Trucking Industry

views updated May 08 2018


TRUCKING INDUSTRY had its inception in France about 1769 with Nicolas J. Cugnot's experimental artillery tractor. It was introduced in America in the nineteenth century, but neither the times, nor the technology, nor the roads were prepared for such an innovation, and the occasional builders of experimental vehicles received little encouragement for their efforts, particularly given the stellar successes of the rail industry in transporting heavy goods.

In the 1890s numerous experimental motor vehicles began to appear throughout the country, and among them were a few motor wagons. A few commercial motor vehicles reached the market during the last three years of the century. Like the passenger vehicles that were widely known as "horseless carriages," these earliest motor wagons resembled their horse-drawn predecessors, with their motors and other machinery suspended under their bodies. This design prevailed through the first decade of the twentieth century. Because the heavy machines were limited to short hauls on paved urban roads, the nascent trucking industry favored the more reliable electric wagons over those powered by as-yet-crude gasoline or steam engines. No early trucks were very efficient or reliable, however, and most carried only small loads. Consequently, people found them most valuable as advertisements, because of their novelty. Inexperienced drivers, who abused and neglected the vehicles, the general conservatism of the business world, and inadequate design all retarded the use of motor trucks during these years.

By 1910, improvements in truck design had begun to break down the conservative bias against the new vehicles, and increased profits for the manufacturers enabled more rapid development. Following innovations first worked out in the passenger-car market, vertical four-cylinder engines, located under a hood in front of the driver, began to replace the single-cylinder and double-opposed engines. Sliding gear transmissions superseded planetary transmissions and the less efficient friction transmissions. During the period 1913–1915, there was a noticeable trend away from chain drive in favor of several forms of gear drive.

Important developments of 1912 were the tractor and semi trailer, the former having been introduced for use with the many serviceable wagons designed to be drawn by horses, the tractor and its rear wheels replacing the horses and front wheels of the wagons. Truck use increased rapidly during that decade. The production of 25,000 trucks in 1914 tripled in 1915, and total registrations of 99,015 in 1914 rose to 1,107,639 by 1920. Poor rural roads and the 15 mile per hour maximum speed of these solid-tired trucks kept most of these vehicles confined to city streets.

World War I and its aftermath had an immense effect on truck use and development. The immediate need for trucks by the military and the army's truck-standardization program focused the attention of truck engineers on component design and furthered the cause of the assembled truck as against the manufactured truck. As the railroads became woefully congested and inefficient because of the tremendous increase in traffic when the United States entered the war in 1917, Roy Chapin's Highway Transport Committee of the Council for National Defense experimented with the first long-distance truck shipments, sending trucks bound for overseas military use under their own power from midwestern manufacturing centers to eastern seaports, primarily Baltimore. At that time, too, pneumatic tires capable of withstanding heavy truck loads were being developed; previously pneumatic tires had rarely been used on anything heavier than a three-quartert on truck. When the improved tires became available, they enabled trucks to double their former speed, an enormous advantage and a practical necessity for intercity trucking. Immediately after the war the good-roads movement began to achieve major results as the federal-aid system began to develop, resulting in the dramatic expansion of the nation's hard-surfaced highway system over the next two decades.

Interstate trucking increased steadily during the 1920s along with the new road system. As the decade closed such developments as power-assisted brakes, six-cylinder engines, and three-axle trucks began to contribute to the safety and efficiency of highway operation. The lean years of the early 1930s had some adverse effects on trucking, but there was also some progress, as the use of the semi trailer, better adapted to heavier loads, increased 500 percent from 1929 to 1936. Likewise, in the early 1930s cooperative trailer-switching arrangements between carriers permitted through service by eliminating the extra freight handling that shifting loads from truck to truck had previously required and, at the same time, led to standardization in size, fifth wheels, brakes, and other new components. The diesel truck, introduced in the early 1930s, was not found in significant numbers until the 1950s.

The shortages of steel, rubber, and gasoline during the war years of the 1940s curtailed the growth of motor freighting, but trucks served as a mobile assembly line on the home front and were often the decisive factor in the theaters of war, causing Gen. George S. Patton to remark, "The truck is our most valuable weapon." After the war the trucking industry resumed a steady and rapid growth. An important development of the late 1950s and 1960s was "piggybacking" or "intermodal" shipping—the long-distance movement of loaded semi trailers on railway flatcars; 1,264,501 semi trailers were loaded on flatcars in 1970. Intermodal trucking activity increased even more dramatically in the 1980s, following the 1980 Staggers Act, which weakened the Interstate Commerce Commission's regulatory control over railroads, and the 1980 Motor Carrier Act, which partially deregulated trucking. As a result, the number of piggybacking semi trailers jumped by 70 percent between 1981 and 1986. The 1991 Inter-modal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) further boosted intermodal shipping.

The last three decades of the twentieth century saw a large increase in highway trucking as well, in large part due to the rapid construction of the 42,500-mile system of interstates begun in 1956, which facilitated the use of larger trucks carrying heavier loads at lower per-mile cost. By 1970 the national truck total of 18,747,781 more than tripled the 1941 figure. Following the deregulation of the truck industry in 1980, the number of licensed carriers grew from 17,000 to over 40,000 by 1990. In addition, the number of carriers with permission from the ICC to operate on a nationwide basis grew from under 100 in 1980, when operating rights sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars, to an unprecedented 5,000 carriers in 1990.


Automobile Manufacturers Association. Motor Truck Facts. New York: Annually, 1935–1975.

Denham, A. F. Twenty Years Progress in Commercial Motor Vehicles (1921–1942). Washington, D.C.: Automotive Council for War Production, 1943.

Karolevitz, Robert F. This Was Trucking: A Pictorial History of the First Quarter Century of Commercial Motor Vehicles. Seattle, Wash.: Superior, 1966.

Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association. Motor Vehicle Facts and Figures. Detroit, Mich.: Annually 1975–current.

U.S. Department of Transportation. America's Highways, 1776–1976: A History of the Federal-Aid Program. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1977.

Don H.Berkebile


See alsoAutomobile ; Deregulation ; Interstate Commerce Commission ; Interstate Highway System ; Motor Carrier Act ; Roads ; Staggers Rail Act .

Trucking Industry (Commercial)

views updated Jun 08 2018


Beginning in the early 1980s the trucking industry changed as deregulation and new technology brought new competitive pressures to the trucking industry. Information technologies and expanded services such as express delivery of light freight had become staples of the trade. Implementation of these new technologies and the promise of advantageous global trends insured the continued strength of an industry that experienced its worst years during the recession of the early 1980s.

Both state and federal governments had a tremendous impact on the revenues generated by the trucking industry. Although it experienced federal deregulation, the industry continued to deal with strict regulations in 28 states during the early 1990s. In an effort to make state regulations coincide with each other, Congress passed the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act in 1991. The International Registration Plan would be passed in 1996 and the International Fuel Tax Agreement in 1998, legislating out repetitive registration requirements and fuel tax payments incurred by interstate truckers.

In addition to registration and tax costs, government programs such as the Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program added an estimated $6,000 to $9,000 annually in maintenance work required to meet the standards of vehicle safety inspections that, like the International Registration Plan and Fuel Tax Agreement, were recognized by even the most strictly regulated states. The safety inspections, as well as a national Commercial Drivers License that may be obtained only after passing a competence exam, did lower insurance costs for the industry offsetting the initial expenses.

While Congress was legislating programs intended to make things less complicated for the trucking industry, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mandated clean air laws making it necessary for trucking companies to find ways to utilize low sulfur fuels. Although the industry found it difficult to switch completely to the new fuels, advancements in exhaust purification and newly designed, highly efficient engines lowered emissions considerably.

Figures published during the early 1990s indicated that the trucking industry employed approximately eight million people, including part-time workers. The industry could be broken down into three main categories: those directly employed by trucking companies, those employed by employer groups, and those working for private carrier fleets. Although there was no real trucking union to speak of, a considerable number of truck drivers were members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT). As was the case in most industries, union members tended to receive higher pay than non-union workers. Typically, large trucking companies that employed union workers put 60 to 65 percent of the company's profits aside for wages and benefits. Non-union drivers typically received 40 percent of the company's revenue in the form of wages and benefits. Annual salaries of long-distance drivers varied from $20,000 to $40,000 with a cap of approximately $60,000 for experienced drivers.

Other impacts on the trucking industry included advancements in communications technologies. The proliferation of fax and electronic mail were estimated to have cut nearly $75 million from the industry's annual profit margin. In order to compensate for the losses, the industry was able to carve out a new niche through the zero-inventory management policy used by many companies to reduce overhead costs during the early 1990s. A perfect fit for the trucking industry, this cost-saving policy called for same-day, warehouse-to-customer transportation of parts and manufacturing materials.

Because of competition from communications technologies, production efficiency technology became essential to the trucking industry's ability to compete. Computers mounted in truck dashboards and portable laptops became invaluable tools which freed truckers and company administrators from the tasks of monitoring fuel taxes and fuel management performance, engine performance, results and due dates for trailer inspections and so on. In addition to improvements in the efficiency of administrative duties, companies began utilizing safety applications including radar technology informing truckers when they followed behind another vehicle too closely, shipment planning software maximizing trailer time, and driver simulators.

Since the trucking industry relied on the health of the economy, it continued to be important for the trucking industry to expand into new, non-traditional markets and take advantage of progressing technologies. The trend toward a less restrictive international trade policy enhanced by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) should ensure the industry's prosperity well into the next millennium.


American Trucking Association. Profitable Trucking: A Guide for the Independent Contractor. American Trucking Association, 1981.

Bumper to Bumper: The Complete Guide to Tractor-Trailer Operations, 3rd ed. Tempe, Arizona: Mike Byrnes and Associates, 1998.

Friedlaender, Ann Fetter. Freight Transport Regulation: Equity, Efficiency, and Competition in the Rail and Trucking Industries. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981.

Robyn, Dorothy L. Braking the Special Interests: Trucking Deregulation and the Politics of Policy Reform. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Teske, Eric Paul, Samuel Best, and Michael Mintorm. Deregulating Freight Transportation: Delivering the Goods (AEI Studies in Regulation and Federalism). Washington, DC: AEI Press, 1995.