The American Trucking Associations (ATA) estimates the U.S. has approximately 3.5 million Class 8 trucks (semi tractor-trailers) operating with over 5.7 million commercial drivers. More than 210,000 trucking companies transported 16.18 billion tons of freight in 2018, which is up significantly from 10.55 billion in 2016. In addition, ATA expects tonnage to increase to 20.7 billion tons or by 28 percent by 2028. If the forecast is realized, the trucking market will continue to need more Class 8 trucks and truck drivers.
Truck capacity is booked either by spot market or through a contract rate. The spot rate is the market rate, while the contract rate is a forward contract. The advantage of a contract rate is knowing the future freight price and ensuring available truck capacity. Due to the world soybean market being dependent on unpredictable variables such as weather patterns and government policy, the origination and destination locations are not always known a year prior. As a result, most soybean truck volume is spot business transported by small trucking companies and farming organizations.
In 2018, the impact of the electronic logging device (ELD) mandate in tandem with a strong U.S. economy translated into lack of truck capacity and higher freight rates. Any moves to or from the farm that are located within 150 air miles of the farm are exempt from ELD regulations
Carriers responded to the higher rates by ordering new trucks, paying drivers more, and increasing driver recruitment efforts. FTR reports several Original Equipment Manufacturers’ (OEM) building capacity is booked for 2019. Class 8 orders for the past 12 months are over 420,000 units.
Don Ake, FTR vice president of commercial vehicles, commented, “Fleets that need to order trucks are looking for any available open build slot, regardless of brand. Specifying is also more difficult as the supply chain for parts and components stays tight. Production continues at high rates, as OEMs build those record orders that were placed in 2018.” He continued, “The freight market started off the year strong and carriers have still been able to hire enough drivers to expand their fleets. Trucking capacity is not in the chaotic state it was in 2018, but business remains vibrant. Some moderation in freight growth is expected in the second half of the year and this should loosen things up a bit.”
In 2018, finding available truck capacity was a challenge. In 2019, the trucking industry is expecting truck capacity availability to improve. If the U.S. economy continues to grow, freight volume will increase and truck capacity availability will shrink.
The long-term answer is for a steady supply of new drivers. The answer sounds simple, but a potential driver must meet age requirements, commercial driver’s license testing standards, strict drug and alcohol testing regimes, and have a safe and clean driving record. Many communities and transportation companies have truck driving training programs to increase the number of drivers available to potential employers. Early returns in 2019 suggest these efforts are paying dividends.