Sunday, March 29, 2015

MATS then and now

My most vivid memory of the Mid-America Trucking Show in 2004 is a gigantic pair of woman's underpants. The bloated, billowing bloomers flew like a banner above a vendor stall in the North Wing Lobby.

No bloomers in 2015. I assume they were banned by management who realized just how tasteless, politically incorrect, and socially insensitive those bloomers were. I was glad I bought a pair in '04 when I had the chance.

Other things were different this year, too. There was more rush hour traffic outside in Louisville. Somebody built a Ferris wheel next door, and they added on to the exhibit halls. In 2004 the displays of flashy, bad-ass trucks and components seemed to go on forever. In 2015 they actually did go on forever.

The chrome was shinier this year. Door panels, saddle tanks and bumpers -- crystalline mirrors you could almost walk through -- projected the passing crowds back at themselves. 
Chrome on a Kenworth.

A lot of numbers at MATS were higher in 2015, like the fuel you were going to save and the return-on-investment you were going to enjoy. Buy this and your driver retention will go up. Other numbers were lower, like your driver turnover and how long it would take to realize that terrific ROI.

There was a lot more automation than there was in 2004. In 2015 they're not replacing drivers so much as driver functions. Computerized drive trains adjust speed for hills, and lift axles pull themselves up automatically to maximize fuel consumption.

Back in 2004, so-called collision avoidance systems warned drivers of an imminent crash. Buzzers buzzed, flashers flashed, dash screens ran horror film trailers, and maybe a little pink hammer descended from overhead to bonk the driver on the head. But that was pretty much it. Actual avoidance was still the driver's job.

The 2015 systems manage almost the entire emergency. Sure, warnings keep the driver in the loop (or at least scare the hell out of him or her). But it's all pro forma. The systems are fully prepared to slow or stop the truck. They'll do everything but steer, and they'll do that as soon as the market will bear the cost.

Back in 2004 they called them collision "avoidance" systems. In 2015 they're collision "mitigation" systems. Diminished expectations? Turning hellish catastrophes into mere disasters? You decide.

Some things at MATS haven’t changed at all the social composition, for example. The big boys pour cash on their spacious South Wing displays, and neatly clad sales people rule the aisles and carpeted plazas. Bearded drivers in denim coveralls come to check things out, of course, and the sales guys would be happy to sell them a truck. But let's face it, the suits are really on the lookout for fleet buyers, engineers who do the spec'ing, and vice presidents who make the million dollar decisions. Sure, driver, help yourself to a piece of candy and a brochure.

In the West Wing, where the ceilings are lower and smaller displays tumble over one another, the crowded aisles are more democratic. It's great to take the kids through the big halls and ogle the new trucks, but the West Wing is a different kind of adventure. Look over there, a China Pavilion, stall after stall of small manufacturers, very proper people in business attire. And look at the young women at the Hooters display! Oops. Sorry, Mama; look away, Little Buddy.
The Far East in the West Wing.

Something else between 2004 and 2015 was unchanged, at least in essence -- the shortage of drivers willing to work for fleets that ask too much and pay too little. It was front and center in 2004. It was front and center again in 2015. Every media event staged by every major manufacturer included a prominent reference to the "driver shortage."

Kenworth General Manager Preston Feight put a kind of smiley face on it when he told his audience that the current driver turnover rate of 80 percent could be considered "normalized" because it had been much higher. "It's not a crisis at all," he said. "It's OK right now."

It's OK that a 1,000 driver fleet has 800 drivers leave each year either for greener pastures or to get out of the industry? It's OK the fleet has to hire 800 new drivers just to stay in place? Or has our industry's chronic, untreated disease grown so familiar we regard the pain as normal?

In any case, drivers had to feel wanted at MATS in 2015, especially in the West Wing. Celadon, NFI, Prime, Schneider, J.B. Hunt and more were all there recruiting drivers. We want you, Mr. Road Man.

One affable recruiter told me All State Express was signing up owner-operators. When I said I wasn't an owner operator, he said their lease purchase program could make me one. When I said I didn't have a CDL, he said they would help get me one  and then make me an owner operator.

Straight from unlicensed newbie to owner-operator without ever having experienced truckload life on the road?

Sure, he said, actually smiling.

Clearly since 2004 the "shortage" that troubles our industry hasn't changed at all. Sadly, neither have some of the terrible ideas for dealing with it.

1 comment:

  1. John; your last 8 paragraphs say it all; the bottom-feeder large truckload carriers won't get it until FAR less than the number of warm bodies they need to fill the seats stop coming in the door. At the same time. we're our own worst enemies; as long as we don't join OUR trade association, force carriers to end their Fair Labor Standards Act exemption and encourage union membership, we'll never get what we need...