GPS technology can tell a commercial trucker all about routes and traffic conditions. But when it comes to predicting the regulatory landscape, the road ahead is a lot less clear.
One rule that’s guaranteed to hit the industry at the end of this year is the electronic logging device mandate of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. ELDs automatically record key details of a drive, allowing drivers to keep accurate track of their hours of service. Passed in 2012, the law gave fleets until December 18, 2017 to install ELDs in their vehicles. (Those already deploying electronic logging technology were given an additional two years to comply.)
One might be tempted to view the mandate as yet another regulatory burden on a fragile industry, but FMCSA doesn’t see it that way. It claims that ELDs will save truckers more than $1bn in annual costs, largely through the elimination of paperwork associated with the use of traditional paper logbooks. It will also boost the efficiency of law enforcement personnel when reviewing drivers’ records, the agency says.
Industry itself doesn’t disagree. It acknowledges that ELDs will cut maintenance costs, aid in compliance with state and federal rules, keep logs up to date and make drivers more productive. (They’ll be rounding service time to the nearest minute, instead of 15 minutes, resulting in a more accurate record and higher pay.)
“I think it’s the right move,” says Brian Fielkow, chief executive officer of Jetco Delivery, Inc., a full-truckload carrier. “It’s going to let all of us finally play by the same set of rules when it comes to hours of service.” Electronic logs, he says, will “smoke out” drivers and carriers that stretch shifts in order to deliver freight within unreasonable periods of time.
Fielkow admits that some of the more financially strapped operators will exit the business rather than take on the additional cost of equipping their vehicles with ELDs. And while he doesn’t expect to see a “mass exodus” of carriers from the market, he notes that even a small number of dropouts will be felt by shippers in the form of tighter capacity.
Jetco has been running its trucks with ELDs since 2008, so it’s understandable that Fielkow would like to see a level playing field among all carriers. The company’s systems cost in the neighborhood of $1,500 per truck for the hardware alone, but the new generation of plug-and-play devices can bring down the price of a unit to one-third of that.
Even with an Administration that has vowed to cut regulations on business, the ELD mandate is essentially a done deal. Beyond that, though, the regulatory and legislative picture remains hazy for truckers. Certain rules that were in the developmental stage might not come to fruition.
One such area of concern is sleep apnea. Last May, FMCSA and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) put out a call for public comment on the sleep disorder’s impact on commercial transportation. That was the first step toward a formal rulemaking, which has yet to take shape and might now be scrapped altogether. Also in limbo is a possible requirement that all trucks be equipped with speed limiters.
Fielkow is less sanguine about the financial impact on truckers of such additional rules. Jetco, he says, is a mid-sized carrier with 140 drivers and a varied fleet consisting mostly of big rigs. But its pockets aren’t bottomless. “The cost of complying and jumping through all these hoops is getting to be too much.”
The controversy over hours of service remains quiet for the moment. For a period of about 18 months, FMCSA imposed tougher rules on the number of hours, length of shift and time off between shifts that commercial drivers must observe. Following intense criticism from industry, which complained of skyrocketing costs and confusing rules, the agency suspended a portion of the new requirements.
“The [stricter] HOS rules were impractical and unworkable,” says Fielkow, adding that it’s unlikely that the Trump Administration will direct FMCSA to reinstate them. But they’re not necessarily dead.
Truckers continue to face challenges outside the regulatory arena. Chief among them is the chronic driver shortage, estimated by some carriers to number around 30,000 a year. (Others claim to be unaffected by the shortfall.) Fielkow says the recent softness in the oil industry masked the shortage for a time. But there’s no question that the average age of a truck driver is steadily climbing. “We’re into the mid-50s right now,” he says. “We’re not attracting young people into the industry the way we should.”
The answer, he says, lies in creating “a driver-driven environment,” one that meets drivers’ need for safety, comfort, convenience and fair treatment by shippers.
Adequate compensation, of course, is key. “The number-one thing that’s driving truck rates is personnel cost,” says Fielkow. “If you want to hire the best, you’ve got to pay the best, and have a rate structure that supports that.” And shippers must be willing to bear the cost.
One development that doesn’t lie in the near future, in Fielkow’s estimation, is driverless trucks. “You read that it’s all going to be automated. Not in my lifetime. When you’re ready to get on an airplane with no pilot, that’s when we’re going to have automated trucks.”
In the meantime, truckers will continue to grapple with uncertainties surrounding ever-changing rules and regulations, personnel issues, seesawing fuel costs, safety concerns and the soaring cost of insurance. “I see a perfect storm here,” says Fielkow. “The smart shippers are preparing for it.”