The nationwide truck driver shortage just keeps getting worse. Can technology come to the rescue?
According to figures from the American Trucking Associations, the trucking industry is short some 63,000 drivers this year, 51,000 of which are for long-distance hauls, with the total number expected to exceed 100,000 by 2022.
The surge in e-commerce has generated new demand for trucking, even as capacity has gone begging due to a lack of qualified drivers. In response, trucking companies have raised contract rates by 6 to 10 percent. Shipping costs for Amazon.com alone were up 38 percent in the first quarter of this year, versus the same period of 2017.
“This is absolutely the worst situation I’ve seen in 25 years,” says John Kearney, chief executive officer of Advanced Training Systems.
Truck driving today is experiencing a 94-percent turnover rate, Kearney notes. The biggest factor, he adds, is that of employee age. Drivers are retiring in droves, and they’re not being replaced by younger candidates. With its long hours, low pay and the prospect of being away from home for days at a time, the industry simply isn’t attractive to young jobseekers – especially at a time when the nationwide unemployment rate is so low.
Kearney says the situation is threatening to paralyze transportation systems, with inventory backing up in warehouses as carriers struggle to meet customer demands for rapid delivery.
“More goods are waiting to be delivered, stopping the system from working properly,” he says. “It’s happening all the way down the chain, to delivery to your house.” As the driver shortage grows more acute, he adds, it could put a damper on the currently robust U.S. economy.
Yet another factor blamed for the capacity crunch is the new regulation requiring installation of electronic logging devices (ELDs) in trucks, making it virtually impossible for drivers to exceed tight federal restrictions on hours of service.
As a result, trucking companies and shippers are having to adopt a new attitude toward this increasingly scarce resource. Traditionally, says Kearney, drivers have been treated as “an expendable product – more like a commodity.” Employers have shown little interest in offering pay and perks that might increase driver retention.
The dilemma extends to warehouses and distribution centers, many of which fail to offer adequate amenities such as rest areas and bathrooms for drivers waiting for their vehicles to be loaded or unloaded.
One proposal to alleviate the current crunch is to lower the minimum age for commercial drivers from 21 to 18. Kearney would welcome the change as long as it was accompanied by programs offering adequate training.
“Eighteen-year-olds have reflexes that beat older individuals,” he says, “but they also have a different decision-making process. So their training needs to be different and more intensive.”
Indeed, Kearney views training as central to any effort to deal effectively with the driver shortage. (Not least because that’s the business he’s in.) Up to now, the quality and extent of driver training has varied widely, depending on a particular school’s resources. But the standards have gotten tougher: programs today require certification by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).
Thanks to technology, the gap between training programs is beginning to narrow, according to Kearney. Specifically, he touts the value of simulators, which have grown over the years in sophistication and the ability to place trainees into convincing virtual environments.
Kearney says the evolution of simulators has tracked that of other technological tools, such as cell phones and computers. In other words, they’ve gotten both better and cheaper.
The newest generation of simulators is far more realistic than its predecessors. They’re able to reproduce elements such as yaw, which is vital to teaching trainees how to swerve to avoid a collision.
Augmenting simulators in many instances is the use of virtual reality devices, involving goggles or headsets that provide a 360-degree picture of the road. Trainees can, of course, get the same experience driving an actual truck, but in the case of a simulated accident, “the crash didn’t cost a nickel,” says Kearney.
The cost of simulators has plummeted as well. The price tag for an older model might be around $140,000; today it could be as low as $70,000. And that includes savings on fuel, insurance and repairs that would otherwise be required for the use of real trucks as “classrooms.”
So how can the use of simulators help to alleviate the driver shortage? Kearney believes young people, who are accustomed to playing video games and experiencing virtual reality, will be drawn to the industry by such training techniques. Simulators are a much more compelling training tool than textbooks, and young trainees’ background as gamers could serve to shorten the learning curve.
“What we’re going to have is more people willing to get into the industry,” Kearney says. “We see simulators as a tremendous advantage.”
The proper training of a commercial driver will always involve a combination of classroom time and real-world experience. But simulators could help to cut down on the use of expensive vehicles for that purpose, while promoting safety on the roads.
“We do not need to have huge numbers of hours in the truck, where a student can have an accident,” Kearney says. “We need to train them so that when they get in the truck, they don’t have accidents.”