Modern semi-trucks: 5 improvements we cannot live without
Whether you call it a semi, an 18 wheeler, or just a truck, these kings of the road have been criss-crossing the US for more than 100 years. But just how much has the basic idea of the semi-truck improved over that time? Well, Alexander Winton’s original vision of creating a vehicle to move other vehicles is still going strong, but beyond that, he probably couldn’t have imagined how his invention would evolve over the coming century.
In fact, 2014 marked the 100th anniversary of the first use of the word “semi-truck” by a Detroit blacksmith who used it to describe a custom rig he built to transport his boat. So, take a minute to check out the biggest improvements semis have seen and be glad you’ve got the choice to drive the latest and greatest. You might be surprised by what’s changed.
1. Modern semi-trucks are riding on air
Sitting in a modern cab, it’s hard to imagine a day when driving a semi could make riding a wooden roller coaster seem like a calming experience. But the original solid rubber tires did just that. Combined with roads, which were rarely paved, mechanical breaking, and practically non-existent suspension systems, it’s a miracle early drivers or trucks survived many trips at all!
Pneumatic, or “bubble tires” as they were known, didn’t even become widely used until the 1920s. But they quickly became standards by saving on gas and maintenance while increasing comfort and traction. With modern suspension systems and air brakes, today’s truckers essentially drive on air. And thank goodness, or Van Damme’s Epic Split would be a tad on the impossible side. So much for the rubber meeting the road.
2. Today’s engines are miracles of efficiency and durability
Modern semi-trucks are defined by the unmatched quality and reliability of their engines. They’re designed to run for hundreds of thousands of miles with limited maintenance. The result is that they have performance stats which most cars and trucks could never hope to match. But it wasn’t always like this.
For the first few decades, semi-trucks used similar or even identical engines as commercial cars and trucks. The result was poor performance when typically extreme conditions were imposed on these poor engines. It would take until the 1930s for manufacturers to begin making custom engines designed specifically for the tough work of the long haul truck. After that, engines reached new heights; one 1955 Chevy truck even managed to make the trek from San Francisco to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup! Now imagine what a 2015 semi will be achieving in 60 years.
3. Cabins are shielded from the elements
Semi-Trucks with fully enclosed cabs weren’t introduced until the 1920s! Up to then, drivers just had to bundle up in the winter and hope they could drive fast enough to get a breeze in the summer. One can only imagine the additional job hazards which must have resulted from prolonged exposure to the weather extremes the US has to offer. But beyond simple climate control, modern trucks have done much more to create a home-like environment wherever truckers need to be. This is also a fairly new development.
Speaking of the elements, trucks really proved themselves to be a backbone of modern logistics during the First World War. The military reliance on these early trucks really put them and their drivers through their paces and showed what this still relatively new technology could do. They even played a huge part in winning the Battle of Verdun when nearly every taxi and truck in Paris was thrown into service. So when you’re facing the elements out on the road, be glad there’s no bombs involved!
4. Your Truck = A home away from home
Another modern standard for semis is the over-engine sleeper. First introduced by Freightliner in 1953 with their Model WF64, it has forever changed the trucking industry. Prior to that, sleeping options were fairly limited. Roadside motels didn’t start becoming common until US highways began expanding for the first time in the 1920s. So, the earliest semi-truck drivers were likely looking at sleeping under the stars or a similarly makeshift solution. Either way, it was another case of drivers toughing it out on the open road.
5. Drivers have unparalleled choice
Let’s face it, those early rigs may have had a sort of rugged elegance, but that’s nothing compared to the latest Peterbilt or Volvo models. The long nose may have gone in and out of style over the decades but the sheer variety available now is unmatched in history. For some direct comparisons between trucks from each decade, check out this infographic on the history of the semi-truck. Or you can just take a look at any truck stop and marvel and what’s being driven on our highways today.
How have you seen trucks improve over the years? Do you still have a soft spot for some old classics? Let us know about it in the comments section.
Eric Halsey is a historian by training and disposition who’s been interested in US small businesses since working at the House Committee on Small Business in 2006. Coming from a family with a history of working on industry policy, he has a particular interest in the Surety Bonding Industry. He loves sharing his knowledge of the industry for JW Surety Bonds.
Driver shortages: Why the industry needs to be worried
While driver shortages are a global problem, with a recent survey from the International Road Transport Union suggesting that driver shortages are expected to increase by 25% year-on-year across its 23 member countries, the issue has very much made itself felt for UK businesses in recent weeks.
A perfect storm of factors, which many within the industry have been wary of, and warning about, for months, have led to a situation wherein businesses are suddenly facing significant difficulties around transporting goods to shelves on time, as well as inflated operating costs for doing so.
What’s more, the public may also see price rises as a result due to demand outmatching supply for certain product lines, which in turn brings with it the risk of customer dissatisfaction and a hit to brand and stakeholder reputation. Given that this price inflation has been speculated to hit in October, when the extended grace period on Brexit customs checks comes to an end, the worst may be yet to come.
"Steps must be taken to make a career in the industry a more attractive proposition for younger drivers, which will require a joint effort from government, industry bodies, and the sector as a whole"
That said, we have already been hearing reports of service interruption due to lack of driver availability, meaning that volumes aren’t being transported, or delivered, to required schedules and lead times. A real-world example of this occurred on the weekend of 4-6 June with convenience retailer Nisa, with deliveries to Nisa outlets across the UK affected by driver shortages to its logistics provider DHL.
But where has this skills shortage stemmed from?
Supply is the primary issue. Specifically, the number of available EU drivers has decreased by up to 15,000 drivers due to Brexit alone, and this has been further exacerbated by drivers returning to their home country during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as changes to foreign exchange rates making UK a less desirable place to live and work. This, alongside the recent need to manage IR35 tax changes, has also led to significant inflation in driver and transport costs.
COVID-19 complications have also meant that there have been no HGV driver tests over the past year, meaning the expected 6,000-7,000 new drivers over the past year have not appeared. With the return of the hospitality sector we understand that this is a significant challenge with, for instance, order delivery lead times being extended.
It is little surprise, therefore, that the Road Haulage Association (RHA) earlier this month became the latest in a long line of industry spokespeople to write to the government about the driver shortage for trucks. The letter echoed the view held by much of the industry, that the cause of this issue is both multi-faceted and, at least in some aspects, long-standing.
So, many in the industry are in agreement as to the driving factors behind this crisis. But what can be done?
Simply enough, outside of businesses completely reorganising their supply chain network, external support is needed. In the short-term, the government should consider providing the industry with financial aid, and this can also be supported more widely with legislative change.
Specifically, immigration policy could be updated to place drivers on the shortage occupations list, which would go some way towards easing the burden created by foreign drivers returning to their home countries. Looking elsewhere, government should also look for ways to increase the availability of HGV driver tests after the blockage created by the coronavirus lockdowns.
Looking more long-term, steps must be taken to make a career in the industry a more attractive proposition for younger drivers, which will require a joint effort from government, industry bodies, and the sector as a whole. As it stands, multiple sources suggest that the average age of truck drivers in the UK is 48, with only one in every hundred drivers under the age of 25. We must therefore do more to increase the talent pipeline coming into the industry if we are to offset more significant skills shortages further down the line.
On the back of a turbulent year for the supply chain industry, it has become increasingly clear that the long-foretold shortage of drivers is now having a tangible and, in places, crippling effect on supply chains.
Drivers, and the wider supply chain industry, have rightly been recognised for the seismic role they played in keeping the nation moving and fed over the past year under unprecedented strain. If this level of service is to continue, we must now see Government answer calls to provide the support the sector needs, and work hand-in-hand with the industry to find a solution. If we do not see concrete action to this effect soon, we are likely to be in for a turbulent few months.
Rob Wright is executive director at SCALA, a leading provider of management services for the supply chain and logistics sector