Last week, the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced the addition of 156,000 jobs in September, a sign that the growth in the economy, although modest, continues to generate additional employment opportunities. In spite of this growth however, for-hire trucking lost 3600 jobs. Warehouse and storage positions rose 5300, and other transportation related jobs rose by 3300. It is difficult to draw any meaningful conclusions from the driver numbers, in particular, since they seem to be pretty volatile. For example, in August there was a gain of 3400. Bottom – line however, there is little disagreement in the industry about the continuing driver shortage. The conventional wisdom is that the country is short about 30-35,000 over the road drivers. The American Trucking Associations has predicted that by 2023, the shortage could reach 240,000.
There are a number of reasons for this, and most have been well-publicized. The pay is low (for the work being performed); increasing government intervention is becoming problematic; roads are congested and sometimes inadequate; and the long periods away from home are stressful to many drivers and their families. In short, it just isn’t as enjoyable as it used to be. There have been many sincere attempts by the carriers to make the jobs more appealing. Higher pay and additional perks have been offered by many, but the government intervention and regulations, over which the carrier has no control, often overcome the advantages.
One of the few real solutions offered by the government has been the requirement for electronic drivers’ logs. They are supposed to improve drivers’ performance, behavior and productivity; but in my opinion, that is a weak effort.
Of course, the new- age, innovative, and somewhat futuristic answer to many industry watchers is the introduction of driverless vehicles. These advocates have visions of products speeding across the country, 24 hours a day in a truck unencumbered by the need for a driver. An October 3 headline in Transport Topics proclaimed, “Robots Could Replace 1.7 Million American Truckers in the Next Decade”. Since this is half of the total driver population, this is a pretty strong claim. The person in the truck who Mercedes – Benz calls a “transport manager” rather a driver, could be having lunch, reading a book, or napping in the sleeper berth while the truck rumbles through the night to its destination.
Certainly, driverless cars and trucks are exciting ideas; and really, with the technology we have available, are well within the realm of possibility. They already are being tested with a high degree of success. But there are so many other issues, I don’t believe we will see an overwhelming adoption in the immediate future or even the next decade.
First of all, it seems to me that for the driverless vehicles to perform at their highest and best use, there must be good infrastructure. That we do not have in this country, and a divided Congress doesn’t seem to be close to fixing the problem. Even if we started today, it will be 2030 at least, before all the repairs and necessary modifications are completed. Secondly, these vehicles are not ready for city driving, parking at shipping and receiving facilities, and the myriad of other unexpected events that occur off the freeway. They are pretty much exit to exit performers. Finally, I don’t care whether you call the person in the cab a driver, a transport manager, or VP of Mobile Logistics, I believe it will be a long time before a live person disappears from the cab.
The list goes on, but my point is this. Will it happen? Sure it will, and I think it is really exciting stuff. But let’s not get so enamored with the new technology that we lose sight of our immediate and future requirements. We must have experienced and qualified people in our trucks, and we need more of them.