However, the former two-term Kansas governor expressed concern over the apparent inability of Congress to agree on a transportation bill as well as about the higher Interstate speed limits being posted in some states.
At last week's 14th Annual Pegasus TransTech User Conference in Clearwater Beach, Fla., Graves said carrier CEOs were currently in a "cautious, go-slow mood." At present they were not anxious to buy new equipment or launch any major expansions, he explained.
Nevertheless, Graves noted, those carriers who survived the depths of a recession that greatly reduced the ranks of truckers, and thus of available capacity, are in an excellent position to prosper when the economy finally rebounds.
"The people who are still here will do well," he said. However, Graves cautioned that the return to a robust economy will probably have to wait for the elections in November.
Graves said the barriers to wide adoption of natural gas as a mainstream fuel are being addressed. For example, he noted, Pilot Flying J has announced it will begin making natural gas available within its network of truckstops. Graves also said that as more companies are deploying natural-gas-powered trucks, resale of used units presents less and less of a challenge.
Virtually every manufacturer offers natural gas models, he said, and trucks that burn natural gas as opposed to diesel endure less wear and tear, thus retaining value.
"This will change the landscape," Graves said, adding that for the first time, there will be serious competition between suppliers of diesel and of natural gas.
However, he noted, Congress appears unwilling to pass tax credits that would spur fleets to adopt natural gas. Despite that, Graves is optimistic about the future of natural gas in trucking.
"This is going to work," he said.
Graves outlined the ATA's safety initiatives, including mandatory speed-limiters on trucks. At the same time, he said, a number of states have raised their speed limits.
Kansas, where Graves served two terms as governor, recently boosted its maximum speed on the Interstates to 75 mph, he noted. Since many cars travel at, say, 8 mph over the limit and trucks are often limited by fleets to 65 mph or lower, speed differentials can be a safety problem.
Despite the challenges the industry faces, Graves concluded, trucking's future looks bright.
"I'm as optimistic as I can be," he said.