Trucking’s Health and Well Being

Having attended the inaugural Commercial Vehicle Outlook Conference in Dallas in late August, I am even more bullish on our industry. This new event, presented by the Heavy Duty Manufacturers Association (HDMA), brought thought leaders from all segments of the trucking industry to share real-world insights on the state of the economic recovery and what the industry must do to survive and thrive.

The presentations given during the event provided a lot of new information and insight on the industry. The content really drove home the fact that our industry, from the truck driver to the fleet, truck maker, dealer, service provider, distributor and component supplier are all critical to, and an indicator of, the health of our overall economy, and that every economic slowdown in recent memory has been preceded by a drop in activity in our industry.

Keeping our vehicles on the road and operating in a safe, fuel-efficient and environmentally-responsible manner is the challenge of all of us fortunate enough to be involved in this business.

According to several speakers at the Commercial Vehicle Outlook Conference and the latest data from the U.S. DOT, highway deaths are at an all-time record low, even as overall miles travelled continues to increase. Truck-related highway deaths are down from a typical annual rate of about 5,000 just a few years ago to less than 3,500 last year.

Our industry deserves much of the credit for this, along with the folks that drive trucks for a living. Trucks are designed better, safety systems are much more effective, driver and technician training is better and new innovations entering the market are all contributing to this great statistical news.

Fuel efficiency has nearly doubled in the past 15 years and fleets are typically running at an average of nearly 6 miles per gallon. The amount of NOx and particulate matter being released from truck exhaust is a minute fraction of what was mandated just 12 years ago. The exhaust on a new truck is now cleaner than the ambient air in some of our major cities.

Not bad for an industry that carries an image in some circles as the modern day Luddites of our economy. (Luddites were the rabble-rousers that fought all innovation and progress during the industrial revolution.)

Does the government play a role in all of this? Sure. Did you get good grades in elementary school under the threat of being grounded or worse? It is kind of the same thing with government.

Case in point: A new presidential mandate that heavy duty vehicles will need to show huge improvements in fuel economy before 2014.

In our discussions with many truck fleet operators during the week of the conference, one question always drew the same response. I asked several of them how their fleet fuel economy was doing. The answer was identical: “Fuel is our biggest expense and fuel economy will never be good enough.”

I think we get it on the fuel economy thing, with or without the “help” of the threatening new law or regulatory mandate.

On safety, ABS, new tire construction, better braking systems and electronic controls are all innovations that have really been driven by regulations and rules coming out of DOT, NHTSA and FMCSA. Okay, I admit it. The government does help with these things. The difference is the process.

DOT typically starts working on rules and regulations with full cooperation of the various entities representing fleet owners, truck builders and component suppliers, as well as safety related non-profits and other NGOs (non-governmental organizations). The engineers that prepare these rules work for the government, and a mutual respect exists between them and their counterparts in our industry.

Maybe Congress could take a hint from the vast bureaucracy in the federal agencies. Maybe those mandating fuel economy standards should be required to have engineering degrees, or financial committees could not be staffed with anything other than finance and accounting people.

But I digress.

The presentations given at the Commercial Vehicle Outlook Conference on the economic outlook and industry health all showed that we are in for a period of steady growth. Freight is moving again. Most of the fundamentals are looking on the black side rather than the red side of the scale.

However, several speakers pointed out that the major issue facing this industry is a looming driver shortage. Go figure. With nearly 10 percent unemployment in this country, we have an employment sector that is looking at a supply/demand crisis in the next year with drivers.

That bodes well for anyone considering making the move to the honorable profession of truck driving. Low supply/high demand causes the price to go up. That is an unbreakable law of economics.

Driver recruiting and training should be the first priority for our elected officials. What’s that? You say they don’t have anyone in the government that knows anything about that subject? Has that ever stopped them before?

All in all, for the more than 350 people that attended the first of many Commercial Vehicle Outlook Conferences, everyone went away more optimistic and informed than when they entered the meeting room.

Tim Kraus is Executive Director of the Heavy Duty Manufacturers Association. Prior to joining HDMA, he served as director of sales and marketing at Triseal Corp. The Heavy Duty Manufacturers Association (HDMA) is the heavy duty market segment association of the Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Associations (MEMA). HDMA exclusively represents the interests and serves heavy duty product manufacturers.