The trucking industry is in the midst of upheaval—and hype
卡车运输业正在经历剧变,以及炒作

前方弯道,危险 Dangerous curves ahead-书迷号 shumihao.com

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.

“在路上”的生活从上世纪80年代起变得艰难了许多。回到那会儿,本专栏记者开着一辆破破烂烂的旧卡车,载着几吨牲口,在美国西部跑了一年。驾驶室太狭窄,没法睡觉。收音机里只有AM电台。当他在洛杉矶北部的“葡萄藤”(Grapevine)这样的路段上蜿蜒前行时,汗水浸湿了他的衬衫,他闻到一股刹车片的焦味。不过,这是一个英国年轻人能期待的最接近田园诗般的随心所欲的生活了。

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.

如今,卡车运输再次卷入了一场划时代的巨变,这场巨变同样也在重塑零售业。主要原因是网上购物。网购减少了从港口到主要商业区的集装箱长途运输,加速了从美国的亚马逊和沃尔玛等零售商的仓库到消费者家门口的小包裹配送。此外,新冠疫情也让人们重新思考供应链。咨询公司麦肯锡认为,这可能会让制造业更靠近本土,增加对公路运输的需求。作为世界上最分散的行业之一,卡车运输业正面临要变得更精简、清洁和自动化的压力。科技业正忙着要颠覆它。奋战在抗疫第一线的卡车司机们正享受着难得被追捧的一刻,他们同时也身处电气化和无人驾驶等变革力量的前沿地带,这些力量虽被大肆炒作,仍可能重塑卡车行业。

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.

短途运输的变化最明显,尤其体现在UPS等物流巨头运营的送货车队上,它们受益于封城时购物者激增的需求,尽管增加了送货上门的成本,利润仍然增长了。数字化也推动了效率提升。网约车巨头优步旗下的运输公司优步货运(Uber Freight)正在开发一款中介应用来匹配运输公司和托运人。在中国,由日本科技集团软银支持的创业公司满帮集团据说也是类似的商业模式。电动卡车即将出现,尽管充斥着泡沫般的炒作。计划出租氢燃料电池驱动汽车的创业公司尼古拉(Nikola)在股市的疯狂亮相让特斯拉看上去成了一项很无聊的投资(特斯拉打算开始在德州生产一款“半挂”重型电动卡车)。尼古拉连一辆车都还没生产出来,更不用说卖了,但最近它的市值几次超过了菲亚特克莱斯勒。这种作秀至少让人们注意到帕卡(PACCAR)和康明斯(Cummins)等更冷静的美国卡车和发动机制造商也有生产电动卡车的计划。亚马逊已经和创业公司Rivian签下了一份50亿美元的订单,购买10万辆电动货车。

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.

最大的颠覆力量是无人驾驶,有人担心它会像中子弹一般袭击卡车运输业,让占到货运成本40%的工作岗位消失不见。自适应巡航控制等驾驶员辅助技术已经成为现实,它可以调整卡车的速度,与前车保持安全距离。美国卡车运输协会的鲍勃·科斯特洛(Bob Costello)表示,配有一位司机在车上的自动驾驶系统将在五年内普及。总部位于加州和中国的创业公司图森未来(TuSimple)7月宣布将与卡车制造商纳威司达(Navistar)合作,在2024年之前生产出半挂式机器人卡车。

Right lane exits

正确的车道出口

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.

无人卡车车队在公路上疾驰的景象可能还有些遥远。对无人卡车的监管还不存在。强大的铁路行业将竭尽全力对抗危及自身未来的技术。卡车司机如果觉得前途渺茫,也会抱怨抗议。科斯特洛认为无人卡车在未来几十年内不会出现。

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. ■

不过,总有一天它们会出现。麦肯锡的约翰·莫尼恩(John Murnane)说,无人电动卡车的好处可能会让人无法抗拒。与此同时,等着看卡车运输业进一步分化吧,那些资本最雄厚的公司将驶入快车道,落后的公司将转向出口匝道。对卡车司机来说,开阔公路上的浪漫会变得更少。但是,随着路程缩短,至少他们睡在驾驶室里的时间也会变少。