Looking back, looking forward. It’s what we do here at the end of the year, an artificial boundary in time. Reporting on the trucking industry was eventful in 2018, and it looks to get even more exciting in 2019. Here are nine areas I believe we'll be keeping a close eye on in the new year:
1. The economy
The economic outlook is not as rosy as it was a year ago. In the past couple of months, some notes of caution and uncertainty have started to creep into discussions about the health of the economy. It’s not doom and gloom or clouds on the horizon, necessarily, but things do seem a little foggy, especially the farther you get down the road.
This is the second longest economic expansion in our history, and American Trucking Associations Chief Economist Bob Costello says there’s “no reason it shouldn’t be the longest.” He notes that economic expansions don’t die of old age; they die of something else. Economic growth as measured by gross domestic product, or GDP, increased 3.5% in the third quarter, which while down from 4.2% in the second quarter, was nothing to sneeze at.
Generally what I’m hearing is that there’s plenty of momentum in the economy to take us at least through the first half of the year. FTR economist There are some economic indicators that are troublesome, like the stock market and housing, and the fact that a lot of the Trump tax cut is going to stock buybacks as opposed to capital investment. The biggest concern is the uncertainty brought about by tariffs and trade wars. Some economic experts are predicting a slowdown going into 2020.
But other numbers still look good. HDT’s contributing economic expert, Jeff Kauffman, wrote in his Behind the Numbers column last month that looking at industrial production and inventories, we’re still at a good place in the business cycle.
I liked how FTR senior economist Bill Witte described his outlook in a November conference call: "My model is that 2019 is essentially going to be a sequel of 2018 – with a caveat: sequels are almost never as good as the original.”
If Congress manages to overcome its partisanship and pass much-needed infrastructure reform, that could lead to an economic boost.
The driver shortage continues to be the No. 1 challenge I hear about from fleets. At The Machinery Haulers Association meeting I spoke at in December, one small fleet of fewer than 50 trucks told me at one point last year they had about a third of their trucks empty. Out of some 800 drivers they talked to in the past year, they only hired two – and those two didn’t show up to work.
Expect driver wages to go higher in 2019, predicts the National Transportation Institute, which tracks driver wages. Driver pay conditions today are even more favorable today for drivers than they were a year ago; expect upward pressure on wages to continue.
In an email to investors, the transportation analysts at Stifel reported that in 2018, NTI tracked more pay increases than ever. Most pay cycles are 30 months, but lately it’s down to just 10 months. According to Stifel, driver wage growth should be up 6%-10% year over year. Sign-on bonuses are spreading, mainly to teams. Even private fleets, which traditionally don’t have a problem finding drivers because of higher pay and more predictable schedules, are implementing sign-on bonuses.
This year, expect continued efforts to find ways to allow younger drivers to operate in interstate operations, and continued efforts to reach out to a non-traditional labor pool, including women and minorities. In some parts of the country and in Canada, for instance, Indian-American Sikhs have entered the driving force in significant numbers.
Some states are trying to crack down on the use of independent contractors, especially at the nation’s ports, and I expect to continue to see that battle play out.
3. Regulatory relief
I’ve been covering this industry 28 years and never have I seen such a love fest between trucking lobbyists and the agency regulating trucking. At the American Trucking Associations’ Management Conference and Exhibition in October, ATA chief Chris Spear said, “We have not witnessed this level of engagement since the inception of [the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration],” some 20 years ago. FMCSA chief Ray Martinez got a warm welcome at the meeting, where he garnered spontaneous applause when he said he was “very concerned” about the fact that state meal/rest break rules conflict with federal safety regs – and as I was writing this on Dec. 21, the FMCSA announced it was granting the American Trucking Associations' petition to pre-empt confusing and duplicative state rest break rules.
ELDs appear to be here to stay. If you’re still on grandfathered automatic onboard recording devices (AOBRDs,) don’t wait until the last minute to upgrade to ELDs as required by this December. However, the data that can be gleaned from the devise make changes in hours of service regulations more likely.
In addition, the agency has “fast tracked” the industry’s request to revisit the hours of service rules in the light of data being available from now-mandatory electronic logging devices.
Of special interest is restoring split-sleeper-berth flexibility; the agency canceled a planned pilot program and went straight to asking fleets to share data. This is something that many in trucking have been asking for. However, I’m not sure that ELD data can really tell the agency whether such rules results in truck drivers being fatigued or not. Science tells us that a single eight-hour sleep period is more restorative than splitting it up.
Of course, even “fast-tracking” a rule when you’re talking about the federal government means two years, minimum, assuming no lawsuits from safety advocates or other groups, which have dogged previous hours of service rulemakings.
4. A new data-driven CSA
In addition, watch for more on the new, more scientific basis for CSA scores. Compliance, Safety, Accountability, which FMCSA rolled out in 2010 as a way for it to use data to figure out which fleets to target, was a great idea in theory, but was fraught with problems in practice. In 2016, Congress ordered data hidden from public and tasked National Academies of Science with figuring out how to fix it. NAS, chiding the agency for its unscientific methods, recommended Item Response Theory, which is used in areas such as standardized testing.
Details are still sketchy, but CSA data geek Steve Bryan with Samba Safety/Vigillo has done extensive modeling and emphasizes the new approach will target a “culture of safety.” It will look at patterns of violations, he says, and mediocre performance across the board will hurt you more than falling down on the job in one particular area. In addition, the FMCSA has put the problem of data quality on the back burner. Read more about the new CSA here.
With the midterm elections, legalization, whether for recreational or medicinal use, continues to spread to more states, and now Canada. As a panel discussion explored this fall, trucking is caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to marijuana, between public opinion and increasingly liberal state laws on cannabis use on one hand, and a federal government that classifies marijuana as one of the most dangerous illegal drugs on the other.
On top of that, the opioid epidemic is blamed for shortening our average lifespan, due to more overdoses among younger adults. The CDC says opioids now kill more Americans than guns or breast cancer.
There has been action in Washington to allow hair-follicle testing of drivers to meet federal transportation requirements. Fleets that use hair testing in addition to the currently required urine tests have found many more positive test results among potential drivers.
On a related note, the federal drug- and alcohol-testing clearinghouse is still stalled thanks to various glitches. This clearinghouse will make it harder for drivers to test positive at one company then go down the street and go to work for another.
6. Electric trucks, aka e-mobility
We saw large strides in electric trucks in 2018, and I expect that will only accelerate in 2019. The North American Council for Freight Efficiency put out two guidance reports on electric trucks. It found that BEVs will not be a solution for every application or market, but they will have an increasing role in freight transportation in Classes 3 through 8.
We’ll see if Tesla’s electric Class 8 Semi, unveiled with much fanfare in November 2017, will actually make it to production in 2019. Over the summer, a number of large fleets got a real-world look at a Tesla Semi, as visits to companies such as UPS and J.B. Hunt made a splash on social media. UPS and PepsiCo are among companies who have pre-ordered.
Some of the areas where we’re seeing early interest are the congested intermodal ports of southern California, and delivery trucks and refuse vehicles in urban areas such as New York City.
Volvo and Daimler are going to be testing electric versions of existing models in California. Peterbilt and Transpower are working together to build drayage tractors to work in the California ports.
UPS is working with newcomer Thor to develop a fully electric Class 7 delivery truck. Fuso eCanter medium-duty trucks are already commercially available; J.B. Hunt recently took delivery of a handful for its final-mile fleet.
Refuse trucks are another area where we’re seeing electric inroads.
There’s also increasing interest in hydrogen-electric hybrids. Nikola is officially unveiling the latest version of its truck this coming April. Anheuser-Busch has already ordered 800 of them. Kenworth's Zero Emissions Cargo Transport (ZECT), is a hydrogen fuel cell powered battery-electric concept vehicle being tested at the ports. And Toyota’s Project Portal is a test of a “proof of concept” Class 8 hydrogen fuel cell truck in real-world use in Southern California.
I’m sure I’ve left out some examples, but you get the idea. And that’s barely even getting into the lighter side, with entries such as Chanje and Workhorse unveiling battery-electric delivery vans. FedEx already announced it’s adding 1,000 of the Chanje vans to its fleet.
Questions still to be answered include things like weight, range, and return on investment. And charging infrastructure remains a big question. There’s not even a current standard charging receptacle, although a number of companies have formed a consortium to work on developing a uniform approach.
“Self-driving trucks” have really caught the imagination of the mainstream and tech media since the Freightliner Inspiration concept truck drove itself across the Hoover Dam in 2015.
Uber shuttered its autonomous truck development mid-year, but new startups have emerged, such as Ike and Embark. And then there are the concept vehicles. Volvo showed off a concept tractor, Vera, with no cab at all. Mercedes showed off a pod concept for urban delivery called the Urbanetic, where passenger and cargo pods were interchangeable on the same electric autonomous chassis. ZF showed off an autonomous cargo van.
But just when, or even if, we’ll see true “self-driving trucks” in the real world is a matter of much debate, inside and outside the industry. Even our own staff disagrees amongst ourselves.
What I do feel certain of is that some of the technologies that would make autonomous trucks possible will be pulled forward into advanced driver assistance systems, or ADAS. We’ve seen several companies working on steering advances, for instance (watch for Jim Park’s feature in the January issue of HDT), and I have little doubt that this year we’ll see some of those showing up on real-world truck models.
8. Data technology
We’re carrying computers around in our pockets, and artificial intelligence is being used for everything from analyzing dash-cam data to improve safety to finding the most efficient ways to load trailers. We’ll see increased use and sophistication of telematics and data analytics, remote diagnostics and over-the-air updates, sophisticated freight-matching algorithms and apps.
A few more things to keep your eye on in 2019:
• Artificial Intelligence. One example: XPO says it’s planning to use artificial intelligence tools and computer vision technology to help cross-dock operators make sure inbound pallets are loaded into the optimal trailers, in the right sequence, for the greatest efficiency during delivery. Other companies are working on using AI for predictive maintenance, and through “edge analytics” on the vehicle to analyze driver behaviors in real time.
• Blockchain. Startup company dexFreight recently announced it had completed its first blockchain-based shipment using smart contracts. And Walmart has announced it will use blockchain to track leafy greens from farm to shelf in the wake of contaminated romaine episodes in 2018. A wave of companies have joined the Blockchain in Transportation Alliance to help work out standards.
• Voice-activated systems. As smart-speaker and voice activated technologies such as Amazon Alexa, Siri, and others become more widely used in the mainstream world, expect to see more of this put to use in the trucking and logistics arena. For instance, I.D. Systems showed off Lucy, an integrated voice-activated system that allows a user to get information from the fleet’s asset and cargo database without having to manually pull reports, such as detailed in-transit reporting and real-time status and analytics.
There’s more, of course. I could go on and on. E-commerce, cybersecurity, fuel efficiency, emissions regulations… It’s going to be an interesting year.
*This is an extended version of an editorial that appeared in the January issue of Heavy Duty Trucking magazine.