by Sean Kilcarr, FleetOwner.com

Phil Byrd, president and CEO of Bulldog Hiway Express and current chairman of the American Trucking Assns. Trade group, believes the complexity of trucking technology, finding and hiring new personnel, plus educating a general public that remains in his words “uniformed” about the important role trucking plays in the U.S. economy will be the dominant challenges faced by the industry in the near-term.

“A lot of people say this is a very simple industry; all you need is a truck, a driver, and a road,” Byrd said during his keynote speech here at the 2014 Technology & Maintenance Council (TMC) annual meeting. “But as all of us here in this room and in the industry know, transportation and logistics is anything but simple.”

He noted that the complexity of the trucking industry is being driven by rising costs – especially fuel – a growing shortage of drivers and maintenance technicians, the growing cost burden of regulations, and the largely unmet fiscal needs of the U.S. transportation infrastructure.

“The roads and bridges over which we carry freight are crumbling beneath our trucks,” Byrd stressed. “So we need to stabilize the highway trust fund so trucks and commuters can not only safely coexist on our roadways but so we can be more productive in moving America’s goods.”

He went on to cite several statistics illustrating some of the complex challenges facing trucking’s so-called “simple” effort to transport freight:

In 2013 trucks moved 68.5% of all tonnage in the U.S., which is expected to grow to 71% by 2024
The trucking industry spent $156 billion on diesel fuel in 2013
A one-cent rise in diesel fuel prices costs the industry $375 million
Between 40% and 50% of today’s technicians are expected to retire over the next 20 years
Over the next 10 years 200,000 new technicians will be needed just to meet current demand
Trucking moved 530 million TL shipments in 2013, whereas railroads moved the equivalent of 29 million TL shipments last year.
By the end of January this year, trucking moved more TL shipments in one month than railroads did for all of 2013
To help the trucking industry grapple better with many of those issues, Byrd said ATA plans to kick off a new image campaign at the Mid America Trucking Show later this month.

“It behooves us all in the face of staggering numbers like these that are going up, not down, to unite behind a message promoting the value of our industry and get people to join it,” he explained. “We need to get out into the grammar schools, the high schools, and the colleges to get the message out that driving a truck and maintaining a truck are great jobs.”

Byrd emphasized that trucking is often the only freight mode able to deliver vital goods to many American communities, which is another reason why the role the industry plays in the U.S. economy needs to be championed.

“Have you ever seen a railroad track by a hospital? Or a ship dock behind a grocery store? No – but you’ve seen a truck there,” he stressed. “No other mode does what we do and it lies on our backs to tell our story more effectively. By and large, Americans don’t know what we do and whose fault is that? We must take the responsibility. Because if we fail, America fails.”