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What trucking can learn from the gas shortage

May 13, 2021
The gas shortage was caused by many factors, and while trucking can't stop foreign hackers, the industry can act to address the driver shortage that exacerbated the situation.

What happens when you combine a pandemic, rising insurance premiums, and a cyberattack on the largest fuel supplier for the Eastern Seaboard?

If you’re in a place like Atlanta, you get long lines at many gas stations, while as of the morning of May 12, 71% were completely out, according to Patrick De Haan, an analyst for Gas Buddy, an app that tracks fuel prices. He also tweeted that three out of four stations are closed in many North Carolina cities, from Asheville to Greenville, while two-thirds of stations are running dry in Norfolk and Newport News, Va., a major shipping and military hub. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard for logistical support.

The largest factor of this crisis, reminiscent of the 1970s gas lines during the Middle East oil embargo, was a ransomware attack on the Colonial Pipeline perpetrated by the hacking syndicate called DarkSide. Colonial supplies 45% of the fuel for the East Coast and the attack from May 7 was still causing major disruptions nearly a week later.

But issues stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic were already affecting the nation’s fuel supply. Last spring and summer, demand for gas dropped due to the shutdowns, with April 2020 dropping 50% from the previous year. Some drivers in the fuel-hauling sector sought other more stable routes, while others left the profession altogether. In April 2020, trucking lost 88,300 jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Procurement solution provider Beroe Inc. estimated the bulk tanker market had 63,000 vacancies as of April, and the global market for tanker truckers will reach 174,000 by 2026.

Fleet utilization dropped dramatically, according to data from Intellishift, a driver management platform. During the demand drop, large fleets customers saw a 10-15% drop in vehicles on the road, while overall utilization declined by 25%. “Instead of 100% efficiency, they were only at the 90%,” explained Intellishift CTO Ryan Wilkinson.

Wilkinson called the convergence of unfortunate events that led to these long gas lines and a “perfect storm.” A major reason these storm clouds creeped up on the industry is because demand became so difficult to predict.

“Forecasts are extremely challenging during COVID, because you don't really know what's coming next,” he offered.

The data indicate fleets are becoming more active. Over the last two months, Intellishift has seen a rise in utilization, rising to meet increased demand as more regions open up due to the vaccine rollout and relaxation of shutdown measures. The impediment now is that restoring the fuel hauling fleets back to full strength is not an easy proposition.

“Getting back to normal in some of these transportation segments isn't just a flip of the switch, right?” Wilkinson pointed out. “It's not like they've got these trucks sitting idle with operators that can be ready at a day's notice.”

Another obstacle is that some smaller fleets had to shut down, as the drop in demand coincided with a rise in insurance premiums. A Truckload Carriers Association (TCA) poll found its carrier members experienced a 15% premium hike last year. Then there’s that pesky driver shortage. It’s something that has been talked about for decades, but as more truckers retire or move to the office, the lines at gas stations now will look quaint if the issue is not addressed. The American Trucking Associations predicted a need for 1.1 million drivers by 2030.

“The increase in the driver shortage should be a warning to carriers, shippers and policymakers because if conditions don’t change substantively, our industry could be short just over 100,000 drivers in five years and 160,000 drivers in 2028,” said Bob Costello, ATA chief economist, in 2019.

Many problems call for many solutions. Fleets may not be able to stop foreign cybercriminals, but they can clean up some of their own messes.

Tech-savvy reinforcements

The Colonial catastrophe will be resolved at some point, and hopefully that will spur the public and private sectors to take a more serious look at cybersecurity. That is out of the trucking industry’s hands, though. The transportation sector can and should mitigate the issues that created the current fuel hauler driver shortage, Wilkinson said.

One area that needs improvement is bringing in new drivers.

That is why he is optimistic about the DRIVE-Safe Act, which rolls off the tongue easier than “Developing Responsible Individuals for a Vibrant Economy Act.” This proposed legislation would allow commercial driver’s license holders under the age of 21 to undergo a 400-hour apprentice program where they can participate in interstate commerce. The trucks must be equipped with certain advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) and they cannot haul hazardous material such as fuel for the first 120-hour period.

“Some of those thoughts and ideas can definitely help what's going on with the driver shortage causing these challenges today,” he said.

The technology component most interests Wilkinson, because it gives credence to what safety advocates within the industry have been championing: More tech equals more safety.

The DRIVE-Safe ACT specifically calls for active braking collision mitigation systems, forward-facing cameras, adaptive cruise control and speed governors set to 65 mph.

He compared the push for more ADAS to the electronic logging device mandates put in place a few years ago in America, and more recently in Canada.

“This technology appeals to the younger audience that we're trying to get into the industry, and it also does make the truck and roadways safer,” Wilkinson said.

The Intellishift platform uses dual cameras, one inward to monitor the driver and one overlooking the road ahead, along with lane departure warning, so Wilkinson is familiar with how resistant some drivers may be to the Big Brother aspect of having a camera always watching.

“Driver behavior monitoring was kind of used as like a hammer,” he recalled of when the technology was first introduced. “That's the way it was positioned, and that got a negative connotation from drivers and field workers.”

Now, the data from these cameras is more assistive and able to provide data such as heading for the driver, and has been shown to exonerate them during accidents. Wilkinson believes that because younger people are more used to being tracked via their smart devices, with location data used to suggest a nearby restaurant, for example, that they will embrace the technology, as well as the "gameified" experience fleets can create.

Wilkinson said some fleets use Intellishift in the Field as a gamification tool to rank drivers based on performance, with unwanted behaviors such as harsh braking negatively affecting their score. The top performers would receive paid time off or gift cards for finishing at the top of the fleet.

“The younger audience is more accepting of this technology and more receptive to saying, “OK, now this is going to help me get better. That's why this is here,” he concluded.

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