was just pullin’ your leg.”

Rusty with bravado and a dash of snark in his voice quickly said, “I wish you were pullin’ something else.”

There was a brief pause.

And then…SLAP!!!!

Justice had been served.

Her hand was quick to return behind the bar after she administered Rusty’s punishment. It was a quick and natural movement, almost like she had done this before. Rusty looked stunned and embarrassed but not overly upset not even angry. The bartender was grinning with a slight shrug on her shoulders.

Me and my new friends looked at each other, tried to keep our faces straight, and then simultaneously began laughing out loud.

We kept laughing and began to get the attention of the other restaurant goers that missed the whole scene. Even as Rusty shuffled ignominiously by us and then out the door for his smoke, our laughter continued. Gradually it quieted and we just sort of looked at each other smiling and shaking our heads. And then only moments later, Bess came back with my order.

Mahi-Mahi with a baked potatoes and a side of steamed veggies.

The Rub

OK, so what does any of this have to do with the future of truck driving? Nothing, and that’s exactly the point.

You see, in those 3 weeks during 2014 and the 3 months during implementation that followed, this one story is the only memorable moment I had during the project (save for later driving through Yellowstone, but seeing a bull elk in full rut was not as funny).

The point here is that driving, with all due respect, is not exciting work. Seriously, aside from podcasts and some personal phone calls, driving can be a mind numbing endeavor. This, I suspect, would be the popular opinion of most millennials these days (myself, a “bridge-millenial” included).

This fact coupled with some of the more intangible elements, which I’ll mention shortly, are putting a strain on industry and explain why in 2018 we have a truck driver shortage in the US. (Oh and perhaps even more compelling, ask any last mile courier what it’s like delivering lawn furniture or 50 lb bags of dog food every day, thanks Amazon and the new wave convenience culture)

Right now there is a driver shortage in the US, true story! People, chiefly millennials, do not want to be truck drivers. (Ironically, ride-sharing aps like Uber and Lyft have allowed for even more people to join the gig-economy employed as drivers, but outside of that sector driving is not something people in this country aspire to do professionally).

Unemployment may be 3.8% yet truck driver turnover is on the rise. In Q1 of 2018 driver turnover was 94% for large truckload carriers (fleets w/ >$30M rev per annum), according to American Trucking Associations. Smaller truckload carriers is 73% (still dangerously high).

Driver surveys site pay, time away from home and lack of communication as reasons for turnover.

Some studies have shown that drivers between 21 and 25 years of age were less likely to leave their jobs than those who were 26 to 30 when driver turnover peaks. More telling, the number of entry-level drivers has steadily increased from 30% in 2012 to 54 % in Q1 2018.

The median salary of a truck driver is $53,000. On the whole, that’s quite good when you consider that in 2017 the US Census reported that the Median household income was $59,000. Pay levels notwithstanding, it’s the combination of a taxing physical demand, social seclusion and the monotony of road-life, that render the level of pay as less attractive.

Even Walmart apparently has a driver retention problem despite having driver salaries of close to $90,000 per year.

The Intangibles

There have been some significant systemic changes also negatively affecting the labor market resulting from government oversight. One in the form of taxes and the other by way of regulations.

The Tax Reforms put in place by the Republicans in 2018 eliminated the per diem tax exemption allowance for employee drivers (W2 workers, NOT owner-operator drivers). This was essentially a $63/day tax break that truckers relied upon that they will longer get the benefit of (better write your congressman says Rusty).

If you were on the road for say 220 days that would amount to $13,860 of tax exemptions. If you’re annual salary is $53,000, that is 26% of your gross income.

Regulations are another issue. In April 2018 the US Department of Transportation in further enforcing its Hours of Service (HOS) regulations for truck drivers, fully implemented the mandate for Electronic Logging Devices (ELD’s).

Under the banner of safety, the ELD’s log drivers’ hours in order to ensure they do not go over the stipulated driving limit.

This means that a driver (which is paid per mile) is governed by how many hours they are on the road (not necessarily driving). Ordinarily the driver would log his or her hours manually and compensate/adjust for the idle time spent either at a border crossing, heavy toll plaza, backed up loading dock or seaport. But not anymore. It’s all done electronically with smart technology that automates the process.

Essentially the ELD means that a driver’s pay check will systematically be chipped away little by little.

Imagine you sent an email to a colleague in another state, of which, your next steps to communicate to your customer are dependent on your colleague’s response. Now assume that for whatever reason they are slow in responding and may even take some chasing down on your part. The time in between their response and your next steps is essentially “idle time”.

Now assume that during that “idle time” you don’t get paid! Seems a bit unfair doesn’t it? Now you know how a truck driver feels.

In a recent survey conducted by Zipline Logistics, trucking companies reported that the ELD has actually decreased driver safety, reporting that drivers are actually speeding more and driving recklessly to cover more ground in the time allotted. Drivers also noted that they are now forced to drive in hazardous weather, and when tired so they do not burn their ELD hours after the time has started running.

Solutions

The fact remains that little can be done by way of making truck driving a more engaging or a more personally fulfilling profession. On balance then, experts point to changes that will expand capacity or general output on a per driver basis. In theory then, doing more with less would solve the shortage problem.

Here are some current ideas in the hopper:

- Increase the weight limit per vehicle above the current 80,000 lbs. (vehicle & cargo combined weight)

- Allow CDL drivers between 18–21 years of age to cross state lines (currently prohibited)

- Increase twin trailer standards from 2 x 28 ft trailers to 2 x 33 ft trailers

- Increase rail capacity from sea ports thus circumventing 1st & 2nd trucking legs (this is already happening)

And then of course there’s that sweet sounding word every business leader is talking about even when he or she is not actually talking about it….Automation!

Automation is already a very real fixture in our 21st century kiosk-culture lives. Commercial aviation, large scale fulfillment centers and auto-manufacturing plants use automation at very high levels. Closer to the grain, McDonalds and CVS have replaced some tellers with machines essentially rendering the need to interact with a human obsolete. Oh and don’t forget the robot cold calling your smart phone or the automated receptionist you’ll speak to the next time you call the 1–800 number on the back of your credit card.

I think it is no stretch to assume that a driver-less vehicle would/could outperform a human driver in a variety of ways (not all). First, fatigue is not in a computer’s vocabulary nor are sick days. Secondly, technology is agnostic and extremely literal. It will do only what you tell it to do and nothing else. (manage any amount of people and you already know why this is a good thing).

Now to be clear, I DO NOT ADVOCATE REPLACING HUMAN TRUCK DRIVERS WITH TECHNOLOGY. I would not want to see a double-decker car hauler or a tanker truck filled with highly flammable materials pulling up alongside me at a red light piloted by a Johnny Cab (reference title picture). I’m sorry but we must draw the line somewhere.

However, I think there are particular services wherein a driver-less vehicle stands to make a real impact for the better of human drivers. If driver-less vehicles can take over the less desirable routes or routine hauls then it will take pressure off of the rest of a carrier’s network.

For example, shuttles and line-hauls are often performed in the evening and early am hours. This is done to avoid traffic, match production cycles and because the cargo is categorically “In Transit” and not “Out for Delivery”.

Also, the delivery locations are non-residential (distribution centers, manufacturing plants, etc.) so public exposure is limited. If a carrier network assigned these routes (and were permitted to legally) they could allow their human drivers to then take more desirable routes.

Of course this is an over simplification and every option has its drawbacks, limitations and potential risks. But that notwithstanding, automation is worth thinking about given that the technology is currently a reality and the industry is struggling to match demand.

Winston Churchill once famously said, “to change is to improve, to change often is to perfect”. Industry is at such a point where improvements are critically needed and change is inevitable. At some point, hard decisions will be made. Either by way of federal policy, private enterprise or Silicon Valley. And similar to ordering the fish option from a steakhouse menu, it will be an unpopular decision, albeit a healthier one.

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