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Trucking is at a Transformational Moment

How can the trucking industry continue to move 83 percent of the United States’ freight as measured by revenue, and 70 percent of freight as measured by tonnage, while lessening its impact on the environment?

By Bill Graves

Truck illustration

LAST MONTH at the American Trucking Associations’ annual Management Conference & Exhibition (MC&E), I had an opportunity to address a room full of survivors – those who weathered tough economic challenges and were still standing after last year’s record level diesel prices contributed heavily to the bankruptcies of more than 3,900 trucking companies.

The difference between the individuals and companies that have weathered the storm versus the ones who are no longer afloat boils down to the ability to use the past as a road map for a more successful future. Over 200 years ago in his famous “Give me Liberty or Give me Death” speech, Patrick Henry said, “I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know no way of judging the future but by the past.” Suffice it to say, most of us learned valuable lessons over the course of this past year – difficult lessons that will leave us better prepared for the future.

Throughout the relatively brief history of our industry, trucking has been faced with several “transformational” moments. From its early days as a novel, but relatively unreliable, means of moving products to and from the railroad depot, to its emergence as the critical supply chain tool in the United States’ victory in the Second World War, to the unprecedented industry growth fueled by the construction of the Interstate Highway System. And, while many harbored doubts about the deregulation of the industry in the early 1980s, that moment further defined trucking as the freight mode of choice for America.

Now I believe we are facing a transformational moment, shaped by a national political and economic transformation. The United States’ political transformation is evident in the evenly divided support that the American electorate gives to the Republican and Democratic parties. Much of that support is unconditional, regardless of their governing successes or shortcomings. This often creates a situation where the most critical voters are “middle of the pack” independent voters, whose support vacillates back and forth depending upon the “party in power’s” performance.

The economic transformation is more current and thus less understood, but has been driven by the recession, a significant loss of faith in our financial institutions, and the stillrising unemployment levels. This has led to a recalibration of how Americans see their prospects for the future, resulting in very cautious consumers when it comes to deciding on how to spend limited personal income. No matter how you look at it, these are very unsettling and changing times. And in the midst of this flurry of national and international transformation, the trucking industry is confronted with a myriad of its own challenging questions and issues.

How do we continue to move 83 percent of the nation’s freight as measured by revenue, and 70 percent of freight as measured by tonnage, while lessening our impact on the environment? How will we travel more miles in an ever-growing, ever-morecongested country while consistently improving our safety record? How do we prepare for, and transition to, the new sources of energy and the new power technologies that will move our trucks while struggling with the capital investment that such a transition will require?

These are just a few examples of the challenging questions our industry will be expected to resolve. If we do not proactively develop industry solutions, someone else surely will and it’s likely that those folks are a lot less knowledgeable about trucking. Over the past three years, ATA member companies have developed a policy agenda that promotes the trucking industry and the vitality of the American economy while simultaneously supporting the diverse agendas associated with sound environmental, safety and national security policies. It is important that we appreciate this positive agenda and the benefits the nation could ultimately see as a result. We have taken great strides to demonstrate the essentiality of the trucking industry, while embracing more sustainable and safe methods of operation.

As a part of that initiative, we have clearly identified solutions to help alleviate highway congestion, which robs us of precious driver time, forces us to unnecessarily burn fuel, minimizes the return on our investments, and causes us to miss critical delivery schedules that our business partners expect and rely on us to meet. Through diligence and hard work, we are well-positioned for the future. Like the old Will Rogers line about farming, “The trucker has to be an optimist or he wouldn’t still be trucking.”

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