When Warren Buffett announced an investment in the Pilot Flying J truck stop chain in October—by 2023 he will own 80 percent of the company—critics wondered if it was a good call. After all, the threat of self-driving vehicles and other automotive technology might suggest the demise of truck drivers. But what if the opposite is true? What if technological advances not only create more opportunities, but also make it more desirable for future generations to join the trucking profession?
Let’s consider the status quo. Truck driving is a grueling job. Aside from the long hours and low pay, many drivers resent the increasing monitoring requirements. All of which explains the well-documented shortage of qualified truck drivers, which is expected to hit a low of 50,000 by the end of 2017. The shortage could increase to more than 174,000 drivers by 2026, according to the American Trucking Associations. No wonder the industry ranked the issue as its top concern—for the first time since 2006—in the organization’s annual survey.
At the same time, however, demand for carrier space is increasing, which should create a strong incentive to improve conditions for truck drivers. Granted, that would need to be done without impacting the bottom line of a pennies-matter business model. That’s where technology comes in—sooner and later.
For starters, automatic load matching makes it faster and easier for drivers and carriers to find loads that fit their equipment and favored lanes. Mobile phones and tablets allow truck drivers to book loads and monetize backhauls from the road, eliminating deadhead. Meanwhile, increased pricing transparency and smaller margins from the middlemen also put more money in drivers’ pockets. Immediate PoD uploads mean drivers get paid faster as well.
When semi-autonomous trucks hit the road, they will still require real-time human monitoring to guarantee safe deliveries. “I believe drivers will become more like airline pilots, even more trained and skilled than they are today,” Troy Clarke, chief executive of truck manufacturer Navistar, told a U.S. Senate panel in September. But eventually, a truck driver may not drive at all, instead operating an autonomous truck—or trucks—from an office using computers, cameras and instrumentation. This added complexity will further fueling interest in the profession, especially if it comes without the challenges of being on the road. Younger generations, all digital natives, will be well equipped for this transformation.