Trucking is a massive industry in the United States. More than 800,000 drivers are employed across hundreds of thousands of companies. In many ways, trucking is a bellwether for the workforce and the economy as a whole. It should come as no surprise, then, that trucking appears poised to undergo some dramatic changes in the coming years. The biggest driver of this change is the same factor driving disruption across nearly every industry: technology. To get a better understanding of what trucking may look like in the coming decades, let’s take a look at a few of the major changes on the horizon.
It’s become impossible to escape in recent years. Any discussion regarding the future of trucking inevitably – and quickly – turns to driverless trucks. Indeed, autonomous trucks have already begun appearing in a limited capacity. First, an Uber self-driving truck navigated 120 miles of Colorado highway to safely deliver 50,000 cans of Budweiser. Tech startup Starsky Robotics successfully completed a short trip with no driver behind the wheel at all. These and other tests have left no doubt that self-driving freight is very nearly ready for primetime.
At this point, self-driving freight is simply a matter of timing. A wide-scale rollout of driverless trucks is probably still several years away. There are plenty of questions regarding regulation, management and implementation that remain unanswered. Nonetheless, most analysts believe that the industry will fully embrace autonomous driving technology within the next 15 to 20 years. Self-driving systems will continue to advance along with technology, further improving efficiency and safety and simply making the technology too attractive to ignore.
It’s a given that self-driving vehicles will disrupt the trucking industry over the next two decades. Far less certain, however, is the nature of this disruption. Considering the complexity of local hauling and the lingering resistance to truly driverless vehicles, it’s unlikely that freight shipping will become completely autonomous in the near future. A more likely solution is the implementation of mixed fleets.
A mixed fleet is an approach that leverages the advantages of both human drivers and self-driving trucks. The trucking industry of the future is likely to be based around central hubs situated near cities all across the country. At least for the near future, a human driver will likely still be the best option for navigating city streets, handling complex routes and completing the other tasks involved in transporting freight from origin to hub and from hub to destination. Autonomous trucks are best suited to handle the long-haul interstate trucking in between.
It seems that blockchain technology is everywhere these days. It’s already infiltrated a variety of industries and changed the way business is done, but what does it really mean? Sparing the complexity underlying the technology, blockchain is simply a digital ledger that records and tracks information and stores it in a distributed, incorruptible form. What this means for trucking is an opportunity to change the entire way the industry does business.
Currently, the trucking industry operates largely on a freight broker system. Freight brokers are responsible for handling many aspects of the complex and messy trucking process. This includes connecting carriers with loads, managing payments and transactions, tracking orders and more. Unfortunately, this system isn’t always efficient, transparent or accurate. The end result is significant inefficiency and waste, lowered profits and general confusion.
Enter the blockchain. Properly implemented, the blockchain offers solutions to many of the issues that have long plagued the trucking industry. In the near future, blockchain technology may form the backbone of an entirely new system for handling freight. It will enable smart contracts that are more secure, flexible and accurate. It will also power records systems that are capable of tracking every detail of a shipment with precision, recording every relevant piece of information about each truck in a fleet and more. Ultimately, a blockchain-powered trucking industry will be far more efficient, transparent and effective.
THE EVOLUTION OF THE INDUSTRY
In many ways, the trucking industry is at a crossroads. In the short term, the industry faces two particularly troubling trends. The first is a matter of age. As fewer young people enter the industry, the average age of truck drivers has steadily climbed in recent years. The average age today is seven years older than the average worker across the entire workforce. The second trend is a rapid increase in demand. The next decade is expected to see an increase in freight demand of up to 40 percent. With an aging workforce that appears to be poised for mass retirements in the coming years, this capacity crunch could become a looming catastrophe. In the long term, a greater problem for the trucking industry is posed by the growth of technology and the changing of society as a whole.
Ultimately, these are the factors that will dictate how trucking evolves in the coming decades. One potential evolution is a shift toward on-demand trucking. Just as ridesharing services like Lyft and Uber transformed personal transportation, platforms like Uber Freight may represent the future of trucking. These platforms provide a more decentralized, peer-to-peer solution to matching drivers with freight. By cutting out the inefficient freight broker process, they may also allow carriers and owner-operators to become more efficient, profitable and responsive. This may prove essential to competing in a future industry built around large, semi-autonomous fleets.
Elsewhere, a changing industry may see a shift in the skills required by its workers. Today’s truckers are valued largely based on their ability to drive long hours, navigate difficult conditions and meet tight deadlines safely and consistently. In the future, trucking may become more of a high-tech affair. Drivers will likely stay behind the wheel for the foreseeable future, but they may be valued based more on their ability to operate advanced technological systems and troubleshoot software programs than their ability behind the wheel.
Trucking is clearly an industry hurtling toward significant disruption. The technological revolution may yet loom over the horizon, but its eventual arrival is inevitable. How these changes alter the industry will depend largely on how the industry chooses to respond and adapt to them. Despite the upheaval that is likely to come, however, the industry as a whole remains as vital as ever.