Trucking is a diverse business. In fact, it's more accurate to describe it as a collection of businesses that happen to use trucks rather than as a single, monolithic industry. Still, every one of those businesses shares a number of important similarities, starting with the trucks and the regulations governing the operation of those trucks, and ranging all the way up to the biggest business issue of them all, the economy.
One of the best places to get a feel for the state of the industry is the annual meeting of the American Trucking Assns. Yes, ATA is primarily interested in representing the for-hire side of trucking, but many of their concerns are shared by private fleets as well. Also, the people who attend ATA's annual gathering are the top executives at companies intimately involved in managing truck fleets as business tools — their opinions are highly informed.
It should, then, be of interest to everyone involved in trucking operations that a few themes stood out at last month's ATA meeting in San Antonio.
First and foremost, people seemed to be in better spirits. The last few years have been tough for all types of business, and trucking has seen more than its share of bankruptcy and consolidation. Although some seemed a bit worried about “waking up the jinx” by publicly declaring good news, the general mood indicated that most feel we've finally begun an economic recovery as indicated by a gradual pickup in freight tonnage. More importantly, there was real optimism about finally getting some real increases in rates.
Industry suppliers, too, anticipate better days ahead. Most are predicting a gradual, but steady increase in truck sales over the next three years, and all report a flurry of inquiries and even orders as fleets begin preparing for a freight recovery.
Although it wasn't enough to dampen the good spirits, many of the fleet executives are concerned about significant productivity losses once the new hours-of-service rules take effect in January. Coming just as economic activity picks up, such losses could cause real disruptions. I suspect such productivity worries motivated the many discussions I heard about improving fleet business processes.
One trend that shows no signs of letting up is trucking's growing reliance on advanced information technology. The show attached to the meeting included a few trucks, but it was mainly populated by software, hardware and IT service exhibits.
In keeping with that mix, the annual meeting has become a popular platform for introducing new IT-related products. This year most of the introductions involved trailer tracking. After years of talking about the technology and dabbling with a few pilot units, fleets it seems are finally beginning to install tracking systems across their entire trailer pools. And trailer-tracking providers are responding by adding new features to their current systems and unveiling their next-generation technology.
Trucking certainly faces its challenges, but after the past few bleak years, the overall sense of excitement and positive activity at this year's ATA gathering was a welcome relief. Let's hope for more of the same next year.