Driver shortage causes capacity crunch; technology to ease tightness, improve safety

by Jeff Della Rosa (JDellaRosa@nwabj.com) 538 views 

Technology might help to reduce capacity tightness in the trucking industry and improve safety as truck driver fatalities have continued to rise.

For the week ending Jan. 19, truckload capacity increased, leading dry van spot rates to fall 1.7% from the previous week, according to DAT Solutions. Prices have fallen in a typical seasonal decline, and falling fuel surcharges are leading rates to decrease.

The running theme behind the capacity crunch has been the driver shortage, said Matt Meeks, vice president of strategic capacity and carrier experience for Fort Smith-based transportation company ArcBest. Executives for the parent company for less-than-truckload carrier ABF Freight recently hosted a webinar to discuss the trucking capacity tightness. Ed Wadel, executive vice president of asset-light expedited services and strategic capacity for ArcBest, joined Meeks in the webinar.

The most recent estimate is the industry has a shortage of about 50,000 drivers, according to trade organization American Trucking Associations. The shortage might jump to 175,000 drivers by 2025, Meeks said. Coupled with the challenges of the shortage, major hurricanes in 2017 were a trigger to the crunch.

“What seemed to keep happening was the other shoe dropped,” said Meeks, noting that the electronic logging device (ELD) mandate went into effect in late 2017, followed by its enforcement in April 2018. Also, a strong economy played a part in the capacity tightness. As the economy improved, it provided options for drivers to work in other industries such as construction, offering them more home time than if they were over-the-road drivers. Another concern regarding the driver shortage relates to the average age of drivers, which is nearly 50 years old. The average age of a U.S. worker is 42 years old, he said.

Meeks also said the “Amazon effect” has led to new expectations in the supply chain, and consumers expect to know the status of an order as soon as they purchase it.

The result of the capacity crunch is that it’s more important for carriers and shippers to work together and for carriers to understand the shipper supply chain, Wadel said. Drivers need to be able to load or unload their shipments quickly and improve productivity as they are watching the clock to make sure they are within their hours of service.

Wadel spoke about the importance of building relationships with drivers, and he said the driver should be treated like the customer, with the shippers offering them restrooms and break areas while the shipment is being loaded or unloaded.

Some of the solutions Meeks offered to combat the capacity crunch included choosing the correct mode of shipment, such as truckload, less-than-truckload or intermodal. Sometimes a blending of the modes could be the best choice, depending on when the shipment must arrive at its destination.

Technology, such as artificial intelligence, is expected to reduce costs and improve efficiency in the supply chain, Wadel said. Also, ELDs will provide the industry will a lot of data that can be reviewed to show how capacity has been used and might be able to predict the future. Machine learning will allow for review of this data, whereas in the past, data scientists were the ones who studied big data, he said.

Truck technology is expected to change how drivers work, Meeks said. ELDs might have slowed productivity for some carriers at first, but the tradeoff is they should improve safety as a result of driver coaching, helping to reduce claims and tickets, he said. Automated vehicle technology, platooning and mobile apps to help drivers find clean showers or parking are expected to improve the driver lifestyle and reduce fatigue.

Truck driver fatalities increased 16% to 841 in 2017, from 725 in 2016, according to a recent article of trade publication Transport Topics. The fatalities rose 9% in 2016, from 665 in 2015. Fatal crashes in work zones that involved a large truck increased to 30.4% in 2017, up from 27.2% in 2015 and 26.8% in 2015. And, the percentage of all fatal crashes that involved at least one large truck rose to 12.4% in 2017, from 11.2% in 2016 and 11.1% in 2015.

In the article, Ray Martinez, administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, noted some of the agency’s 2019 priorities, including the input of more accurate and timely crash data, to evaluate tools to help drivers know when they are fatigued, continue to research platooning and support research and use of automated vehicle technology.

“We all know about the human factor in crashes,” Martinez said. “You hear drivers say that they know when they’re tired. That’s not necessarily true.”

When asked about how long the capacity shortage will remain, Meeks said technology is expected to continue to help improve the crunch and more capacity would become available if the economy stops improving.

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