The trucking industry moves at lightning speed even in the face of global events. 2022 is shaping up to be no different.
The trucking industry moves at lightning speed even in the face of global events that get in the way. This year, perhaps in part due to how quickly it advances, the world of commercial transit faces a unique set of problems like nothing we've ever seen. Here's a quick dive into just a few – and how the industry might respond.
After decades of reliance on interstate trucking, you might think the U.S. has its infrastructure ducks in a row, but you'd be wrong. Although the situation varies by locale, many places lack the basics – whether this means not having enough truck-sized parking spaces or falling short on suitable charging networks for commercial electric vehicles.
Although these are longstanding problems, they deserve mention as being among the biggest challenges of the coming year. With demand for truck-delivered freight increasing, the already-insufficient infrastructure will only pose more of a problem. For now, carriers and operators would be smart to equip themselves with as much fleet data as they can to stay on top of the fundamentals, such as road conditions and driver-reported route hazards.
Switching to autonomous vehicles seems like a great way to solve a host of problems, from satisfying stricter emissions rules to overcoming driver fatigue. The regulatory frameworks that govern AI in the cab aren't quite where they need to be, however. Big questions remain unsolved – like who's responsible for damages in an accident involving an AI-driven truck? Should drivers and carriers be indemnified from code-based mistakes that result in personal injuries? If software malfunctions and misroutes a truck, resulting in spoiled merchandise, who ought to pay for the loss?
Some of these questions will almost assuredly fall into the domain of commercial insurers, but others require new answers at the regional or national governmental level. Thanks to the patchwork of laws that currently exist, it's up to carriers to protect themselves. Finding autonomous solution providers flexible enough to meet the needs of many regulatory frameworks simultaneously might be a good start.
For most people, the ongoing sundowning of 3G wireless networks will be a minor blip on the radar. Those in the trucking industry, however, might have to make numerous upgrades to keep their connected computing systems compliant and usable. The shutdown could take many types of critical equipment, such as electronic logging devices, fleet tracking systems, and SOS beacons, out of commission for good.
For most companies, coming through unscathed will be about provisioning appropriate fleet hardware and distribution-hub data networks to deal with newer, higher-bandwidth devices. Others might choose to replace only what they absolutely must as they decide how to build new fleet-tracking tools and telematics frameworks. Either way, the clock is ticking.
Trucking is normally a high-demand industry, so what's different about this particular driver shortage? For one thing, it's part of a larger phenomenon: Labor force changes brought on by COVID and the fight for greater worker rights as a whole.
Businesses that want to stick around beyond 2022 may migrate to different staffing models entirely, particularly if they plan on using AI-driven trucks. It's not unrealistic to imagine a gig-like system where truckers contract for short-hauls between AI transportation hubs and local freight terminals, attracting those who might be considering driving careers yet shy away from the long hours and travel distances.
Even if you don't leave the driving entirely to the robots, technology could offer a range of potential answers to the labor shortage. Tools that automate paperwork or offer features like mobile-compatible electronic document signing might appeal to operators who'd rather focus on driving instead of confirming handoffs. Other labor-improving solutions, like convoy systems that involve one truck automatically trailing another so that the following operator can rest while the leader drives, might help fleet managers reframe what it means to be a long-hauler, ultimately making the job more attractive.
Finally, there's the option of waiting for the labor market to figure itself out – and for once, this might not be a bad option. For instance, at the start of the year, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration considered letting under-21 operators cross state lines as part of a new national apprenticeship framework under the DRIVE-Safe Act. A month earlier, the White House released a trucking action plan with the goal of supplementing the workforce. While these kinds of efforts can be hit-or-miss, carriers that keep up with the political happenings might be better prepared to leverage the benefits and anticipate future workforce issues.
Environmental regulations are getting stricter in the face of a changing climate and wild weather patterns. Fleet managers that want to sustain good publicity, save fuel, and portray themselves as viable partners will have to get a grip on their ecological track records.
If this seems like an overly tall order, it might behoove you to ask for outside help. Companies like Thermo King are working to decarbonize their cold chain fleets by upgrading to greener refrigerant options, and some vehicle makers have already set target dates for when they plan on going all-electric. In other words, if you feel like you've been left to meet the clean energy future alone, it probably just means you haven't been paying close enough attention to forging partnerships that might lighten the load.
Keeping fleets running in 2022 will be a matter of adapting to a shifting industry. As the laws evolve and technology races to keep up – or vice versa – carriers and operators that choose flexible solutions while leveraging new tools might be the best prepared to adapt.
Don't assume these obstacles are insurmountable: Trucking demand is climbing, so there's definitely room for learning. At such a critical time for the industry, however, it's probably best if the experimentation happens before new transportation management systems and in-cab technologies make it to the highway.
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