Argument

Trucking Is the Security Crisis You Never Noticed

Everything from food to oil depends on underpaid and overworked drivers.

Trucks stand ready to haul shipping containers at the Port of Los Angeles, the nation's busiest container port, on Sept. 18. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Trucks stand ready to haul shipping containers at the Port of Los Angeles, the nation's busiest container port, on Sept. 18. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

“I got my diesel wound up and she’s a-running like a-never before,” sang Dave Dudley in 1963 in his single “Six Days on the Road.” The song was a major hit at a time when the profession still had a glimmer of romance about it. These days, truckin’ is inspiring a whole lot less love, especially among the young. In North America and Europe alike, older drivers are retiring, but hardly anybody’s joining the profession. With global logistics still vitally dependent on trucking, that’s not just a problem for the industry; it’s a potential crisis for everyone—and a national security threat.

“Join me” reads the sticker on many U.S. trailer trucks. The truckers are not asking for company in the cab, but in their profession. The United States is already short of some 60,000 truckers, and within the next eight years the shortage is predicted to reach a staggering 174,000. Each year, some 30,000 German drivers retire, replaced by only 2,000 who finish their truck-driver education, leaving a gap of 45,000 truckers that’s set to skyrocket in the next few years as more drivers age out. Sweden, meanwhile, is already 7,000 drivers short—and that figure is expected to rise to 50,000 within 10 years. The U.K. has 35,000 fewer drivers than it needs.

In many ways, it’s not a surprise that young people aren’t taking up the job. “The essence of being a driver is that you don’t come home every night,” Frank Huster, the CEO of DSLV, Germany’s Freight Forwarding and Logistics Association, told me. “And sleeping on the road is often unappealing or even dangerous. Not surprisingly, given that trucks carry multimillion-euro cargos, organized crime gangs target rest areas. And at harbors and warehouses, staff often force the driver to load and unload even though it’s not part of his job.” What’s more, because there are far too few motels with truck parking, drivers often have no choice but to sleep in the cab. “If you think I’m happy, you’re right,” Dave Dudley sang. Not anymore.

Nor do truckers have a high place on the social totem pole, a reality that is reflected in trucker wages: U.S. drivers, for example, earn a median annual salary of $40,000. “Transportation is too cheap,” Huster said. “In the past, the fee per container going from Asia to Europe was often 2,000 euros [$2,300]. Today, it’s 200 euros [$233]. And with freight shipping that cheap, people expect the truck part to be correspondingly cheap.” According to a new survey by PwC, Amazon Prime customers value the unlimited free delivery offered by the service most, with 72 percent of them saying it’s the main benefit of the service.

While consumers demand free delivery and companies underpay truckers, the profession erodes—and national security is left at risk. That’s because the smooth functioning of society now depends on a shrinking corps of underpaid, and clearly underappreciated, workers. If drivers decided to go on strike, or retire en masse, countries would quickly run out of food and gasoline—causing social and economic crisis and leaving them dangerously vulnerable.

What’s worse, there’s no quick fix. Ninety percent of the world’s goods travel on ships—and when they arrive at the harbor, they have to be transported onward. According to the American Trucking Associations (ATA), 71 percent of all U.S. freight travels on highways. Railways can handle some freight, but they don’t reach smaller communities—nor any shops. We need truckers.

The shortage is already having an effect. According to DSLV statistics, in some regions, up to 10 percent of trucks stand idle because there are no drivers—to the annoyance of the customers expecting the goods. “Trucking companies are already forced to choose which customers they work with,” Huster said. Economic growth will suffer if companies can’t transport their goods to the buyer, but for most of us, the resulting delays are mostly an inconvenience.

But the problems don’t end with impatient consumers. Because the retail industry has mostly converted to a “just in time” delivery model, it relies on constant new supplies, with warehouse space emptying almost as soon as its filled. “Amazon would love to be able to do predictive filling of their warehouses for, say, Christmas or Easter, but due to trucker shortage they don’t have the capacity to do it, so their resupply of warehouses is entirely reactive,” Henrik Christensen, the chair of robot systems at the University of California, San Diego, told me. Without truckers, no daily bread, or milk, or fruit, or meat. And no gasoline. And what would happen after natural disasters, when enormous quantities of goods have to be delivered quickly? One could argue that the missing truck driver will wreak more havoc on the U.S. way of living than Russian President Vladimir Putin or the 1973 oil embargo.

Enter the salvation: self-driving trucks. Not so fast. “We’re relatively close to Level 4 autonomy [hands-off driving for extended periods] on highways,” Christensen said. “The problem is what happens when you get off the highway into mixed traffic with pedestrians and bicycles.” Self-driving vehicles also function badly in poor weather or any kind of unpredictable conditions—not to mention the threats of theft or vandalism. Christensen’s team is currently conducting Level 4 experiments for a transportation company, with promising results. But will legislators and city planners trust the massive machines without drivers? Such legislative changes may take several years, Christensen said, even if the technology becomes available. It may be no surprise, then, that Uber recently killed its much-heralded self-driving truck initiative.

Even if trucks are eventually able to drive on their own, they will require a human being in the cab to handle emergencies and security issues—and they’ll be sleeping in the same dingy conditions, spending similar time away from their families, and having to do the same heavy work of loading and unloading. And with the profession deskilled by automation, they may even be paid worse than right now. Even fewer people will want to do it—and we will still need people to get our goods to us. Over the next decade, the ATA estimates, the U.S. economy will need some 90,000 new truckers per year.

A first step out of this looming national security crisis is wages. “We’re already seeing some upward movement, with a few drivers making as much as 3,500 euros [$4,000] per month,” Huster said. When existing and potential drivers realize how much hinges on their services, they may well have some leverage to demand more. But the legacy of the Teamsters union notwithstanding, most truck drivers are not organized in powerful trade unions, and the decentralized nature of the logistics business makes collective bargaining difficult. Individual drivers may eventually manage to increase their pay, but there won’t be a sudden rise. In the meantime, there’s a scramble to try and find new ways to entice the young in. The ATA proposes dropping the minimum age from 21 to 18, while the Deutscher Verkehrssicherheitsrat (German Traffic Security Council) advocates allowing 17-year-olds behind the wheel.

Such changes may only bring marginal improvement. What needs to change is something much more radical: the way in which we receive our necessities. Environmental activists have long argued that transporting daily goods around the globe is harmful to the planet, but because the business model is also vulnerable to disruptions, retailers should consider shifting to some local production. Yes, it would raise consumer prices—but consumers are increasingly aware of the downsides of, say, transporting apples or T-shirts between continents. Consumers, in turn, would have to modify their behavior and not expect constant deliveries of necessities. Sure, it’s nice to order groceries from one’s sofa and have them delivered within hours—but planning one’s consumption a bit more doesn’t take a lot of effort.

And retailers have to drive home the point to consumers that there’s no such thing as a free truck ride. By charging customers properly for the transportation of their goods, companies would lose some customers, but heavily discounted delivery is at any rate not a workable business model. More radically, on their customer receipts retailers could itemize how much the drivers were paid to deliver the item. Realizing how poorly we compensate the crucial trucker could make us consumers willing to properly pay for their services, or otherwise limit our use of them.

Here’s the thing: The nature of globalized markets means we rely on truckers, but by lazily multiplying our dependence on them, we are making our countries vulnerable. If societies can cope with 24 or 48 hours without new supplies of food or gasoline, a shortfall in truckers becomes a problem, not a crisis.

Elisabeth Braw leads RUSI’s Modern Deterrence program

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