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A History of Trucking in the United States: Where it’s Been and Where it’s Going

Before the advent of motor vehicles, all freight in the U.S. was moved either by horse-drawn carriage, by train, or via boats on the riverways and lakes. After the invention of the automobile, the first trucks looked very much like the horse-drawn carriages which had preceded them, with the basic addition of a motor, generally situated under the driver’s seat.

The first trucks were very slow and very difficult to drive, partly because those early trucks were outfitted with hard rubber tires, and partly because the roadway system was still in its infancy. By 1912, there were about 10,000 trucks in the country. Then in 1916, the Seattle Chamber of Commerce sponsored a truck trip from Seattle to New York City, and when the truck arrived at its destination 31 days later, it showed the country just what the possibilities of trucking could be. By 1920, pneumatic tires had been invented and deployed, and cross-country trips could be much smoother, much like the industry as a whole.

Industry Innovations

In 1912, running lights had been introduced on trucks, and this allowed them to run at night, to make up for time lost by drivers sleeping during the daytime. During the 1920’s, the semi-trailer was introduced, and quickly became popular, because it offered a whole new way of transporting a large volume of goods over long distances. As of 1914, there were only about 15,000 miles of paved highways which existed in the United States, and with the trucking industry poised to facilitate the growth of commerce, the Federal Government allocated $75 million for the construction of new roads.

The first really extensive use of trucks occurred during World War I, as the military moved goods and troops around the country, prior to being shipped overseas. During the 1930’s, the trucking industry grew rapidly and became significant in the U.S., which in turn signaled increasing interest from the government, in terms of regulating the industry. Hours of service became one of the first heavily regulated areas of the trucking industry, as the government recognized the potential for a major accident from overworked truckers.

The Interstate Highway System and Deregulation

During the 1950’s and 1960’s, the Interstate Highway System was being constructed in the U.S., and this network of connected highways provided the perfect system for enabling the trucking industry to become the dominant player in the movement of freight between states and across the country. At that time, the cost of diesel fuel was a mere 14.9 cents a gallon, but when the cost of fuel began rising during the 1970’s, many truckers went on strike and refused to transport goods.

In 1980, the Motor Carrier Act was passed by Congress, officially deregulating the trucking industry, and this had profound effects on trucking. The passage of the Act meant that truckers were free to establish their own rates, could haul whatever they wanted on their trucks, and that they were not subject to any restrictions on the routes which had to be used for hauling goods. This caused a huge surge in the industry as a whole, which grew by 70% just during the period between 1981 and 1986.

Before deregulation, there were less than 100 authorized carriers in the country, that had the approval of the ICC to operate on the nation’s highways. After deregulation was enacted, that number grew quickly to more than 5,000 carriers by 1990. Deregulation had the effect of causing the trucking industry to explode, and it has since become the dominant and most cost-effective means of transporting goods.

The Trucking Industry Today and in the Future

The trucking industry has made tremendous gains during the 20th century and was poised at the beginning of the 21st century, to become one of the most powerful and robust industries in the country. But there’s a problem – there just aren’t enough truckers to move freight which needs to be hauled on a daily basis. The industry is undergoing a severe shortage of truck drivers, estimated to be in the neighborhood of 100,000 drivers, and that number is expected to double within the next five to ten years.

Carriers have recognized the depth of the crisis, and are responding in numerous ways – offering increased pay and benefits, offering large sign-on bonuses as enticements to new drivers, and they’re even considering pools of potential employees which were avoided in the past. All of these steps have yet to make an impact though, largely because at the present time, the nation is in the throes of its lowest unemployment figures in decades, and the total pool of individuals needing a job is relatively small.

This situation is already having an impact on the economy, with major shippers being forced to raise their prices in order to manage the increase in the costs of transporting freight. Companies such as Amazon, Walmart, and Target, are all having to pass these increases along to their customers, and it is expected that this will soon reach the point where it causes a slowdown in the economy.

What Can Be Done?

While there are some dark clouds on the horizon of the trucking industry due to the growing shortage of drivers, there are some definite bright spots as well. Even though most truckers oppose the idea, the government recently implemented mandatory electronic logging of hours, to ensure that no driver is pushed beyond his/her limits, and that safe driving is observed on the roadways.

Just as in the days when technology and deregulation were first influencing the industry to become a powerhouse, technology is again asserting itself across the trucking industry, to make it safer for drivers and for shippers. Telematics is a system which is coupled with a truck’s GPS system to transmit information back to dispatch about location, status, movement, speed, and behavior of all trucks in a fleet for better operations management.

The most revolutionary technology with regard to the trucking industry, however, is self-driving equipment. While these are not expected to be on the roadways in any numbers for many years, the states of Nevada and Florida have already approved prototypes and have been operating for some time. Developed specifically to handle the huge shortage of truck drivers which will continue to plague the industry in the foreseeable future, self-driving trucks may just be the answer to a very serious issue which could pave the way for a new boom in the trucking industry. The industry is sure to continue to reinvent itself as has repeatedly over the last hundred years.

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