The trucking industry has a saying, “If you bought it, a truck brought it.” There is scarcely a business or industry in the United States that does not rely on the trucking industry as an essential part of its operations. In 2006, 70 percent of the total volume of freight in United States was moved in more than 25 million trucks carrying up to 10 billion tons of materials.
Native American transport was on foot, horseback, or by canoe. The earliest European settlers used ships and boats for transportation by water whenever possible but expanded the range of land travel to a variety of carts and wagons. In the nineteenth century, railroads were introduced and carried an increasing percentage of the heaviest freight over long distances. Railroads were limited by the availability of the track that had been laid and could transport goods only from one fixed site to another. Beyond railroad depots, carts and wagons pulled by oxen or horses were still required for final delivery to the end user.
Although trucks were invented during the late nineteenth century, it was only shortly before World War II that a combination of gasoline-powered internal combustion engines and the replacement of chain drives by gear drives enabled the development of the tractor-trailer rig. Although the trucking industry grew during World War I, trucks were still limited to very low speeds because they used iron and solid rubber wheels on primitive roads, except in cities where pavement existed. With the development of inflatable tires and the proliferation of paved roads, truck speeds and differences increased. After 1920, the development of diesel engines, power-assisted brakes and steering, fifth wheel coupling, and standardized trailer sizes made truck transportation an attractive shipping option.
By 1933, all forty-eight states had enacted some type of weight legislation, but the standards varied so much that eight years later, the Interstate Commerce Commission informed Congress that the highly variable truck weight limitations were an impediment to interstate truck transport. The state-based truck weight limits continued until 1956, when the federal government first established a maximum gross vehicle weight of just over 73,000 pounds. In 1974, the
The 1980’s brought a nationwide movement in the direction of deregulation, which was applied to the trucking industry by the Motor Carrier Act of 1980. At the same time, the
As a federal regulation of truck weights stabilized, the trucking industry became increasingly important to the movement of goods over long distances. Railroads continued to be the most efficient movers of very bulky solid cargoes such as coal, and pipelines were used for liquids such as petroleum products. Still most manufactured goods were increasingly carried by trucks. The extensive highway network meant that trucks could travel virtually anywhere.
In 1956, Malcolm McLean developed the concept of
Along with these economic and technological developments, there were certain societal changes. As citizens’ band (CB) radios became commonplace in trucks (and later cars), people began to form an image of long-distance truck drivers as modern-day cowboys and even outlaws. The use of CB radios to inform other truck drivers of the presence of law-enforcement officials who could ticket them for speeding or other violations gave long-distance truckers their outlaw image. Gradually plaid shirts, trucker hats, and CB slang became popular with the general public, and motion pictures, country music songs, and even television shows about truckers were created. By the 1980’s, the trucker mania had subsided somewhat. CB radios continued to be used by truckers, but cell phones replaced CB radios for most automobile drivers.
There are certain inherent limits to truck weight and size that affect productivity. Twenty-first century gains in productivity in the trucking industry have come through improved communications and certain transformations in the way that business is conducted. One key issue was to diminish the number of empty loads, which was reduced through modern communications. The development of wireless computers and the Internet has allowed freight brokers to serve as intermediaries and to coordinate freight. Improved communications and global positioning satellites have also improved coordination and productivity.
This has allowed many businesses to improve their productivity by adopting
Baiman, Ron, Heather Boushey, and Dawn Saunders. Political Economy and Contemporary Capitalism: Radical Perspectives on Economic Theory and Policy. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 2000. This collection of essays examines the trucking industry from a perspective sympathetic to planning and socialism. Dow, Louis A., and Fred Hendon. Economics and Society. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1991. These co-authors, though strongly influenced by the free-market economics of Adam Smith, look at economics in a social context. Drew, Shirley K. Dirty Work: The Social Construction of Taint. Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2007. A sociological study of the perception of various blue-collar trades, including trucking. Stern, Jane. Trucker: A Portrait of the Last American Cowboy. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1975. A popular, somewhat nostalgic look at truckers and trucking. Stern, Jane, and Michael Stern. Way Out West. N.Y.: Harper Collins, 1993. Another popular examination of truckers and trucking. Willis, James. Explorations in Macroeconomics. 5th ed. Redding, Calif.: North West, 2002. This mainstream text examines trucking from a macroeconomic perspective, explaining the impact of trucking on society.
International Brotherhood of Teamsters
U.S. Department of Transportation