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The infrastructure bill and the future of the freight transportation industry

When President Joe Biden signed the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill in November, it sent ripples of hope and speculation across the freight industry.

The infrastructure bill and the future of the freight transportation industry
[Adobe Stock / vit ; Adobe Stock / Open Studio]

When President Joe Biden signed the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill in November, it sent ripples of hope and speculation across the freight industry. Trucking associations and supply chain experts voiced strong support for what improved highways, bridges, and roads will do for freight carriers, shippers, and brokers.

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Expectations are high but tempered with a “wait-and-see” attitude by industry professionals. The common belief seems to be that improvements are coming in yet-to-be-seen forms and that they’ll extend beyond transporting steel, concrete, and asphalt to construction sites.

A NEW GENERATION OF TRUCKERS

One exciting program created by the bill is designed to attract younger drivers to the industry. The infrastructure bill will create an apprenticeship pilot program for commercial driver’s license holders under 21. The minimum current age to operate a truck is 21—a threshold that has kept 18- to 20-year-olds from joining the industry.

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According to the American Trucking Associations’ Chief Economist Bob Costello, the trucking industry is short 80,000 drivers, a number that could climb to 160,000 by 2030. A study by Knoema found that there are more than 21 million U.S. residents aged 16-20. The ability to tap even a small portion of this group to grow driver ranks can have an enormous impact on the driver shortage.

The industry needs to reach potential new drivers as students prepare to graduate high school, a period when many young adults are looking for a career path. For the right individuals, freight transportation offers a profitable career as a carrier, broker, or shipper. Now is one of the more opportunistic periods for younger adults to consider a career in the freight transportation industry.

It’s important to note that new under-21 drivers won’t be dropped into a semi-truck seat and given free rein of the highways. The apprentice pilot program requires a probationary period for new drivers who also must be accompanied on all trips by an experienced driver. The infrastructure bill also mandates trucks driven by apprentices have active braking collision mitigation systems, automated or automatic transmissions, forward-facing video recording systems, and a governed top speed of 65 mph.

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TECHNOLOGY FUELS FREIGHT INDUSTRY GROWTH

Adding new truck drivers to the fold only helps solve part of the problem. It will take significant time for new driving capacity to have any effect. I believe the greater, more significant effect on freight movements will be through the implementation of technologies by existing transportation companies that enable them to better adapt to the increasing freight transportation needs for higher productivity.

Freight carriers, brokers, and shippers already leverage various technologies to schedule, manage, and deliver goods across the U.S. That’s just a beginning. The infrastructure bill directs the U.S. Department of Transportation to study “existing and future impacts of self-driving vehicles on transportation infrastructure.”

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The freight transportation technology supporting the marriage of traditional and autonomous carriers must, however, keep pace. We’re likely to see an acceleration in the consolidation of freight technology companies as both industry stalwarts and startups search for any advantage they can obtain or innovate. There’s been a big influx of new startups in the past five years and investors are looking for returns. That may mean selling platforms to larger, more-established freight technology companies or merging smaller companies with large players.

A BRIGHT FUTURE FOR TRUCKING TECH

The passage of the infrastructure bill comes at a critical crossroads for the industry’s future. Improvements to our nation’s roads and bridges are key to increasing the volume of freight movements while reducing traffic congestion that costs the trucking industry an estimated $74.5 billion in lost operational costs every year, according to the American Transportation Research Institute. More than 1.7 million miles of roadways are in “poor or mediocre” condition, which only exacerbates lost productivity and environmental impacts from CO2 emissions.

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Trucking technology must play a prominent role in creating supply chain efficiencies that take full advantage of the coming infrastructure improvements. Tech-savvy younger truck owners will look to real-time, robust applications for dynamic route planning, finding the best spot market rates, and ensuring the highest possible level of on-road safety.

The freight transportation industry is in a position to define how over 11.8 billion tons of goods are moved each year by U.S. truckers. The door has now been opened to numerous opportunities that can serve as the foundation for our industry’s future.


Kendra Tucker is the Chief Executive Officer at Truckstop.com.

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