The trucking industry is in the midst of upheaval—and hype
LIFE ON THE road has become a lot tougher since the 1980s, when Schumpeter spent a year driving a battered old lorry with several tonnes of four-hooved cargo around the western United States. The cab was too cramped to sleep in. The radio only played AM. And sweat would drench his shirt as he swerved down roads like the “Grapevine”, north of Los Angeles, with the smell of burning brake pads in his nose. Yet it was as close to the idyllic, free-wheelin’ life as a young Brit could hope for.
Not so for the genuine American trucker. Until that decade of deregulatory zeal, truckers were the best-paid members of America’s working class. Their union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, was revered and feared. And the romance of the road was celebrated in 1970s films like “Convoy”. Then came the Motor Carrier Act of 1980, which swept away restrictions on the number of haulage firms, as well as price controls. Union membership plunged and truckers’ livelihoods took a turn for the worse. Their sacrifice benefited the American consumer, though. As Steve Viscelli, a sociologist and author of “The Big Rig”, says, cheaper haulage on the back of lower wages for drivers supported a boom in big-box retailing that has transformed commerce ever since.
对于真正的美国卡车司机来说可不是这样。在监管放松的十年到来之前，卡车司机一直是美国工人阶级中收入最高的群体。他们的工会国际卡车司机协会（International Brotherhood of Teamsters）让人又敬又怕。上世纪70年代像《大车队》（Convoy）这样的电影赞美了公路上的浪漫。之后，《汽车运输法案》（Motor Carrier Act）于1980年出台，取消了对运输公司数量的限制和对价格的管控。工会会员骤减，卡车司机的境况急转直下。不过，他们的牺牲令美国消费者受益。正如《大卡车》（The Big Rig）一书的作者、社会学家史蒂夫·维切利（Steve Viscelli）所说，司机工资降低使得运输成本下降，推动了大型零售业的繁荣，从此改变了商业形态。
Today trucking is once again caught in an epochal upheaval that is also reshaping the retail industry. The main cause is online shopping, which is reducing long-haul delivery of containers from port to Main Street, and speeding up that of smaller packages from warehouses operated by retailers like Amazon and Walmart in America to consumers’ doorsteps. In addition, the experience of covid-19 is leading to a rethink of supply chains, which McKinsey, a consultancy, says may bring manufacturing closer to home and increase demand for road haulage. And as one of the world’s most fragmented industries, trucking is under pressure to become leaner, cleaner and more automated. The tech world is abuzz with efforts to disrupt it. Truckers, enjoying a rare moment of acclaim for their front-line work in the pandemic, are also on the front line of forces such as electrification and autonomous driving which, though overloaded with hype, could reshape their business.
This upheaval has only just begun to attract attention, despite the industry’s size and the fact almost every product travels by lorry. It often gets short shrift. Few would guess, for instance, that in America road-freight revenues are almost $800bn, about the same size as the world’s airline industry. In America and Europe there are 3.5m and about 3m lorry drivers, respectively, making trucking a jobs juggernaut. Yet it is so splintered that it is easy to overlook. China, for instance, has an estimated 8m trucking firms, most of which are one-man shops. America has almost 900,000, 96% of which own fewer than 20 lorries, according to the American Trucking Associations (ATA). In long-haul especially, this fragmentation comes at a high economic cost. The biggest 25 full-trailer (or “truckload”) freight firms in America, led by companies such as J.B. Hunt, account for less than a tenth of industry revenue. They are the most efficient, pay decent wages and are trundling through the pandemic with tolerable results. But the small fry producing the remaining 90% of revenues are in the slow lane. For about a third of the time they are on the road cargo-less—and drivers make no money. The pandemic is making their fortunes even worse.
这场剧变才刚刚开始引起注意，尽管这个行业规模庞大，而且几乎所有商品都靠卡车运输。它常常不被重视。比如，很少有人会想到美国的公路货运收入高达近8000亿美元，和全球航空业的规模差不多。在美国和欧洲分别有350万和约300万名卡车司机，这让卡车运输业成了大雇主。但这个行业太过分散，容易被忽视。例如，中国估计有800万家卡车运输公司，其中大部分是个体户。根据美国卡车运输协会（American Trucking Associations）的数据，美国大约有90万家，其中96%只有不到20辆卡车。这样的分散带来了高昂的经济成本，尤其是在长途运输中。以J.B.亨特（J.B. Hunt）等公司为首的美国最大的25家全挂车（或者叫“整车运输”）货运公司的营收不到行业总收入的十分之一。它们是行业中最高效的公司，支付体面的工资，并且正在熬过疫情，财务状况尚可。但那些生成了剩下九成收入的小公司还行驶在慢车道上。大约有三分之一的时间它们的卡车都在路上空跑，司机也就赚不到钱。疫情让它们的运势变得越发糟糕。
Change is clearest in the short-haul segment, most recognisable in the fleets of delivery vehicles operated by logistics giants such as UPS, which have benefited from surging demand from locked-down shoppers, and increased profits despite the extra cost of door-to-door deliveries. Digitisation is helping improve efficiency, too. Uber Freight, the ride-hailing giant’s shipping arm, is developing a brokerage app to match carriers with shippers. In China, Full Truck Alliance, a startup backed by SoftBank, a Japanese technology group, is said to have a similar business model. E-trucks are on the horizon, albeit bedecked with bubblelike hoopla. The wild stockmarket debut of Nikola, a startup that plans to lease vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells, makes Tesla (which wants to start making a massive “semi” e-truck in Texas) look like a boring investment. At some times recently Nikola, which has yet to produce, let alone sell, a single vehicle, has been worth more than Fiat Chrysler. At least the histrionics have drawn attention to plans by more sober American truck- and engine-makers like PACCAR and Cummins to manufacture e-vehicles. Amazon has a $5bn order with Rivian, a startup, for 100,000 electric vans.
The biggest force of disruption is autonomous driving, which some fear could hit trucking like a neutron bomb, killing jobs that account for as much as 40% of freight costs. “Driver-assist” technology such as adaptive cruise control, which adjusts a lorry’s speed to keep a safe distance from vehicles in front, is already a reality. Bob Costello of the ATA says that the use of autopilot with a driver on board could be common within five years. TuSimple, a startup based in California and China, in July announced a partnership with Navistar, a truckmaker, to build semi-articulated robot trucks by 2024.
Right lane exits
The spectre of platoons of driverless lorries barrelling down highways is probably some way off. Regulation for self-driving trucks is non-existent. The powerful rail industry will fight tooth and nail against a technology that imperils its future. Truckers, too, will raise a stink if they feel they have no prospects. Driverless cabs will not be here for decades, says Mr Costello.
One day they will come, though. The benefits of autonomous and electric trucking may be too powerful to resist, says John Murnane of McKinsey. In the meantime expect a further split in the trucking industry, with the best-capitalised firms in the fast lane and the also-rans headed for the off-ramp. For truckers, even less of the romance of the open road will remain. But as journeys shorten, at least they will sleep in the cab less often. ■