ROLL ON, BIG MAMA
By: Wayne Brown
Most of us have heard the statement at one time or other, “America runs on the back of the trucking industry.” Coincidently, most of us have never given that statement very much thought until things like the price of fuel begin to escalate rapidly. Then, we see the prices on our retail shelves and suddenly the awareness that trucking plays in our everyday lives is a very real one. Trucking has a long history in America going back to the start of this country in one form or the other. Today, as much as 80% of the goods Americans consume move to the market place either totally or partially by truck. It is certainly an industry which bears understanding by the consumer.
From the early beginnings of this country, commerce has always moved in one way or another. Certainly the invention or discovery of the wheel can eventually be tied to the large trucks we see on our highways each day. The history of that industry is tied to the march of technology through time and has been driven rightfully so by the profit/motive system known as capitalism.
Once man came to his senses and discovered fire and the wheel, he began to look at ways to use those important discoveries in both improving his own life and also his own welfare. The wheel led to the development of the handcart which man used to move the goods he produced to a central market place. Initially, these goods were traded or bartered among men then the monetary system came along giving mankind the basis to buy and sell goods and services. Agricultural products made up the bulk of the items moved to market by handcart as societies of the times were mostly agrarian. With the advent of the handcart and the marketplace, man could partake of a wide variety of food staples which he did not have to grow himself.
As animals were domesticated, the carts grew larger first pulled by oxen and then later by a horse or team of horses. As the carts grew large so did the load and man began to discover the strain that heavier loads placed on the components of the cart. The wooden axles and wheels were prone to failure and man again faced the challenge of finding methods to reinforce these components to make them strong while at the same time attempting to keep the overall weight of the cart light. As time went, man found that he could heat and shape metal with fire thus creating an ability to reinforce wheels with steel outer rings. The same was true for adding metal plates to strategic points on the cart to reinforce its strength.
As larger carts pulled by oxen or horses became more common, so did the distances that man attempted to cover with his products in order to recoup the spoils of populations markets located further from him. Little by little man was developing a basic commerce model which is still existent today in its simplest form.
In America, things really picked up in the mid-1800 with the advent of the Civil War. Armies needed improved methods to move cannons and ammunition across battlefields. Stronger configurations emerged to fit those needs. As modern day space travel, the requirements of war tickled into the economy and improved the overall conditions in the aftermath of the struggle. Mankind benefited from the knowledge gained through the struggles of the war.
By the later 1800’s, both staples and passengers were traveling freely by wheeled carriages, wagons, buckboards, and stage coaches. The freight business had grown far more commercial with many freighter wagons running established routes over the same areas serviced by the stage lines. By this time, freight was being consolidated by brokers into full freight wagonloads bound for the same destination. Commerce between cities was common on both the wheeled vehicles and the steam engine locomotives operated by the railroads which had evolved across the country. While the rail was an effective method for shipping freight, it was slow and it did not have the flexibility to go into most communities that was offered by the freight wagons. Still, the two methods co-existed and complimented one another in the times.
THE 1900 – INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION
No doubt, the early work achieved on the invention of the automobile would do more to change the freight hauling business than anything else. Motorized cars made their appearance in the early 1900’s but were not so common place until a young man by the name of Henry Ford came up with methods which allowed mass production of the vehicles and made the affordable to a much greater share of the population. These early steps would set the tone for the development of heavier vehicles designed to handle the movement of freight. Still, this was a slower process due to the challenges and the freight wagons continued to do their work after the advent of the automobile.
Early on, these motorized vehicles had straight axles of steel and little or no suspension components. There was little to disperse the heavy freight load onto the vehicle frame thus early models of truck-like vehicles broke down easily under the stress of heavy loads. The wagon still seemed to be a more reliable and efficient platform.
As the 1900’s wore on, metal again showed it ability to bridge the gap as tempered leaf springs were developed which could be arranged in thick stacks to allow heavy loads to be suspended above them. Man was again using fire to temper and strengthen the metal for the task at hand. The advent of a dual tire configuration on the rear axle also allowed for more weight to be hauled without breakdowns. Soon the motorized truck was a reality and quite common on the roads in various areas of America.
The advance in this technology still did not satisfy mankind’s urge to make a profit. As vehicles became more capable and efficient, man eyed markets for their products which were further and further away. Man had developed the ability to moved goods on motorized platforms but now was penalized by the lack of roads and the poor quality of existing roads. If only the road system could be improved, then those far reaching markets could be a reality. The railroad was reaching those markets as rails had spanned much of America by this time. Those in the trucking industry or freight industry desired the same reach.
That desire would have to wait for most of the rest of the 1900’s. War seemed to take the focus in terms of priority within the USA. A depression in 1915 would stymie things for a while; then it was World War I, a struggle in which the logistics was still handled by both domesticated animals, especially mules, and mechanized vehicles. The war brought some progress in equipment technology but did not improve the conditions in terms of road infrastructure. A second depression would ensue after the stock market crash of 1929 further slowing progress in the U.S. economy. This era was followed closely by a second world war in the 1940’s keeping the focus on military action, stagnating domestic growth, and requiring the ration of products back at home to support the war effort. By the time the USA had completed World War II, trouble was brewing in Korea which again would lead to war being the primary focus into the early 1950’s.
IKE AND THE INTERSTATE
Dwight Eisenhower led America into the era of the 1950’s. Ike as he was fondly “called” had earned public admiration for his service as the commander of forces in WWII. As a result, the presidency of the country was awarded to him by American voters. Eisenhower succeeded Truman in the office of the President. Ike had a great appreciation for the industrial transformation which America had experienced largely due to the two world wars and Korea. He saw a growing American capability to produce goods and services and a population which capable of consuming much of that production. America was on the advent of a new era and Eisenhower saw the need for an interstate highway system to make it all possible. At the time, this task appeared to be beyond the capability of America and something only a dreamer would suggest. Eisenhower saw it through and made it a reality opening up markets coast to coast for service by the trucking industry.
During the time preceding the 1950’s growth, the over-the-road transport of goods had grown steadily and in a fashion that had caught the eye of the federal government. The railroad was lobbying for controls over trucking attempting to insulate itself against the competition. At the time, railroads were a very significant aspect of the American transportation system so the government was easily swayed to gain control over trucking. This control came about through the “Interstate Commerce Commission” which exercised control over the authority granted to freight truck shippers. If a trucking company was not granted any “authority” to haul, then it was extremely limited in the products and markets it could affect. Authority was granted by the ICC to haul specific goods over specific routes. These routes were then protected by that authority. Early on, some truck shippers achieved “general authority” and held a significant advantage in their ability to haul a broad range of goods over particular routes. Those without “authority” were relegated to hauling “exempt” products in limited markets. Typically, these exempt products were agricultural goods hauled in regional markets. With this configuration, the railroad was able to keep a strangle hold on the mainline freight business and keep the trucking industry in check in terms of growth. Roads had improved greatly and technology and produced equipment to carry those loads efficiently but bureaucracy was keeping the trucking business lucrative for only a small few who engaged in it.
This configuration continued in the industry until the later 70’s. At that time the top 100 truck line shippers in America controlled the vast bulk of the freight by truck business. At the same time, the railroad was driven to keep that number in check and thus challenged almost every request for authority which was filed anywhere in America. One trucking industry pioneer, Duane Acklie, described his early days in the business and demonstrated how bad the situation with the ICC and the railroad was for truckers. Mr. Acklie was not a trucker by trade as most in the business are. In fact, he was a lawyer who decided that he wanted to buy into the trucking business. Once in, he learned the harsh reality of the tight relationship between the ICC and the railroad. Mr. Acklie tells a story as to how he and partners wanted to gain authority to haul lard over a particular route. No matter how many times they applied or how much justification they showed, the railroad always filed opposition to the authority and the ICC always denied the request. Finally, in desperation, he and his partners came up with a way to demonstrate how the railroad was literally running the ICC. They filed a request for authority to haul yak fat rather than lard over the same route. Immediately, the railroad filed formal opposition and claimed that it would undermine the railroad’s ability to service the yak fat industry in that area. The ICC concurred and denied the authority. Acklie and his partners had the last laugh in that there was no “yak fat” industry in America at the time. The ICC and the railroad had egg on their faces.
Situations such as Acklie’s set the stage to petition Congress for deregulation in the trucking industry and in 1980 that deregulation was granted. The established portion of the industry which controlled most of the existing authority worked with the railroad in opposing this deregulation. Those who hauled exempted commodities with little or no authority supported the change and had nothing to lose in the process, especially if the doors were opened wide. In the end, Congress approved the legislation and deregulated the trucking industry and in the process also got rid of the ICC passing supervision of the trucking industry to a newly created Department of Transportation (DOT).
Under the new regulations, there was no longer any “granted authority”. If an individual owned a truck, they were free to solicit business across the country as long as they were in compliance with federal safety requirements for that sector of the industry and in accordance with any applicable state laws. The process had been greatly simplified much to the chagrin and disappointment of the established trucking industry and the railroad. Those elements had everything to lose in this change.
Those who, at the time, were the church mice of the trucking industry, the exempt commodity haulers, were elated. The world had opened up for them with a level of opportunity they could only have dreamed up a few years before. Suddenly the Duane Acklie’s of the freight business were positioned to achieve the success they desired. Acklie began to grow his business as fast as he could either acquire other fleets or buy equipment. Others followed suit. This move would lead to the development of fleets like Swift, J. B Hunt, Knight Transportation, Consolidated Freighters, C.R. England and hundreds more. Over the next ten years growth would be steady and the face of the business would change. By 1990, the top 100 fleets which had dominated the truck freight business with their control of operating authority were almost all out of business. Most of them had either sold out or gone bankrupt not knowing how to operate in a now competitive environment without the protection of the government or the railroad. The 1990’s became an era of outrageous growth in the trucking industry with a majority of the companies limited only by the number of drivers they were able to place in the seats of units. This trend would continue for the decade and be enhanced to an even larger degree by the passage of the North America Free Trade Act which allowed for movement of goods across both the Mexican and Canadian borders between countries.
Though the railroad seemed relegated to a second seat by the deregulation in the trucking industry, that situation would be short-lived. Though the railroad had controlled a significant portion of the freight business, the infrastructure of the railroad had crumbled and service to smaller towns was no longer profitable. In some ways, the railroad was its own worst enemy. Through investment and improvement, this trend would begin to shift and the railroad would ironically become an operating partner moving in harmony with the trucking industry as opposed to against it. The advent of “intermodal” shipping would create a marriage between the trucking industry and the railroad which served both profitably while also providing efficiency to the shipper. In select locations, the trucking industry would now move trailer loads of freight to the railhead where it would be positioned on train cars to be shipped across the country. At the destination, the trailers would then be moved by truck to their final destination. This cooperative effort created business for the railroad and actually freed up trucking equipment to respond to the growing freight load in America in the 1990’s.
The trucking industry of today continues to thrive and grow in America. There are still challenges and consideration as there are in most any business. The price of fossil fuels is significant in the industry with diesel fuel prices which have in the past at times reached $5 per gallon. At one point, there were estimates which predicted that every time the price of fuel went up 10cents, another 1000 entities left the trucking business. Fuel prices bring very tough challenges to remain competitive and in the business. At the same time, the up side is that it creates a desire in these companies to look for fuel efficient measures including low rolling resistance tires, advanced aerodynamics, supplemental idling systems, computer controlled engines, auto-shift transmissions, as well as alternative fuel engines designed to burn a mixture of diesel fuel and natural gas. Technology is in high demand and advancing rapidly in the industry not only with truck manufacturers but also with those who build replacement components. A significant portion of the support to the trucking industry today is “green” and getting “greener” all the time.
Fleets are also changing their business model. For the decade of the 1990’s and 2000’s, the limiting factor in the trucking industry was the availability of qualified personnel to drive the units. In the long-haul, truckload sector of the business, fleets were constantly evolving promotional and motivational programs designed to attract new drivers and keep the fleet in growth mode. Still, the reality of this sector of the business is that it is a hard and demanding life style that leaves little or no room for a personal life or family. No matter what most fleets attempted, the results came out the same, too few drivers and too many units parked for lack of drivers.
With the cost of fuel and the limitation of drivers for long haul routes, the trucking industry is indeed changing its game face. Companies are rapidly moving to operating models which allow units to operate in regional short-haul and dedicated modes which allow the driver to be out for short periods and then back home. Coast to coast service is still achieved by handing the loads off between regional terminals and moving them in corridors or by intermodal railway to their final destination. Companies have reported great success with this model in terms of both driver retention and job satisfaction.
Technology will continue to evolve in the trucking industry through open market competition all set up by the advent of deregulation in the industry some 30 years ago. As companies strive for competitive edges, advancements are made both on the environmental side of the coin and on the progress toward alternative fuel technology. In that process, safety also continues to evolve with the addition of driver alerting devices in the cab, the ability to track the unit in real time, ABS braking systems on all wheel positions, tire pressure monitoring and air systems, proximity warning and control devices along with better trained driver personnel who are ever-mindful of public safety and their role in it.
Somewhere in the future, freight may move from point A to point B on an invisible column of air pushed along by hydrogen generators run entirely on tap water. Regardless, it will at its heart still be the freight business operating with the same desires…moving the product to market and earning a profit in the process. God Bless America.
©Copyright WBrown2011. All Rights Reserved.