A seemingly innocuous spin behind the wheel of a U-Haul 22 years ago completely rerouted the life of Brett Aquila, then a 21-year-old warehouse employee living near Atlanta.
He'd found his calling as a truck driver.
"They needed someone to jump in a little U-Haul truck and haul a load of freight downtown and back," Aquila says. "Boom. That was it. I went home that day, and I called J.B. Hunt and I said, 'How much do truck drivers get paid?' And they said, 'About $700 a week.' I said, 'Holy crap, I'm making about $225.' And about two weeks later I was in school."
"Even when the economy died at the end of 2008 and going into 2009, trucking companies were still hiring," Aquila says. "I had a friend that started the second week of January 2009 – the dead of winter, right after the holidays in the slowest season, when the market was at the bottom and the economy was stopped. And he came out of truck driving school and had half a dozen job offers."
As long as goods are being bought or sold in the U.S., effective transportation systems will be a necessity. And since the vast majority of domestic freight still spends at least some time aboard a trucking rig, drivers have typically been in high demand. The supply, however, isn't keeping pace. Though the Labor Department most recently estimated the U.S. held more than 1.6 million heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers, that number is still shy of the industry's 1.7 million peak in 2007.
With fewer drivers and more weight to lug around since the Great Recession, America's trucking industry faces a significant driver shortage.
Now, considering the amount of freight being transported across the country balloonedmore than 15 percent between May 2007 and May 2015, America's trucking fleets are being forced to move more product with less manpower. And as the industry faces problems ranging from recruitment to static pay rates, some are eyeing better technology as at least a partial fix.
"We're short 35,000 to 40,000 [drivers] as of 2014. I haven't quantified it yet, but I would not be surprised if that's going to average 50,000 or more this year," says Bob Costello, chief economist at American Trucking Associations. "There's several factors for the driver shortage, which is a pain, because that means there's no one solution."
Costello says one of the industry's problems is attracting young drivers. The median age of all American workers last year was 42.3 years old. For truck transportation employees, it was 47.
"Right now, it's not really cool, fun or sexy to be a truck driver," says Tony McGee, CEO and founder of HNM Global Logistics, an Orlando-based transportation logistics firm. "You don't have kids that are wired in technology that want to do that."
Part of the recruitment problem, Costello says, is that commercial driver's licenses – which are considered prerequisites for operating full-sized rigs – are issued to individuals at least 18 years old. But interstate drivers need to be at least 21 to drive legally, per the Department of Transportation.
"What 18-year-old that's not going to the military, that's not going to college, is going to sit around and wait? They're off doing other things," Costello says.
But Aquila isn't so sure a fountain of youth is the answer. Young, inexperienced drivers – whether behind the wheel of a car or big-rig truck – tend to be more prone to accidents, so insurance companies typically jack up rates for freight drivers in their early 20s. That's led companies to rely instead on second-career workers whom Costello says consider truck driving "a job of last resort."
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"Maybe they've been laid off. I don't want to put all drivers down … but a lot of times what you find is people who are older are getting trained," Costello says.
Demographics are another major issue for the industry, which is still dominated by older white males. About 13.4 percent of truck transportation employees last year were African-American, according to the Labor Department, while 19.1 percent identified as Hispanic or Latino. Efforts have been made to recruit more women – who made up 11.4 percent of employees in 2014 – into the workforce.
"You can get tractors spec'd for female drivers now. They change the seats slightly. They change where the pedals are in terms of height," Costello says. But, he notes, a new truck even without such specialized changes can cost as much as $130,000.
On a foundational level, Aquila says life on the road simply isn't always what people expect it to be – not everyone's cut out for it.
"You travel for three weeks at a time. You will literally not see another human being you have ever seen before in your life," he says. "And the time you spend alone in the truck, I mean, about 21 out of 24 hours in the day, you're sitting in the truck by yourself. You're either driving or you're sleeping or you're waiting to be loaded or unloaded. Which for me was perfect, because I've always been a loner by nature. But for most people, it freaks them out."
Along with the demanding hours truck drivers face, pay has been stagnant for years. Aquila, who went on to have a successful 15-year career in the industry, says drivers starting out now make about as much as he did back in 1993. When inflation is taken into account, that means drivers are actually making less today in real terms than they did 22 years ago. And considering how taxing the job is, many people are put off after a while by the lack of pay increases.
"Most people, when they have a job, go into work at a certain time and are told exactly what to do and how to do it," he says. "Getting around the [Department of Transportation] checks and dealing with the weather and the traffic and the sleet patterns and the logbook and the scheduling with the customers, all the things you deal with day in and day out, you're on your own. You have to be really savvy. You have to be really creative."
Aquila decided to write a book – "Becoming a Truck Driver: The Raw Truth About Truck Driving" – in which he lays out, in no uncertain terms, what it's like to live constantly in motion. He's also started up a website, aptly named "TruckingTruth," with job postings, forums and blogs all dedicated to life on the road.
But while Aquila seeks to paint the trucking industry in a more accurate light, others are trying to turn the business on its head with technological innovations that could enhance efficiency, boost automation and ultimately open doors to a more diverse swath of workers.
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"The reality is that any human process that you can automate lowers the cost. Let's face it: We've seen that over and over and over again," says Mike Meehan, vice president of sales at Fleet Advantage, a data-driven truck leasing and logistics company."Computers don't have emotions. If the weather's bad and the calculation that's in the system says this truck should not go down this road, that truck will not go down that road. But if the driver needs to make money and he's done it before, he's going to do it."
Advanced computer systems and data analysis are increasingly being used by firms within the trucking industry and within the rigs themselves, helping reroute freight based on traffic patterns, recording the number of miles a rig has driven, and everything in between. This use of big data could potentially allow a fleet to optimize efficiency enough to operate at full capacity with fewer drivers, or let a company save enough money to raise wages and attract more workers.
Again, though, recruiting is a problem. Meehan notes many business- or STEM-educated young adults don't necessarily think of the transportation industry as a primary option for work.
"A young person with those skills could have a position of very significant responsibility very quickly in those [transportation logistics] organizations, but it's hard to get them to even think about it," he says.
Though the technology is only in its nascent stages, many are also eyeing so-called driverless trucks as a potential solution to the country's driver shortage. Operations are already on the ground in Australia's mining industry, and mining facilities in Canada are poised to be the next frontier. Alberta's Suncor Energy has signed an agreement with a Japanese vehicle developer to introduce as many as175 self-driving trucks into company operations.
"That will take 800 people off our site. At an average of $200,000 per person, you can see the savings we're going to get from an operations perspective," Alister Cowan, executive vice president and chief financial officer of Suncor Energy, said in June at a conference in New York City.
But these mining rigs aren't the same as the modern rigs navigating America's roadways today. That type of autonomous technology is still a ways off, though it is in development. Daimler, the principal company behind Mercedes-Benz, recently obtained a license to test a semiautonomous truck in Nevada.
The Freightliner Inspiration Truck, as it's been dubbed, uses a series of cameras and radar systems to navigate interstate roadways without driver intervention. Navigating congested streets in cities and towns is still the responsibility of the driver, who is required to be in the vehicle at all times, even when it switches to autopilot mode.
Martin Daum, president and CEO of Daimler Trucks North America, said at an unveiling event in Nevada that the new truck's futuristic cruise control makes it more fuel-efficient than if a human was driving. He said a computer also will naturally take fewer risks than a person and remain perpetually attentive, so collision risks go down when people are taken out of the equation.
And although the driver still has to be relatively aware in the vehicle, his or her hands are now free to perform other work-related duties.
"Trucks always have formed the backbone of our economy and our wealth, and they will continue to do so," Daum said. "[The new trucks] deliver a new dimension of safety due to smart assistance systems, a new dimension of fuel efficiency and reduced emissions due to highly efficient driving."
The new technology is far from perfect, however. For one, the requirement that a driver be present means a freight carrier still will have to pay that salary.
"Highways that hold only automated vehicles might be one of the answers. You take some of the heaviest freight lanes in the country and turn them into autonomous truck lanes. You could cut huge costs out of the system and improve efficiency," Meehan says. "But someone's going to have to make a huge capital investment in those roads and those systems."
That money would likely have to come from the federal government's transportation budget, which adds more complications. At some point, funding – along with potential job losses for existing industry drivers, should the technology develop further – could become a political issue.
"There have been some efforts in the industry to get heavier trucks on the road to help with productivity and other stuff, and that has gone nowhere," Costello says. "And now you think politicians are going to let trucks drive themselves around? That, to me, is a long ways off."
Still, Costello and Meehan both agree it's not too early to start talking about this technology, no matter how far off its implementation is.
"I tell people this: I'm sure I'll drive for the rest of my life. But I suspect that, for my grandchildren, or maybe their children, driving will be a sport. It won't be something you do in your everyday life," Meehan says. "The challenge is how quickly can people adopt it and how many bruises are the early adopters going to get."