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Here is my annual report on the top stories in surface transportation in the United States and Canada over the past year. These stories are not listed in order of importance.

Economic Stability, Political Chaos, and Tightening Freight Capacity

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Driving a transport truck is one of the most prevalent jobs in North America and throughout the world. There are about 3.5 million truck drivers in the United States; the comparable number for Canada would be in the range of 350,000 people. Truck drivers are mostly men who like a life on the open road, crisscrossing the freeways and city streets of America. These are folks who are away from home for long stretches of time, as they go from state to state, province to province, sleeping in cheap motels or in their sleeper cabs, eating unhealthy meals in Truck Stops and spending long, lonely hours driving their rigs.

Young people seeking to enter the profession need to take a set of courses so they learn safe driving techniques and how to manage their rigs. For those individuals who wish to run their own businesses, they can become owner-operators. They can work for themselves or for one of the thousands of trucking companies throughout North America. This can include working for a for-hire fleet or for the private fleet of a manufacturer or retailer.

Despite the relative ease of entry into the profession, there is a shortage of truck drivers in North America. Driving a truck is a tough job. Bad weather, traffic, and road conditions create difficulties on a daily basis. A lack of investment in infrastructure throughout North America creates congestion and impedes productivity. Driving a tractor-trailer unit with a 45,000-pound payload requires full concentration throughout the period they are on the road.

For many people, being away from home for blocks of time is not glamorous or fun. For someone with a young family, missing family occasions and their kids’ baseball or soccer games does not help maintain positive personal relationships.  While much has been done to raise the quality of the profession, truck driving does not command the respect it deserves; it remains a relatively poorly paid job.

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There are approximately 3.5 million professional truck drivers in the United States, according to the American Trucking Association; there are an estimated 250,000 professional truck drivers in Canada (source: Toronto Globe & Mail). This places the position of truck driver among the most common professions, at least for men, in North America. The cost of these drivers represents one of the largest expense items for most trucking firms.

There are a host of initiatives taking place in North America and Europe to partially or fully replace truck drivers with a set of technologies that have come to be known as autonomous vehicles. In addition to cost, this new set of technologies offers a range of benefits.

“Automated vehicles have the potential to save thousands of lives, driving the single biggest leap in road safety that our country has ever taken,” stated former U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. Approximately 35,000 people died in roadway collisions in 2015 and 94 percent of the crashes “can be tied to a human choice or error,” according to the Department of Transportation.

The projected shortage of truck drivers, that is expected to reach hundreds of thousands of positions in 2025, provides further incentives to get robots in the driver’s seat. There’s a huge advantage in getting automated drivers, who can work 24 hours a day, involved in those deliveries, and improving logistics for companies.

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