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Economic concerns top trucking industry’s worries going into 2024

Oct. 17, 2023
With costs rising as freight demand decreases, fleets and drivers are worried about the U.S. economy, according to ATRI’s annual survey of industry stakeholders. Zero-emission vehicles debut in the Top 10.

AUSTIN, Texas—“The economy—and not in a good way.”

That was how Rebecca Brewster, president and COO of the American Transportation Research Institute, announced the top issue facing the trucking industry heading into 2024. Truck parking, fuel prices, driver shortage, and driver pay rounded out the top five issues, according to more than 4,000 transportation stakeholders surveyed by ATRI this year.

Zero-emission vehicles debuted at No. 10 on the 19th annual Top Industry Issues report, which also named lawsuit abuse reform, driver distraction, driver retention, and detention/delay at customer facilities among the most pressing issues facing U.S. motor carriers and drivers. 

The economy first debuted on ATRI’s list during the Great Recession in 2008, debuting at No. 2 before topping the list for the next three years. “Echoing a lot of the concerns that we, as an industry, experienced back then, we see a lot of that now,” Brewster noted during ATRI’s presentation on the opening day of American Trucking Associations' Management Conference & Exhibition here in the Texas capital. “We have high inflation, we have decreased freight demand, we have rising operational costs, and we have fuel prices as the No. 3 issue.”

See also: How truck drivers can improve fuel efficiency

Trucking total marginal costs hit a new high in 2022 after 21.3% to $2.251 per mile, according to ATRI’s 2023 Operation Costs of Trucking report. Fuel was the main driver of that increase (53.7% higher than in 2021), but other expenses, such as driver wages, went up 15.5% to 72.4 cents per mile.

This was the first time operational costs topped $2 per mile, according to Brewster. “I don’t think it’s going to drop down below that for the foreseeable future."

The economy has a ripple effect on the entire industry. “Obviously, when it slows down, there’s less freight to haul, which at the end of the day is going to affect things like paychecks and compensation,” Dean Key, a driver for Ruan Transportation Management Systems (No. 32 on the FleetOwner 500: For-Hire list), said during the ATRI presentation. “And it seems like when the economy does slow down, the prices still keep going up. So it’s kind of a double-edged sword.”

Top 10 trucking industry concerns of 2023

The annual ATRI report examines the trucking industry as a whole and divides it into carrier and driver concerns (and this year, ATRI added a smaller list of law enforcement concerns). Here is a look at 2023’s top trucking industry concerns: 

1. Economy (No. 5 in 2022)

The economy is now the top concern for the trucking industry, up four spots from last year. Inflation, rising interest rates, diesel prices, reduced freight demand, and declining rates all impact fleets and drivers. The outlook for the rest of the year is uncertain, given challenges such as the resumption of student loan payments and the temporary stop-gap funding of the federal government, which is set to expire in November.

2. Truck Parking (No. 3 in 2022)

The lack of available truck parking first appeared in the Top 10 in 2012 and has been a top five issue since 2015, reaching its highest ranking this year as the No. 2 overall concern. This issue has been an industry concern since 1992 when the U.S. Senate directed the Federal Highway Administration to study the adequacy of truck parking at public rest areas and private truck stops. 

Several decades later, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in 2021 led to increased funding for truck parking projects. The lack of truck parking can lead to drivers parking illegally, creating safety hazards and congestion. It can also lead to drivers being forced to drive tired, increasing the risk of accidents. 

3. Fuel prices (No. 1 in 2022)

Fuel prices moved down two spots this year to No. 3. ATRI’s 2023 Operational Costs of Trucking costs rose 53.7% per mile compared to the year prior, with fuel accounting for 28% of total operating costs. This was the highest since 2014. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average monthly diesel price per gallon dropped through the first half of this year from 2022 highs due to the slowing economy. In July, however, it began increasing again due to OPEC production cuts. 

The September 2023 average price per gallon was $4.563. High diesel prices are incredibly challenging for owner-operators, who ranked fuel prices as their top concern for the third year in a row. 

4. Driver shortage (No. 2 in 2022)

The driver shortage dropped for the second year, falling to No. 4. Estimates for the labor shortage were down from previous years, with an estimated 64,000 drivers needed. When freight demand is as soft as it was in late 2022 and into this year, fleets slow driver hiring and, in some cases, lay drivers off. The last time the driver shortage experienced a similar drop in ranking in this survey was during the Great Recession, reaching its lowest rank of No. 6 overall in 2009.

5. Driver compensation (No. 4 in 2022)

Driver compensation fell one spot to No. 5 overall. Data from ATRI’s 2023 Operational Costs of Trucking research showed that driver wages increased 15.5% over the previous year, with the combined driver wage and benefits figure (90.7 cents per mile) reaching its highest figure since the Operational Costs research launched in 2008. However, the current operational costs report uses 2022 data, so ATRI noted it is possible that the softer freight demand this year negatively impacted wages, thus pushing compensation back to the top of the drivers’ list of concerns.

6. Lawsuit abuse reform (No. 10 in 2022)

Lawsuit abuse reform, or tort reform, is again climbing the ATRI ranks as a top industry concern. It is sixth overall and third among motor carriers. Tort reform is one of three issues—along with fuel costs and driver shortage—that made the inaugural Top 10 concerns in 2005 and today. The need for lawsuit abuse reform is closely tied to another top industry concern: insurance cost and availability, which was No. 6 on the motor carrier list, as the frequency and size of verdicts and settlements against carriers have grown in recent years. This has increased insurance premiums for all carriers, regardless of safety performance and crash involvement.  

7. Driver distraction

Driver distraction debuted on the Top 10 list in 2014 at No. 10. It peaked at No. 7 in 2018 and did not make the Top 10 again until this year. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that 3,522 people were killed in traffic crashes in 2021 that were found to be distraction-related crashes; 410 of those died in crashes involving at least one driver engaged in cell-phone-related activities. Among law enforcement respondents in this year’s survey, driver distraction was the top concern.

8. Driver retention (No. 7 in 2022) 

Likely the result of the softer freight market starting in late 2022, driver retention dropped another spot this year to No. 8 overall. Even among motor carrier respondents, driver retention dropped two spots this year to No. 4. 

While driver shortage, compensation, and retention are related to workforce issues, the strategies to address each are distinct, according to ATRI’s findings. One strategy to encourage retention is using retention bonuses. ATRI’s 2023 Operational Costs of Trucking found that the average retention bonus was $1,272—up nearly 90% over the past four years.

9. Detention/delay at customer facilities (No. 6 in 2022)

Detention/delay at customer facilities saw the most significant ranking drop in the Top 10, down three spots from No. 6 in 2022 to No. 9 overall this year. Like other issues in the 2023 Top 10, the drop could be a function of softened freight demand that can reduce the time spent loading and unloading freight. However, this temporary lessening of detention does not fix this long-standing, perennial challenge for the supply chain.  ATRI’s Research Advisory Committee prioritized detention study this year.

10. Zero-emission vehicles

Zero-emission vehicles made the Top 10 list for the first time. Its emergence as a top industry concern is not a surprise, with state and federal agencies creating aggressive timelines pushing the industry to transition fleet vehicles from internal combustion engines. The impacts on the trucking industry are particularly challenging given the extremely high costs of ZEVs and the lack of charging infrastructure nationwide.

How drivers' and carriers’ priorities differ

“ATRI’s list thoroughly and accurately reflects the challenges we’ve faced this year,” ATA Chairman Dan Van Alstine, president of Ruan Transportation, said. “Costs were up, and demand was down, all while we worked to navigate a number of workforce and regulatory issues. Thankfully, ATRI’s analysis doesn’t just tell us what the issues are—it spells out a number of data-driven strategies that the industry can pursue to address them.” 

The overall survey responses were 47% motor carrier executives and personnel, 29% truck drivers, and the rest were made up of other industry stakeholders. The top three concerns of driver respondents were driver compensation, truck parking, and fuel prices. The top three concerns of motor carriers were the economy, driver shortage, and lawsuit abuse reform. 

More than 4,000 trucking industry stakeholders participated in this year's survey, including motor carriers, truck drivers, industry suppliers, driver trainers, and law enforcement. For the first time, law enforcement personnel represented nearly 5% of respondents, so the report includes a ranking of the top three law enforcement concerns.

Here is a breakdown of how these three groups ranked the top issues this year (2022 rankings are in parentheses for carriers and drivers):

Motor carriers’ top 10 issues of 2023

  1. Economy (5)
  2. Driver shortage (1)
    1. Lawsuit abuse reform (6)
      1. Driver retention (2)
        1. Fuel prices (3)
          1. Insurance cost/availability (7)
            1. Zero-emission vehicles (not ranked)
              1. Truck parking (10)
                1. Diesel technician shortage (8)
                  1. Driver distraction (not ranked)

                    Commercial drivers’ top 10 issues of 2023

                    1. Driver compensation (3)
                    2. Truck parking (1)
                      1. Fuel prices (2)
                        1. Speed limiters (5)
                          1. Detention/delay at customer facilities (4)
                            1. Driver training standards (9)
                              1. Economy (6)
                                1. Broker issues (not ranked)
                                  1. ELD mandate (8)
                                    1. Autonomous trucks (not ranked)

                                    Law enforcement’s top three trucking issues of 2023 

                                    1. Driver distraction
                                    2. Hours of service rules
                                      1. Driver training standards

                                        The complete report can be downloaded at ATRI's website.

                                        About the Author

                                        Josh Fisher | Technology Editor

                                        Josh Fisher is the technology editor for Fleet Owner.

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