In May 2020, with the coronavirus pandemic in its infancy, a chain of colorful big rigs parked along Constitution Avenue in Washington, DC, for nearly three weeks. Horns blared as idling truck drivers protested sinking pay, rising insurance costs and lack of transparency from the brokers who set their rates to transport goods. In a Roll Call video, an organizer described what it was about: "All the things that were brought to the stores ... [truckers] brought it, and they're the ones who got screwed in the end."
The modest-size demonstration went largely unnoticed by the American public. But it represented something much larger that affects us all.
What would happen if all the 3.5 million truck drivers in the US stopped working for just three days? It wouldn't take long for America to resemble a sci-fi dystopia: Grocery store shelves would go bare, hospitals would run out of medical equipment, computer and vehicle parts would dry up, fuel tanks would go empty. Consider some of the shortages we witnessed through early COVID-19 times, like meat and cleaning supplies, but in an exponential ripple.
"The world would come to a stop," said Ricky Rodriguez, a flatbed truck driver who works 12 to 14 hours a day hauling steel, aluminum and lumber through the Midwest. Paul Marhoefer, aka "Long Haul Paul," a veteran trucker and host of the eight-part Over the Road podcast, was equally blunt in response: "The biggest effect would be on the psyche of the nation."
Trucks are the linchpin of the economy, responsible for moving 72% of all the goods we consume. They're a critical link in the supply chain for both goods arriving in ships from abroad and those made in the US. Every product that goes from an American port or factory to your doorstep rides on a truck at some point. Like intrepid pilots of the highway, truckers collectively travel 450 billion miles each year to haul those loads for consumers, carrying 11 billion tons of merchandise, electronics, supplies and produce.
"Trucks will continue to be the dominant freight transportation mode for the foreseeable future," Chris Spear, president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations, said before a Senate committee in May.
Still, many of us don't think beyond our one-second "Buy Now" click, or how our online shopping builds a demand for freight carried by trucks. We just want our mass-produced items, the bulk of which are made overseas, cheaper and faster, as CNET reporter Ian Sherr spells out in the opening story of our Made in America summer series.
So what do we really know about the invisible life behind the wheel? And as manufacturing continues to be outsourced and as vehicles shift to natural gas and electric, will America just keep on truckin' in the same way?
To find out the answers to those questions and more, I spent time talking to truckers, industry experts and executives from companies specializing in self-driving vehicles. With so much hype around new robots on wheels replacing the jobs of millions of truckers, I wanted to understand how these hauling machines have evolved, how they'll survive seismic shifts in automation, and how some truck drivers are working 80 hours a week and still going broke.
One thing is certain: Even with such promised innovation, the $800 billion trucking industry isn't going to disappear.
The first thing to know is that there's not just one kind of truck, nor is there an "average truck driver." As consumers, we tend to have the most direct contact with the parcel and delivery workers from UPS, FedEx or Amazon who hand us our packages. But they're just a subsection of the trucking industry.
There are trucks that haul combined shipments from different businesses and those that transport specialized or dangerous goods like heavy equipment, trash, gasoline or chemicals. There are local and regional drivers who make short trips to service stores and retail outlets. Then there are port truckers who collect cargo in the colossal shipping containers at the docks, and intermodal workers who move freight between different modes of transport, like rail, ship and plane.
If you're on a barren highway at nightand you see a halo of headlights, or you're boxed into the slow lane on the interstate by an 18-wheeler, it's probably an over-the-road driver. These long-haul truckers spend weeks or months crisscrossing the country over vast distances from production sites to distribution centers. They're carrying what are called "full truckload" shipments of more than 10,000 pounds on a 53-foot trailer, which will be either a "dry van" or a "reefer" (a trailer with a refrigeration unit).
Those kinds of big rigs are named "semis" because a detachable rear-wheel trailer attaches to the tractor towing it. And they shaped the American economy in a profound way.
During World War I, the semi truck offered an alternative to the congested railroad for the transport of military cargo, and their use boomed during the Great Depression, in large part due to food. As families were struggling to feed themselves cheaply, the budding trucking industry allowed farms and businesses to get their goods faster and more directly to market than trains could. Soon, trucking became the dominant mode of freight transport, and with the launching of the interstate highway system in 1956, trucks could carry goods from coast to coast without a hitch.
Today, the rail, aviation and ocean shipping sectors couldn't survive without trucks acting as the connective band between them. And that's become more critical with the boom of e-commerce and just-in-time manufacturing, which reduces inventory costs, cuts waste and calls for the production of what customers want in the timeframe they want it. But it also means that any interruption to the country's lean and fragile supply chain has a burdensome impact on workers, who have to keep producing and delivering without delays.
The pandemic took a heavy toll on truckers, who kept everything rolling: emergency goods, medical components, electronics, food and basic supplies. They risked their safety and health traveling through areas hit hard by the virus. Market disruptions from international lockdowns and clogged ports, combined with consumers panic buying, clobbered the global supply chain and every link in it, as CNET's Kent German points out in his Made in America story.
That meant drivers were subjected to intense bottlenecks and prolonged hours to pick up and deliver freight. Rodriguez told me it was also stressful dealing with shippers' quarantine restrictions because he didn't know if he'd be given access to their facilities.
Ellen Voie, the president and CEO of the nonprofit Women in Trucking Association, said drivers weren't provided with personal protective equipment when supplies were limited and that many states also closed their rest areas. Voie noted that it was particularly difficult for women -- who make up just 10% of all truck drivers -- to find a bathroom or a shower. Overall, she noted, women drivers face higher risk and have to be "especially sensitive to being situationally aware to protect themselves."
Yet one woman trucker I spoke with saw the COVID-era as a beckoning for a fresh career. Nasrin Naderi, an immigrant from Afghanistan, went to trucking school and got her commercial driver's license, or CDL, in 2020 after she realized she could no longer rely on her previous employment in restaurants or hotels, or with Uber and Lyft.
Now Naderi makes solid wages hauling a double trailer for a company that contracts with FedEx, transporting everything from car tires to furniture. Her goal for next year is to purchase her own vehicle and start a trucking company. In the meantime, she shares her road stories on TikTok, largely to inspire other single immigrant mothers to enter the male-dominated trucking industry. The most exciting part of the job? Being able to travel, see the country and feel alive. "When I'm driving, it's like one big movie in front of me, with no filters."
Over a century ago, American trucks had to travel on poor rural roads with solid (airless) tires and a 15-mph speed limit. Improvements came in the following decades: brakes and power-assisted steering, weight standards and diesel engines, which increased fuel efficiency. Today, trucks have become more comfortable and easier machines to drive. When Marhoefer started driving in 1979, there was no such thing as a "to-go" cup, so he had to haunt truck-stop diners to get a caffeine rush. Now he's got a coffee maker and a crockpot in his cab, an automatic transmission and seats that feel like those in a minivan.
Still, he misses "the craft" of driving. There was a certain pride in manually maneuvering an 18-speed monster weighing 80,000 pounds, with only a smudged convex mirror and a crackling CB radio.
Though not all trucks are outfitted with them, many technologies exist to improve safety and prevent loss of control on the road. There are "trailer health" sensors to warn of problems with tires, hubs and brakes, not to mention optical cameras, adaptive cruise control and collision avoidance systems. And GPS navigation has slowly thrown those clunky paper maps in the dustbin of history. When deciding whether to equip their vehicles with advanced hardware and software, trucking fleets have to assess: Will the installation and maintenance be a profitable investment? And is the new technology actually ready for prime time?
According to Deborah Lockridge, editor-in-chief of the magazine Heavy Duty Trucking, the biggest changes for over-the-road drivers in the last few decades revolve around these kinds of technologies, which, "depending on the trucker, might be for better or for worse." For example, she noted how in-cab cameras record what's happening on the road ahead, which can incentivize safe driving and reduce a trucker's liability after a crash.
Harry Fernandez, a trucker who delivers Amazon orders to warehouses in Florida, said that many drivers feel those cameras allow employers to spy, but he thinks they're a huge help. "It's a way of protecting us," he said.
Even the most important trucking technologies are "all kind of a mixed bag," according to Steve Viscelli, author of The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream. Viscelli, who spent six months as a long-distance trucker to research his book, told me that satellite-linked computers give managers more power to track drivers' speed and location, introducing "big brother" into the cab.
Government-mandated electronic logging devices, which are synchronized to the truck's engine and record every second on the road, have been the most controversial among truckers. The ELD, or elog, is meant to enforce a federal law that drivers don't exceed their maximum of 11 hours of driving in a 14-hour period. But ELD mandates also give truckers no control over their schedules or breaks and make their jobs less flexible. If drivers exceed their on-duty hours, they could risk a federal violation or a fine.
Viscelli said that long-haul truckers often feel they've been downgraded to "professional steering wheel holders" because technology has deskilled the job over the last decade -- drivers don't need to read a map, shift gears or manage their own time. And modern logistics and shiny app technology hasn't translated into efficiency gains for drivers, who still spend hours waiting for loads or for delivery appointments, even more so with the supply chain strained under COVID. More often than not, this nondriving wait time is unpaid since most truckers receive compensation based on the number of miles they ride.
As for an eco-(un)friendly reputation, the typical semi truck produces far more carbon dioxide than the standard passenger vehicle, gets an average of six miles per gallon and guzzles 20,000 gallons of diesel a year. Medium and heavy-duty trucks are responsible for about 14.5% of total US oil consumption and represent a quarter of the transportation sector's overall greenhouse gas emissions.
Though some truck manufacturers have made steps toward leaner and cleaner, solutions to improve truck performance and fuel economy haven't been widely commercialized. One example is the Freightliner SuperTruck, which came about from a 2009 Department of Energy initiative, boasting an 115% improvement in fuel efficiency and logging an average of 12 miles per gallon.
A major challenge with long-haul trucks is the fact that they operate in two distinct environments, each requiring different technologies to make them more efficient. On the interstate, which was designed for fast travel over long distances, trucks could benefit from better aerodynamics to eliminate drag and reduce fuel consumption. But in congested urban areas, where drivers deal with traffic and pedestrians, and spend time maneuvering and braking, trucks could benefit from hybrid electric motors to limit pollution.
From 1935 to 1980, trucking was like a public utility. The US government regulated all aspects of the industry, set freight rates for commodities (except agriculture) and limited new competition by carriers. Truckers were some of the highest-paid blue collar workers -- equivalent to up to $110,000 a year when adjusted to today's wages -- with solid benefits, especially the fleets run by the Teamsters union.
The 1970s was "the golden age," when movies like Smokey the Bandit and Convoy were trending and free-wheelin' cowboys were cool.
But that all changed when the US government deregulated the trucking industry with the Motor Carrier Act of 1980. That legislation removed restrictions on the number of haulage firms and got rid of price controls on truckload shipments. With shippers able to move freight cheaper and faster, the gritty competition of the free market prevailed in a "race to the bottom" atmosphere.
Today, practically anyone can jump start a trucking business in the US: There are 1.2 million of them, and 90% of them operate with fewer than seven trucks. The major shippers and big-box retailers like Walmart and Amazon, which have expanded their supplier networks and distribution centers, have reaped the benefits. Along with increased reliance on the globalized trade market, trucking deregulation in 1980 made it possible for American consumers to have wider access to goods, and at much lower prices.
But it also drove down truckers' livelihoods and wages by some 50%, as noted by an Insider analysis. In 2020, the average annual salary for truck drivers was $47,000. Most long-haul truckers, who are paid on a per-mile basis and generally exempt from overtime, earn far less.
Union membership also plunged with the explosion of new low-wage nonunion carriers. While the Teamsters represented the majority of all truck drivers 40 years ago, now they represent around 2%. Truckers' collective bargaining power declined along with safety and stability, said Michael Belzer, author of the book Sweatshops on Wheels: Winners and Losers in Trucking Deregulation.
Though you'll find news stories talking about a "nationwide shortage" of truck drivers, many industry analysts say the real problem is the retention of drivers due to grueling work conditions and low pay. Long-haul truckers have a turnover rate of more than 90%. In NPR's Planet Money, Viscelli suggested why: "The entry-level jobs are terrible."
For example, those who are classified as "independent" owner-operators or contract drivers are saddled with covering the costs of maintenance, insurance, fuel and other expenses, so it's not uncommon for them, as detailed in Viscelli's book, to work the same as two full-time jobs and pocket what would amount to less than the federal hourly minimum wage of $7.25. From the start, some contractors wind up in the red, owing money to the trucking company that leases their vehicle.
Rodriguez told me his income is usually reasonable, but since he gets paid per mile and per stop and can't collect overtime, his earnings fluctuate based on traffic conditions, road construction and time spent dealing with customers. "There are definitely days where it's not worth it at all," he said.
Marhoefer described an "unseen caste system in trucking," where company drivers employed by known carriers with stronger labor contracts get an easier ride, such as more predictable schedules, steady wages and other perks. But other drivers have to hustle to find loads by negotiating with third-party freight brokers. He called it the "Wild West" of unregulated trucking and pointed to a paradox: These so-called independent outlaws -- often lured into the job with the promise of being a small business owner -- are actually getting swindled by middlemen.
When an extra mile on the road means an extra penny, truckers are under pressure to traverse deeper into the hinterland to escape that load of debt. An over-the-road driver can average up to 125,000 miles per year. Some live in a perpetual state of houselessness, snoozing in the small room behind the driver's seat -- a sleeper cab -- and bathing at truck stops. Marhoefer told me that while some truckers are born with the "virus of restlessness" (the one that author John Steinbeck describes at the beginning of his book Travels with Charley: In Search of America), those who love the journey still also love to return home.
Naderi, for example, spends five days and nights on the road every week, alternating 12-hour driving shifts with a second trucker. That means she lives, eats, works and sleeps in a tiny space most of the time and only goes home to her kids in 48-hour stints.
Aside from the emotional weight of lacking contact with family and friends, drivers experience intense physical side effects from having to breathe in endless exhaust and diesel fumes. They have a predominantly sedentary lifestyle, with almost no time to exercise. The majority of truckers also have diets consisting of fast food and high sodium content, resulting in a prevalence of high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity, and truckers are at least twice as likely to smoke as the general public. Nearly 40% of truck drivers, whose average age is 55, also lack health insurance or sick leave.
Irregular sleep patterns on the open road cause excessive fatigue, which is the leading cause of trucking accidents. In 2019, 892 big rig drivers and their passengers died, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The occupation of "truck driver" is the most common job in half of US states, but it's also considered one of the most dangerous jobs in America.
In May, a self-driving truck picked up a load of fresh watermelons from Nogales, Arizona, and transported it across four states to Oklahoma City in 14 hours. With no human behind the wheel (but someone in the vehicle as a fail-safe), the trip took about half the usual time. TuSimple, the company behind the demonstration and the first autonomous vehicle company to go public, plans to do more of these runs in a pilot program later this year, just without a human safety driver on board.
Autonomous trucks are the result of decades of technology and investment from leading institutions, the Department of Defense, car manufacturers and Silicon Valley companies. And there are multiple companies and startups beyond TuSimple in for the ride.
Sam Abidi, head of business development at Embark, a company producing self-driving semis, said autonomous trucks provide better safety, speed, sustainability and savings. Because a self-driving semi can stay on the road longer, covering twice the distance without a rest or bathroom break, you can double a truck's productivity.
"It allows you to have more slack in your supply chain," he said. Autonomous trucks also could help reduce air pollution and greenhouse gasses by optimizing tires and aerodynamics for speed and fuel efficiency.
Nonetheless, there are many real-world bumps in the road. Autonomous vehicles can't navigate heavy traffic conditions or crowded city roads with pedestrians. To accommodate that, self-driving truck companies insert human drivers for the short hauls out of towns, and switch over to fully autonomous mode for the long-distance portion on the highway, aka "the middle mile." They also have to find a way to account for all weather conditions, particularly snow, and noncompliant motorists, according to Jim Mullen, TuSimple's CEO.
Mullen said another obstacle is convincing the public that this technology is going to be safer than a human driver. Advanced sensor systems, cameras, radar and lidar provide a longer range of visibility, and TuSimple trucks are loaded with supercomputers using dozens of AI modules capable of deep learning algorithms through high-definition mapping at various data points. Plus, he noted that autonomous vehicles remove the human factors that cause the bulk of fatal accidents, like fatigue, driver distraction and driver impairment.
Abidi predicts that the rollout of self-driving semis won't resemble the way a new iPhone gets snatched up the day after its release. Instead, it will look more like 5G, penetrating certain markets before it gradually expands its coverage. Both Embark and TuSimple anticipate running freight by fully autonomous vehicles along the sunbelt from California to Florida by 2024.
Viscelli said that enough money, planning and tech could definitely allow a truck without a human to transport commodities. But that doesn't mean it's feasible or profitable to do it every day, and that doesn't mean that infrastructure and policy will accommodate it.
Voie, who's been working in the trucking industry since 1979, thinks it's unlikely we'll see self-driving trucks in the near future. But she emphasized that the trucking industry today needs to take the lead in featuring the same technology that is part of the autonomous truck area in order to attract younger drivers with both a safer and "sexier" image.
How would truckers withstand such changes anyway? Some studies have forecast that autonomous vehicles could eliminate up to 80% of all trucking jobs over the next few years. Fernandez said that self-driving trucks will ruin the workforce and that sometimes technology makes us "too prosperous for our own good."
The next time you do the universal arm pump gesture to get a long-haul driver to honk, think about that. There's a celebrated tradition to that booming horn as well.