Stifel's John Larkin says that the driver shortage is now affecting less-than-truckload, private fleets and other industry sectors. Photo: Southeastern Freight Lines.

Stifel's John Larkin says that the driver shortage is now affecting less-than-truckload, private fleets and other industry sectors. Photo: Southeastern Freight Lines.

Driver turnover, a problem that has traditionally plagued longhaul, irregular-route truckload fleets, is now affecting every type of fleet in the industry – and it's only going to get worse.

That's one of the takeaways from the annual "Shaking the Sand Out" overview of the transportation industry from Stifel Transportation & Logistics Equity Research.

"The big issue is drivers, drivers and drivers," said John Larkin, Stifel managing director, in the Monday morning conference call. "It's not clear there's any easy answer to this problem; it's not clear that taking driver pay up will solve the problem as you would think from Econ 101. So it's going to be very interesting to see how this develops, especially as FMCSA and other agencies make it more difficult for people to become drivers or for existing drivers to become more productive."

In fact, despite reports indicating very tight capacity, Larkin says the real driver-driven capacity crunch may come in the 2016-2017 time frame when the electronic log mandate is expected to go into effect, along with an expected regulation requiring speed limiters.

"It may be quite difficult for some companies that are not compliant to survive economically," Larkin said, "so that could be a big drag on capacity. The small carriers are certainly struggling, with older fleets, the regulatory burden, and stretched balance sheets."

Meanwhile, he said, the high-tech systems that large carrier operations are integrating into their operations are helping with productivity. "They're not only able to select the best load today, but also to look into the future and optimize production for a truck for its 7 or 10 day run," which is improving yield and reducing empty miles.

In the next decade, he said, longer combination vehicles and heavier trucks could help alleviate the driver problem, "if we can ever get over the hurdles in Washington. "And perhaps driverless trucks at some point may ultimately be the answer to the driver shortage. But that's 15, 20, 25 year away before any possibility of solving the driver shortage through the use of [that] technology."

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