The need to pave an employment path for veterans returning from active military duty is a subject that doesn’t typically generate objections. And one glance at the increasing volume of residential and commercial deliveries points to the reality of a shortage of long-haul truck drivers in the U.S. The “Amazon Age" is real.
Eyeing both challenges, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) passed a waiver allowing veterans to substitute two years of safely operating military trucks or buses for the skills test portion of the commercial driver’s license test (CDL). While the transportation sector understands the agency’s intentions, some leaders are questioning the waiver.
Here’s the backstory. The trucking industry needs to hire almost 900,000 new operators over the next decade just to maintain the existing workforce. The current generation of experienced truck drivers is reaching natural retirement age, and a new generation needs to receive the baton, especially with respect to the growth in e-commerce. As more and more shoppers purchase from websites rather than brick-and-mortar stores, even retail giants such as Amazon and Walmart are struggling to get packages to consumers on time. The volume of shipping is increasing the demand for trucks, yet a shortage of drivers means longer ship times and higher costs.
Earlier this year, as an answer to the need for drivers, Congress introduced legislation to reduce the legal age for interstate cargo transport from 21 to 18. Many of the veterans covered by the waiver proposal fall into this age range. Opposition to the age drop raises the possibility of compromising safety on the highways, due to younger drivers’ lack of experience.
Another concern is the need for consistency in assessing the level of skill that should be required in both civilian and military transport. Questions about the application requirements for returning veterans are answered by the screens placed on the process. Drivers must have a minimum of two years of military driving experience and a clean and stable civilian driving record: no suspended, revoked, or cancelled licenses; no citations for the use of alcohol or drugs, and no serious traffic violations — similar to the requirements placed on civilian driver candidates. This screen is applied in all states, leveling the playing field.
Others are more receptive to the positive points of the legislation and its ability to affect the driver shortage. As currently proposed, the bill would require teenagers to log 400 hours of on-duty driving and 240 hours with an experienced driver in the passenger seat before being licensed to cross state lines. The best approach to licensing qualified veterans, even under the age of 21, is to offer a partial waiver — forego conventional, costly training programs but require high-tech, shorter simulator training that teaches responses to the many dangerous conditions they’ll face on the road. A blowout of the steering tire, a patch of black ice, sudden high wind, or other serious and unexpected problems can be simulated in high-tech training simulators equipped with virtual reality and motion. This training protects the student driver, saves wear and tear on the truck fleet, and optimizes the training budget.
The need to recruit, hire and thoroughly train new drivers requires advanced technology. This generation has been raised with constantly changing tech capabilities, such as artificial intelligence and virtual reality. New systems feature haptic feedback that reproduces sensations such as seatbelt tightening and gearshift resistance. All these sensory inputs decrease the discomfort of motion illness and enhance training.
Looking ahead means looking at the present. Virtual reality and real motion technology are needed to train the next generation of drivers. It’s a win-win for the industry, the driver and the public.
The proposed training waiver is a positive move that deserves fair examination, while leaders across the industry consider the best options for recruiting and training the next generation of long-haul truck drivers.
John Kearney is CEO of Advanced Training Systems, a high-tech simulator technology and engineering firm.