History of the Trucking Industry in the United States

The trucking industry is vastly important to the national economy, carrying over 60% of the trade goods that travel through the United States annually – https://www.bts.gov/newsroom/2017-north-american-freight-numbers. Modern highways and roads are dominated by freight vehicles, from small box trucks to 80 foot long eighteen wheelers. The reasons for the success of the trucking industry are the numerous advantages over other methods of transport – trucks allow for flexibility of cargo carried and flexibility of delivery times, are more affordable than other methods of transport, and are one of the most reliable methods of transportation.

The popularity of trucks as a mode of freight transport has long been established in the United States. Before the invention of automobiles, most freight was transported by trains or horse-drawn vehicles. Trucks were first extensively used by the military during World War I, and the demand for reliable, dependable trucks prompted auto engineers to continually develop better vehicles. Trucking increased significantly in the late 1930’s with the construction of paved roads across America, and soon became subject to government regulations such as the number of hours allowed for trucking per day. During the period of 1950-1960, the widespread construction of Interstate Highways created a network connecting major cities across the continent, resulting in an increase in the number of trucks used for transportation.

In 1980, the trucking industry was drastically deregulated by the Motor Carrier Act in an effort by law makers to increase economic competition and lower the costs of goods to American consumers. In the years since this deregulation, trucking has come to dominate the freight industry in an environment where people shop at “big box stores” such as Costco, Target and Wal-Mart, and do a large amount of shopping online.

19th century
Before 1900, railroads were the most popular method of transporting large amounts of freight over land. Trains were more efficient than horse-drawn vehicles for carrying freight, but they could only deliver to populous urban centers connected by railroads. Goods would then be distributed from rail-stations in carts and wagons. At that time, trucks were expensive and unreliable, existing more as interesting novelties than practical transport. Things began to change in 1899, when the Winton Motor Carriage Company developed the first trailer truck model, which converted a car into a tractor by attaching a small trailer.

20th century
Beginning in 1910, transportation technology began to develop rapidly, paving the way for the modern trucking industry. With the advent of the tractor and semi-trailer, in combination with the gasoline powered internal combustion engine, trucks soon became more reliable and efficient, making them a better option for freight transport than ever before.

In 1913, government bodies began regulating the trucking industry with four states enacting laws to limit truck weights, from 18,000 pounds in Maine to maximum weight up to 28,000 pounds in Massachusetts. By 1914, there were approximately 100,000 trucks traveling America’s roads and highways. However, the poor condition of many rural roads, tires that were solid instead of flexible, and a maximum speed of 15 miles per hour limited the areas in which trucks could be useful. Trucks rarely traveled the long distances from urban centers to rural areas at this point.

World War I
The period of World War I, from 1914-1918, saw major developments in the trucking industry. The increased need to transport goods during wartime had caused congestion of the nation’s railroads, and people sought alternative methods for carrying cargo. During this period, Roy Chapin, cofounder of Hudson Motor Company, worked with a military committee to develop inflated tires. This increased the stability and durability of tires, allowing vehicles to travel at higher speeds. In the years following the war, trucks gained popularity, and by 1920, there were more than a million trucks on American roads.

Demand for trucks continued to increase, leading to the development of improved road networks and various technological advancements. These included the invention of the diesel engine, power assisted steering and brake systems, and the standardization of trailer sizes. With increased truck usage came increased government regulation, and by 1933, truck weight restriction laws were imposed in all states.

New Deal
In the spring of 1933 President Franklin D. Roosevelt requested that all American industries work together within internal organizations to draft and agree upon a “code of fair competition.” The Federated Trucking Association of America and the American Highway Freight Association met to become the voice of the trucking industry and eventually merged to form the American Trucking Associations. By the summer of 1933, the code of competition was completed and on February 10, 1934, the code was officially approved. In 1935, the Motor Carrier Act replaced the code of competition. This allowed the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to enforce federal regulations within the trucking industry as opposed to the inconsistent state regulations and voluntary code of competition that had governed the industry previously.

Interstates Creation
In 1941, President Roosevelt designated a special committee to develop the idea of a “national inter-regional highway” system. However, any progress the committee made was halted by the advent of World War II. Following the conclusion of the war, the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944 authorized the development of “Interstate Highways”, but the plan was not funded and did not progress to the building of cross-country highways. Ten years later, President Dwight D. Eisenhower championed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, finally prompting the necessary debate concerning which bodies and groups would be responsible for funding highway projects. These debates concluded with the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which provided for the planning, funding, and construction of the Interstate Highway System. This 10-year, $100 billion highway system covered 40,000 miles and connected all American cities with a population higher than 50,000.

In 1974, federal regulations established a maximum gross vehicle weight of 80,000 pounds. However, since the regulation did not designate a minimum truck weight, several states refused to adhere to the regulations. Thus, there would continue to be barriers to efficient cross-country commerce.

The 1970’s also saw America’s introduction to “trucker culture.” Truck drivers came to be romanticized in popular culture as modern-day cowboys. The general public enthusiastically participated in trucker culture, wearing plaid shirts and trucker hats, and using CB radios and trucker slang.

In 1976, “Convoy,” which was a novelty song about a convoy of truck drivers speeding and evading toll booths across country, became the number one hit on the Billboard top 100.  The song further inspired “Convoy”, the 1978 action film.  In 1977, “Smokey and the Bandit” was released and became the third highest grossing movie of the year. Also in 1977, a Saturday morning cartoon called “CB Bears” was created and featured mystery-solving bears who communicated with CB radios. In 1979, truckers would see their cowboy image intensify as thousands of truckers went on strike to protest high fuel costs and unfair regulations.

The Motor Carrier Act, 1980- Deregulation
In 1980, The Motor Carrier Act partially deregulated the trucking industry in an effort to increase competition amongst trucking companies. With the removal of the red tape of previous regulations, the number of trucking companies in America increased exponentially. With a much larger workforce and less need to fight over-regulation, membership in unions decreased. This eventually led to overall lower pay for drivers, though it did increase trucking industry productivity and decrease costs to consumers.  The Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982 brought minimum weight limits and standardized truck size in the industry, solving the problems posed by the lack of minimum truck weight in initial regulations enacted in 1974.

21st century
The trucking industry has continued to thrive since the 1980’s. Currently, there are more than 26 million trucks on American roads, hauling 10 billion+ tons of freight, and accounting for 60% of the total volume of freight.

Trucking country: The road to America’s Walmart economy, 2009, written by Shane Hamilton, touches the topic of how developments in the trucking industry helped companies like Target and Wal-Mart in dominating the retail sector of the US economy.

The Bottom line
Since the invention of the first trailer attachments for automobiles, the trucking industry has seen rapid advancements in technology, commerce, and government regulation. The modern trucking industry is the backbone of American freight transportation and a vital prop to national commerce. The importance of trucking to the national economy will ensure that trucking stakeholders take an active role in continuing technological and economic advancement in the automobile industry, cementing the place of trucking in America in the years to come.