Chris Spear, chief executive of the American Trucking Associations, is pushing an aggressive agenda that includes recruiting teenage truck drivers, a gas tax increase to fix roads and safety technology for greater trucking industry productivity.
In an interview with Trucks.com, Spear said federal regulations should allow interstate truck driving by people as young as 18 with proper training.
He cited a recent visit to the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln. On the captain’s deck watching flight operations, he heard the captain instruct the helmsman: “20-degree right rudder.” An 18-year-old female sailor complied. She was driving a $4-billion warship.
“I can’t think of a better example for our industry when we talk about allowing 18- to 21-year-olds behind the wheel” of heavy-duty trucks, Spear said. “You already have 48 states legally allowing an 18 year old to drive. They just can’t cross state lines. That works pretty well in Texas and California, but not so great in Rhode Island or Connecticut.”
And Spear said the ATA proposal would provide 400 hours of training, which states granting commercial driver’s licenses to teens do not offer.
Spear, entering his third year as ATA’s top executive, said that recruiting younger drivers is his top priority. The average age of the trucking workforce is 49. Getting non-college-bound young people into truck cabs could help address a driver shortage the ATA pegs at 63,000 and growing.
“In many instances, you are making more in our industry in years one through five than you do coming out of college,” he said. “Letting us compete for the same talent as other industries is key.”
The recent approval of a pilot program allowing military veterans under 21 to drive across state lines “is a shining example. If we can train young talent to fight our wars, I’m convinced we can teach 18- to 21-year-olds to drive across state lines,” Spear said.
Bills have been introduced in both the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate. Spear said he thinks legislation could pass in 2019. Younger drivers could begin reducing the driver shortage in two or three years following action by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
Spear, 48, joined the trucking association for a second time in 2016. He was senior vice president of legislative affairs in 2014-15. He has worked in government relations in the auto industry for Hyundai and in aerospace for Honeywell, where he also was vice president of emerging markets. He was an assistant labor secretary for policy under President George W. Bush and was deputy representative for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. He has worked on five continents.
A host of issues compete with the driver shortage for Spear’s attention. Here are four:
Trucking is booming. But a shortage of trucks and technicians to fix them is as chronic as the lack of drivers. The capacity crunch is raising load prices. That’s good in the short term. But unless the industry can become more efficient, it risks losing business to other transportation modes.
“All the key ingredients we’re seeing are saying this is at minimum a three-year trend,” Spear said. “We have entered into a period of the best conditions trucking has ever experienced.”
Laws restricting trailer length and weight hamper sustained growth. Those laws have not changed in more than 35 years.
“We have not changed productivity laws on length since 1982,” Spear said. “Equipment and laws are not keeping pace with the growth of the economy. Something’s got to give.”
Regulations like the hours-of-service rule that restricts drivers to 11 hours behind the wheel in a 14-hour period need to be modified, Spear said.
Enforcement of a rule enacted last year that requires truckers to track their driving hours via digital electronic logging devices is forcing better compliance with the hours-of-service rule. Shippers are paying attention to an inefficient practice the industry calls detention time.
“They know they can’t move that freight if a driver is sitting for three, four or five hours waiting for a load,” Spear said. “They are running out of hours.”
Spear said he thinks a $1-trillion federal infrastructure spending plan proposed by President Trump will pass in 2019. He believes a 20-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax increase over four years that would raise $340 billion will be included. He defends higher fuel taxes as the most efficient way to pay for road and bridge upkeep.
“The fuel tax continues to be the most conservative, immediate and efficient way to fund infrastructure,” he said. “Less than one penny on the dollar goes to administration.” Toll roads, by contrast, can cost up to 35 cents on the dollar collected to administer, he said.
He said trucking pays half the tab for the federal Highway Trust Fund. The fund began in the Eisenhower administration and helped pay for the nation’s freeway system. Without new money or continued diversion of funds from other areas, the trust fund will go broke in 2020, Spear said.
The ATA opposes a measure on the November ballot in California that would repeal $5.2 billion in higher gas and diesel taxes to be used for infrastructure signed into law last year.
Spear wants trucking to work with the auto industry to leverage its head start in safety technology.
“I think there are solutions out there with our partners in the auto industry that could solve a lot of problems,” he said. “This is a driver-assist environment, and I’m not willing to concede that space to the passenger vehicle industry. We need to be hand in glove with them, and they want that too.”
For example, connected vehicle technology that allows cars to talk with other cars and roadway infrastructure to avoid potential crashes and congestion is valuable to trucks. The federal government earmarked seven bands of a radio frequency for use by connected vehicles. Spear thinks trucks should have access to them.
Peloton Technologies, which is testing truck platooning — a technology that allows trucks to drive closely together to reduce drag and save fuel — uses the radio signals as part of its system to allow two trucks to travel within 40 feet of each other.
Automated driving assist and autonomous driving technologies could help drivers be safer, more efficient, more productive and less fatigued.
“If you’re a trucker and you can get two more hours of drive time by having driver-assist technology, you could accelerate adoption of this technology through our industry,” he said.
But Spear disagrees that autonomous trucks will eliminate driving jobs.
His eight years at Honeywell, which makes autopilot technology for airplanes taught Spear that said. “those planes could take off, fly and land on their own. But we still have pilots up there.”
As a policy veteran, Spear tracks North American Free Trade Agreement movement because trucks account for most of the oborder crossings into Mexico and Canada.
“You look at the totality of trade policy and the role trucking plays to move that freight. We cannot afford not to be in this discussion,” he said, adding that ATA has been part of all eight rounds of NAFTA talks to date.
Separately, truck and trailer makers are building in surcharges to offset tariffs on imported aluminum and steel.
“Right now, the lion’s share of my members is willing to absorb some of this pain.” Spear said. “We just got a great tax reform bill through, and we’re losing that because of the tariffs. My hope is they are temporary and used as a negotiation tactic to get a deal and that those deals come quickly.”