What infrastructure talks mean for trucking

ST. LOUIS — In an ideal world, fixing our nation’s crumbling infrastructure would be the low-hanging fruit for political bipartisanship. However, we live in the real world.

After more than a month of negotiations, this week, communication collapsed between President Joe Biden and a small group of Republican senators over disagreements on what constitutes infrastructure and how much money should be earmarked for it. “We need fixes to our roads and bridges, that’s the first thing,” David Heller, Truckload Carriers Association vice president of government affairs, told American Trucker, during TCA’s Safety & Security Meeting this week. “What has traveling during COVID taught us? That freight can move more efficiently with less congestion.

It’s the simplest idea out there, so getting more dollars to create better freight delivery networks certainly would prove that.” While communication on Capitol Hill was unraveling on June 8, Dave Nemo and Jimmy Mac, hosts of Radio Nemo, joined Heller to discuss infrastructure and the current state of government affairs under the Biden administration during a TCA Safety & Security Meeting fireside chat.

Infrastructure–and how to pay the bill

The most recently released infrastructure bill from the House, the INVEST in America Act, has a lot of truck safety measures buried within it, Heller pointed out. That bill is part of highway reauthorization talks, which are related to, but independent from the American Jobs Act, President Biden’s proposed £2.3 trillion tax and spending plan and his original campaign plan for infrastructure.

Heller pointed to one area of the House’s reauthorization that trucking should keep its eye on. There is one statement included that would allow the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to view ELD data if this gets passed. Heller was quick to note, however, that due to the partisan political environment, there are many issues in this bill that may not stick in talks moving forward.

“The parts of reauthorization we do like are things like AEB (automatic emergency braking) technology and putting that on all new vehicles,” Heller told American Trucker. “It’s time, and it’s a technology that works. It’s proven that it works, and it has done a tremendous job of reducing accidents.” Heller also said reauthorization talks include mandates for side underride guards.

However, that equipment, he said, needs to be studied further. “The devices are just too new in terms of putting them out there,” he explained. “We don’t have the data generated yet on these devices to see if it’s really a best fit for the industry. Frankly, the price tag alone on these things would be dramatic for an industry that has millions of pieces of equipment that would need it.”

There’s also mention of minimum insurance requirements for commercial motor carriers in the bill. Earlier this year, Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia (D-Illinois) introduced a bill calling for £4.9 million for minimum insurance requirements for motor carriers.

Now, there is language in the INVEST in America Act reducing that minimum requirement to £2 million. Today, the minimum insurance requirement for motor carriers is £750,000. So, what’s the right number? “I think if you put too many people in a room, you’re going to get a different number out of all of them,” Heller said. “This is an issue that certainly has to be discussed.

How it will move forward, I don’t know.” No matter what measures make the final bill, the heart of the conversation will be how to pay for all of this and getting those dollars to add up from the Highway Trust Fund, which receives money from a federal fuel tax of 18.4 cents per gallon on gasoline and 24.4 cents per gallon of diesel fuel and related excise taxes. The fund hasn’t changed since 1993 and has failed to keep up with inflation.

Talks have been circulating about whether a vehicle miles traveled tax, or VMT, would be a viable replacement for the Highway Trust Fund. The American Transportation Research Institute determined that replacing the federal fuel tax with a VMT tax that is assessed on 272 million private vehicles could result in collection costs of more than £20 billion annually — or 300 times higher than the federal fuel tax. However, questions remain as to how the federal government would collect those VMT funds.

In its research thus far, ATRI has also found that a VMT tax is a far more complicated and costly replacement for the fuel tax than many had anticipated. Hardware costs alone would have an initial price tag of £13.6 billion and require ongoing replacement, telecommunications costs would be approximately £13 billion annually, and account administration would be an additional £4.3 billion each year. On top of these costs, credit card transactions for electronic payment and even the shipping costs for the hardware could each cost more than £1 billion.  

During TCA’s fireside chat discussion, Nemo alluded to the idea that the most logical route to take for now would be raising the fuel tax since the system is already in place. He then asked about electric vehicles (EVs), which do not currently contribute to the Highway Trust Fund. Heller advised that there first must be a national pilot program that examines the aspects of what a VMT looks like.

He added that trucking companies will need to get involved in those pilots to report back VMT program shortcomings. “VMT is not ready for prime time this year,” Heller said. “There will be a time that could be the case provided you get the issues ironed out. Right now is the time for national pilot programs to figure out how these things really work.”

Heller emphasized the importance of having these conversations and coming to a solution in order to help prevent events like the I-40 bridge closure. The I-40 bridge in Memphis shut down in May because the structure was cracked and a danger to cross. The shutdown has dramatically changed the way trucking companies deliver freight in an area that links Tennessee to Arkansas.

Ultimately, infrastructure, if it’s going to get done, will have to be done soon, Heller explained, noting that next year’s mid-term elections could change the structure of Congress. “We have to be involved in those conversations, and always have a seat at the table because if you don’t, you might actually be on the menu,” Heller stressed. “We need to sit at the table so we can experience the shortcomings as well as the benefits of these programs.”

DRIVE-Safe Act

The DRIVE-Safe Act was also re-introduced under the Biden administration. The bill would allow under 21-year-old commercial truck drivers to operate across state lines.

The bill has not been included in highway reauthorization talks, but, according to Heller, it could be what is needed to help alleviate some of the industry’s driver capacity concerns. “Capacity is extremely tight right now,” Heller said. “I’ve been in this industry for years and this is the tightest I’ve seen it. So, what opens that up and creates more drivers to move more freight?

Because the freight market is going to continue to grow.” During a recent Radio Nemo segment, Mac asked listeners what they thought about the reintroduction of the DRIVE-Safe Act. The phone lines lit up.

The biggest surprise to Mac was the number of listeners who weren’t opposed to the bill, particularly since the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association has long opposed this effort, calling the move “detrimental to highway safety.”  “I was kind of amazed at the number of people who said they were fine with it but that they don’t think it solves the driver shortage problem,” Mac said, advising fleets that their drivers pay attention to and thoroughly read the legislation. “You have some of the most informed people out there,” he added. “Take the time to ask your drivers where they stand on this stuff.

They want to see younger people out there. They see that there is a gap, and they don’t see many younger people driving, and that concerns them.” Heller drove home the fact that these 18-, 19- and 20-year-old drivers are not a new demographic in commercial trucking.

They’re already driving in intrastate commerce. But the DRIVE-Safe Act takes it a step further and creates an apprenticeship program so younger drivers are better equipped to cross state lines. “The reality is this is a good bill,” Heller stressed. “It puts technology on the trucks like AEBs, which TCA supports, as well as speed limiters and collision mitigation systems.

“Does it solve the [capacity] problem? No, but it does help the problem,” he continued. “It opens the door for people to enter the industry who may not have thought about it before.”  ST.

LOUIS — Technology is developing rapidly, and trucking companies are continuing to implement and spec their vehicles with systems to keep their assets safe. But for the commercial vehicle operator, safety system alerts and notifications and in-cab cameras can be not only distracting, but they might seem like technology is taking over how they do their jobs.   Many trucks today, for instance, have automatic emergency braking systems that can help prevent a crash.

However, the idea is to never need that system to brake, according to Clark Reed, company driver and trainer for Nussbaum Transportation. That’s where proper training comes in. “If you don’t teach people how to manage this technology, it takes away from the driver a little bit,” Reed said during the Truckload Carriers Association’s Safety & Security Meeting in St.

Louis. “Learning how to manage this technology is key to making it efficient and safe.” Henry Albert, owner of Albert Transport, does a lot of training with commercial motor carriers, and he said he teaches professional drivers not to use collision mitigation technology. Even though that sounds wrong, the idea, he said, is to teach drivers to always stay a step ahead.

Rather than teaching drivers to depend on a truck’s safety technology, Albert tries to show his students what the technology is looking for. “I teach them to see what it sees when they are looking out of the same windshield,” Albert said. “The key is to stay a step ahead of it. Train the driver on what it’s looking for, but don’t tell them that it’s all figured out.

It’s not all figured out; it does need their assistance.” Albert added that so much of the industry-wide conversation about technology is how smart today’s commercial vehicles are. However, drivers at a truck stop are quick to tell him how “stupid” they think the trucks are.

“These trucks are not at all smart and they are not at all stupid,” Albert explained. “They’re just a computer, and computers are not smart or stupid. They are operating on logic. So, that’s really what I train [drivers] on–what’s the logic behind the system?

“Once they understand the logic, they can stay a step ahead of it and it makes them a better driver,” he continued. “Then, they keep the system in the background to save their career and/or someone’s life.”

Understanding the technology

One thing that Reed says he always tells his student is to leave enough space between vehicles–about 100 ft–to avoid a hard braking event. When it comes to collision mitigation technology like ABS to prevent jack-knifing of the trailer during emergency braking, the technology has absolutely helped reduce crashes. However, Albert noted that human nature will cause people to drive right up to the technology’s limit.

“To me, the real key is to not use your safety systems,” he said. “Don’t drive up to that new limit. That’s human nature, though, especially when you’re paid by the mile.” Reed emphasized that getting driver buy-in on new technology can be incredibly challenging because drivers are paid by the mile yet regulated by the hour.

“That puts us in a bad situation where we have to go, go, go to make money, but we’ve got to fight this clock, and we want to be safe,” he said. Reed also suggested that some drivers aren’t as receptive to new safety technologies because they can sometimes take the feel of the truck away from the driver. “The driver really needs to feel the road,” he advised. “The moment you take the driver away from that experience, the more they are going to relax and become lackadaisical in their driving, and that’s what leads to accidents.”

When it comes to the implementation of event recorders and inward-facing cameras, drivers initially raised concerns about privacy issues, but over the years, those concerns have begun to subside. Regardless, trucking companies must make it a point to explain to their drivers how that technology actually works. Out on the road and when an incident occurs, Reed said drivers become much more receptive to having cameras when another vehicle jumps into that space between the truck and another vehicle.

“I have a perfect reason to show them if you rear-ended them or something had happened, now you’ve got protection,” Reed explained. “The inward-facing camera will show that you were paying attention.

I say this all the time, drivers hate that technology until it saves their career.”