In May 2020, with the uncertainty of coronavirus pandemic consuming the world’s thoughts, a chain of colorful big rigs parked along Constitution Avenue in Washington, DC, for nearly three weeks. Horns blared as idling tuck drivers protested sinking pay, rising insurance costs and lack of transparency from the brokers who set their rates to transport goods. In a Roll Call video, an organizer described what it was about: "All the things that were brought to the stores ... [truckers] brought it, and they're the ones who got screwed in the end."
While the protest was relatively small and went largely unnoticed by the American public, it represented something much larger that affects us all. What would happen in all 3.5 million truck drivers in the US stopped working for just three days?
The reality is that it would not take long for America to resemble a sci-fi dystopia: store shelves would be empty, hospitals would run out of supplies, spare parts would become hard to come by, fuel tanks would go empty, and society would come to stand still.
Tucks are the linchpin of the economy, responsible for moving 72% of all the goods we consume. They’re a critical in the supply chain for both imports and exports, almost every product that come into or leaves America spends a period of time on a truck. Like the pilots of the highway, truckers collectively travel 450 billion miles each year to haul those loads for consumers, carrying 11 billion tons of merchandise, electronics, supplies and produce.
"Trucks will continue to be the dominant freight transportation mode for the foreseeable future,” Chris Spear, president, and CEO of the American Trucking Associations, said before a Senate committee in May.
While we all benefit from the hard work of truckers, what do we really know about life behind the wheel?
As consumers, we tend to have the most direct contact with the parcel and delivery workers from UPS, FedEx or Amazon who hand us our packages. But the reality is the trucking industry is an enormous system filled with all sorts of different subsets, and local delivery peoples are just one cog in the system.
There are trucks that haul combined shipments from different businesses and those that transport specialized or dangerous goods like heavy equipment, trash, gasoline or chemicals. There are local and regional drivers who make short trips to service stores and retail outlets. Then there are port truckers who collect cargo in the colossal shipping containers at the docks, and intermodal workers who move freight between different modes of transport, like rail, ship and plane.
The pandemic took a heavy toll on truckers, who kept everything ticking over: emergency goods, medical components, electronics, food and basic supplies. While we all sat at home in isolation, tuckers keep traveling. Market disruptions from international lockdown and clogged ports, combined with consumers panic buying, clobbered the global supply chain and every link in it. This meant that divers were subject to intense bottlenecks and prolonged hours in picking up and delivering freight. Many truckers also reported that they felt increased stress and anxiety from having to deal with shippers’ quarantine restrictions and the uncertainty that came with them.
Although you’ll find news stories talking about a ‘nationwide shortage’ of truck drivers, many industry analysts say the real problem is the retention of drivers due to gruelling work conditions and low pay. Long-haul truckers have a turnover rate of more than 90%. In NPR's Planet Money, Viscelli suggested why: "The entry-level jobs are terrible."
He exampled that those who are classified as "independent" owner-operators or contract drivers are saddled with covering the costs of maintenance, insurance, fuel and other expenses, so it's not uncommon for them, as detailed in Viscelli's book, to work the same as two full-time jobs and pocket what would amount to less than the federal hourly minimum wage of $7.25. Other drivers highlighted how they were paid way dependant on miles travel, rather than by the hour, so there pay can fluctuate heavily depending of traffic and bottlenecks at ports.
With truckers at the heart of our economy and a huge shortage in drivers, we are headed to a crisis unless we begin to act now. While many industry leaders have suggested a number of things, driverless trucking is where the focus lies and is an exciting new space of developing trucking technology in the inner workings of our supply chain.