There has been a long foretold narrative that a driver shortage, along with other concerning factors, are leading toward a long term deficit in the truck-to-load market balance. Today it may seem that there is no longer a looming crisis. Due to supply chain disruptions caused by the pandemic, conflict in Ukraine, fuel rates, inflation, and fluctuations in consumer spending habits, volumes have seen significant decreases overall. For customers and brokers alike, this has led to temporary alleviation, but when the market inevitably stabilizes, we may see that these trends are still problematic. The core issues remain with the driver market: average age, more available/flexible/safer employment options, unpredictable market, legal risks, etc. Experts are predicting that the driver shortage will grow to 160,000 drivers by 2030. There has also been a decline in the ability to keep up with semi-truck production and an increase in carriers leaving the market. While there was a slight ease in 2022, due to raises in driver pay that are not sustainable in this market, we still face an uphill battle and a vacancy of 78,000+ drivers.
One significant way the industry is trying to help close the gap is by adopting and implementing self-driving trucks. While there have been autonomous trucks tested and implemented on the road to some success, we have a long way to go before significant adoption. The majority of self-driving trucks making deliveries are running short, simple, light runs with smaller trailers. Currently, only 24 states allow autonomous semi-trucks (most states do allow testing if a backup driver is present). Interstate usage has yet to be approved by the federal government.
Due to the remaining legal, technological, and financial (cost of production not yet scalable) issues combined with the costs and challenges of replacing and upgrading the fleet, it is hard to see a significant percentage of adoption within the next few years. In 2021, 91.5% trucking companies were made up of six trucks or less. Expecting the hundreds of thousands of small carriers and owner-operators to replace and upgrade their fleets is a big ask. In 2021, there were 4.6 million semi-trucks in the U.S. The nature of the industry, legally and culturally, means major changes are typically implemented and standardized slowly. Lobbyists and unions often curtail progress further. Additionally, there are currently issues in the production of semi-trucks. Even in this extended soft market, a multi-year parts and worker shortage has limited the ability to keep up with orders.
It may be safe to assume that supply chain and consumer patterns will begin to stabilize before the adoption of autonomous trucks are significant. Carriers have had to work with lower rates and higher costs for years, causing an increase in bankruptcies and closures. As volumes increase and the supply and demand paradigm flips, expect to see the remaining carrier market use all of their leverage to offset their losses. While the development of self-driving trucks is progressing, it’s not going to save the day in the near term. Therefore, we must rely on our own preparation to weather the coming storm.