Trucking challenges in the US: Defining the problems and seeking solutions

Steve Bourne, VP Transportation at Keen Transport, discusses trucking challenges in the US – and what needs to happen in the industry to improve transportation efficiency and service.

Keen Truck with Flag

Having worked in the transportation industry for more than 30 years, I’ve seen the high and heavy (H&H) trucking segment come up against its fair share of challenges. The conditions we’re currently facing impact shipper, OEM, dealer and end customer, along with the transportation provider. At Keen, we’re also mindful of the timing of vessel schedules when transferring import and export units to and from port. So what are the main challenges – and, crucially, the possible solutions?

1. Worsening driver shortages

The American Trucking Association (ATA) estimates that 2017 saw the greatest driver shortfall to date and predicted that there could be 174,000 unfilled driver positions by 2026. Although the driver shortage is impacted by many factors, such as an ageing driver demographic, increased consumer spending and competing job sectors, there’s also a widely-held perception that truck driving isn’t the easier of careers, particularly when it involves being on the road for extended periods of time.

Another critical reason for driver shortages is the fact that a driver can’t get a commercial driving licence (CDL) until they’re 21-years-old. So after graduating high school, there’s a three-year ‘gap’ where young adults looking for a job will end up moving into careers that don’t include trucking.

Plus, driving a big truck isn’t a straightforward undertaking: moving a large mining dump truck is far more complex than moving a few thousand boxes of consumer goods. While a typical 53’ van can be upwards of 80,000 pounds, high and heavy moves can weigh up to 250,000 GVW pounds (or more, in extreme movements).

Along with concerns regarding weight, dimensions, dimensional accuracy, speed limit restrictions and increased braking distance, there’s also a very real pressure on heavy haul drivers to be hyper-aware of their surroundings – and the vehicle’s limitations. They also need to think about the routes that must be used to safely transport the load.

2. A lack of regulatory harmonisation

From a regulatory standpoint, transportation providers deal with widely differing pilot car requirements, permit rules and gross and axle weight restrictions across different states. A permit could cost 30 USD in one state and 1500 USD in another. Driving time can be impacted by night-time travel restrictions and curfews (some states restrict the movement of larger machines from entering larger cities during the morning and afternoon rush hours). Such restrictions can add hundreds of miles and/or days to a driver’s route.

While efforts are underway to harmonise neighbouring state regulations – and some states have made strides to loosen restrictions – this will continue to be an ongoing challenge when selecting equipment to use for transport, and the routes taken.

3. Increased consumer demand

It goes without saying that the demand on the trucking industry is increasing – particularly in light of the e-commerce boom, population growth, and the consumer desire to receive products within a day or two of purchase. Added to this, the US economy has picked up in recent months, meaning consumers are reaching into their pockets more readily than before.

So what’s the solution?

As we all know, there’s isn’t an easy answer. In the heavy haul trucking segment, this is a complex problem that will involve the continued efforts of state and federal legislation, along with the support and assistance of industry trade associations. Increased efforts to recruit driving talent to the transportation field are important too.

We must continue to work with the shippers and OEMs to ensure dimensions are accurate to avoid additional delays and transportations costs due to permit re-issuance, equipment re-planning or new routings. Such delays put a strain on timelines for transport, particularly when meeting vessel departure schedules. Whether the customer is domestic or international, the end game is safe, reliable service at the lowest possible price.

I’ve always believed in ‘walking a mile in someone else’s shoes’ to understand their challenges – not only in one’s own industry but in your customers’ too. By sharing the challenges from the transportation side, we can hopefully highlight the fact that the commitment to service doesn’t end with moving a machine. It’s the interdependence and teamwork of shippers and transport providers that will truly drive success.

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