Former ATA Chief Lays Out Trucking’s Most-Daunting Challenges

Written by Bill Graves, who retired from his position as president and chief executive of the American Trucking Associations last month. This is one in a series of periodic guest columns by industry thought leaders.

When I first came to the American Trucking Associations in 2003, among our industry’s top concerns were diesel costs, the driver shortage, insurance costs and security.

Bill graves

Bill Graves (Photo: ATA)

In the nearly 14 years since, many things have changed. I think if you spoke to trucking industry executives today, the cost of fuel and insurance or how best to secure the supply chain wouldn’t be at the top of their priority list, but they’d have a lot to say about the driver shortage.

In my time here at ATA, I’ve developed an appreciation for the issues facing trucking, and have tried to put our industry on the path to solving them by working to make our industry safer, more efficient and more sustainable than it has ever been. As I step aside as president and chief executive of the ATA, I look ahead to the issues that will define our industry going forward. Here are five of great significance.

A growing and critical shortage of labor: Trucking has a shortage of drivers and of technicians. While some may dispute this, every measure from ATA’s economics team and nearly every conversation I have with those in the industry highlight the fact that trucking companies have trouble attracting qualified drivers and technicians to keep America’s trucks moving.

Now, we should be honest: While driving a truck is a good job and a path to the middle class, it can be a difficult and demanding job as well. However, because of government regulations and other requirements (including some safety standards that we believe are appropriate, by the way), it is difficult for fleets to fill seats. And it will become more difficult as the economy continues to grow.

Similarly, as our trucks grow more and more complex, with more and more advanced technology, it will become even harder to find professional, dedicated technicians to maintain these vehicles.

The simple solution to both of these issues is to improve the image of our industry and improve the pay of those who work in it. Both of these things are happening, and will continue to happen, so long as there’s a shortage of labor.

Development of automated vehicle technology: Whether it’s called driverless or automated or smart, the rapid development of automated vehicle technology has the power to transform our industry in many ways.

We see the basis for these systems in the market today, helping to improve safety and efficiency, and from here the technology will only get better and more pervasive. However, there are still questions that need to be answered as we head down this path. We are eager to work with vehicle manufacturers, the auto industry and regulators, but we need to ensure that these emerging technologies don’t compete with one another to the point that settling in on something that genuinely works and is capable of being widely deployed will be impossible.

I also fear that the national infrastructure necessary to allow us to fully deploy and benefit from those technologies will not be adequate, limiting their utility.

Inadequate infrastructure investment: Nothing indicates we’ll see a shift in the political will necessary to find a permanent funding source for the massive investment the U.S. needs to make in road and bridge maintenance and expansion. The new administration and Congress will very likely run up against the expiration of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act without reaching agreement on how to fund the next program. While tax reform might provide an additional one-time financial fix, we will once again witness the inadequacy of our public officials to deal with this basic public service need.

Movement toward alternative fuels: While the industry currently enjoys very affordable diesel fuel prices, this situation cannot be sustained forever. As the world’s economy grows, demand for oil and the gasoline and diesel fuels it produces will put upward pressure on prices.

Coupled with the ever-increasing requirements for environmentally cleaner operating equipment, I continue to believe you’ll see necessary movement toward natural gas-powered vehicles with electric not far behind.

Industry consolidation: As large fleets grow, they will look more and more to acquiring midsize motor carriers where a pool of drivers already exists, equipment already is deployed and a customer base developed. This will create an ever-widening chasm between very large motor carriers and small fleets and independent owner operators.

These are just a few of the issues that trucking will face as it moves forward. I have a long history in this industry — as the grandson and son of truckers and for almost 14 years the head of the American Trucking Associations — so I’ll be watching with interest how the industry and how the team at ATA resolves them.

One thing is certain: Regardless of these challenges, the trucking industry will continue to be a vital part of our nation’s economy – moving America’s goods safely and efficiently.

Editor’s note: Bill Graves retired as president and chief executive of the American Trucking Associations last month. He headed the organization since 2003. Graves served as the 43rd governor of Kansas, serving from 1995 until 2003.


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