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Driverless Trucks:Option for Truck Driver Shortage?

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For well over a year now we have been keeping an eye on the emerging truck driver shortage, citing several different reasons for the challenges facing the industry.

It is well documented that a trucker’s job is not viewed as ‘prestigious.’ The amount of time spent away from home can make the job seem unattractive (especially to younger drivers), and the benefits and pay may not be competitive enough compared to other career options.

When we first began tracking this trend, it was immediately following a seminar we co-hosted in March 2018 which addressed the driver shortage, as well as offered some potential solutions and alternatives.  One of the hopeful suggestions included the emergence of driverless trucks. 

While the driverless car/truck scenario may seem farfetched to many, we have begun to hear more about it and see its application on a smaller scale in some markets across the country. Despite this, the shortage of drivers today is growing rapidly and the technology has not caught up to the demand, to this point. 

Although the American Trucking Association published a dire report stating that, with almost 72% of all freight tonnage being delivered by truck, 60,800 new drivers would be needed by the end of 2018.  And going forward, the estimated numbers continue to climb higher.  It is now predicted that by the next decade, there will need to be over 1.1 million new drivers hired to realistically meet demand.

And as more customers shop online, there is a significant spike in the need for more ways to ship these products. As the numbers continue to surge, the trend is becoming critical. According to an article in the September 2019 issue of the Supermarket News’ Industry Insider column, the industry could be short, “just over 100,000 drivers by 2024 and 160,000 by 2028.”

Recognizing some of the common obstacles that reinforce the diminishing number of truck driver applicants is a key first step.  But step two is much harder because it means coming up with effective ideas for addressing and eliminating many of those barriers.

As the next generation of potential drivers is entering the workforce, carriers and shippers, as well as others in influential roles, will need to make substantive changes to attract and retain drivers.  In a GIG economy, these jobs can become sought-after alternative careers, but action needs to start now.

But despite the rise in online shopping and freight shipping, those who are closely watching the trucking industry expect to see slower growth in 2019 after 2018 saw record-setting levels of freight-hauling demand and driver pay as tonnage levels reached a 20-year high. Although it is commonly agreed that the trucking industry is expected to remain strong for the remainder of 2019, there are concerns that it will not be the stellar future that was predicted in 2018. As the sector undergoes a cool-down, economists say the four main reasons for the anticipated downward shift are: 

  • Falling oil prices
  • Tariffs and the “trade war”
  • Slowing U.S. manufacturing
  • Softening demand and lower rates

As more international influences shape the world economy and the manufacturing sector specifically, we will see the trickle-down effect on the supply chain, most notably on the freight haulers. 

Chris Martin, SobelCo

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