Opinion

How truck drivers keep Australia running, and what happens if they disappear

truck drivers

Australia is completely dependent on its transport network to keep the economy running – with truck drivers at the face.

Everybody in the industry knows it.

Anyone who drives along one of our highways would have seen a truck with the sign:

               Without trucks, Australia stops

It’s the truck driver mantra. Four small words that make a powerful statement.

And guess what?

It’s absolutely true.

Australian truck drivers traverse thousands of kilometres every single day.

They transport virtually everything our society uses. From groceries and raw materials to machinery and specialised equipment.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated that in the 12 months to June 2020, Australian road freight vehicles moved an estimated 223,949 million tonne-kilometres of freight across the country.

Without trucks, the Australian economy would no less than grind to a halt.

The historical role of Australian truck drivers

A long time ago, we didn’t rely on trucks as we know them today. We relied on steam-hauled road trains.

Used in the Yudnamutana copper mining valley of South Australia in the 19th century, these machines marked the pioneering days of the industry.

The shift towards internal combustion engines began in 1912, with the introduction of hauling trucks, and by 1914, manufacturers were actively developing petrol-engined trucks, including half-track vehicles capable of towing two large trailers.

In the 1920s, states became increasingly worried about the growth of the industry. It was believed that the existing rail system sufficed for moving goods between states, and so road transport was virtually prohibited.

The landscape changed dramatically during World War II, when an overloaded railway system and a shortage of coastal shipping led to a revival of trucks in transporting freight between capital cities.

Post-war, the trucking industry experienced remarkable growth, owing to the efficiency of road transport, particularly in handling goods and transporting fragile objects.

Fast forward to the present, and interstate transport is everywhere to be seen – with trucks navigating the extensive 353,331-kilometre network of paved roads across the country.

An overview of the industry today

Gary Mahon, chief executive officer of the Queensland Trucking Association, told the Australian Parliament in July 2020, that:

The reliance on the road freight industry has never been more profound due to the extensive and ongoing impacts of the COVID-19 economic crisis, with disrupted global supply chains, simmering trade tensions and weaker demand. We need to be competitive on every metric to keep pace on the global map and keep our freight efficiencies comparable. Our leading manufacturing and production industries depend on it.

The Council of Australian Governments Transport and Infrastructure Council estimated that the volume of freight carried by road will grow by over 35 per cent, to around 400 billion tonne-kilometres, between 2018 and 2040.

According to the Insurance Work and Health Group at Monash University, the road freight transport industry generated almost 80 per cent of the revenue generated by the total freight transportation sector.

Most truckies today are owner-drivers, with the industry’s 51,000 businesses being mainly small businesses.

Fifty-three per cent are non-employing owner drivers and 45 per cent are small businesses with nineteen or fewer employees.

Despite this, the industry has considerably low market concentration.

The majors – being the Toll Group, Linfox and K&S – hold market shares of between one and nine per cent of revenue in the sector.

What (really) would happen if trucks disappeared

In August 2021, the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee published a report called:

Without Trucks Australia Stops: the development of a viable, safe, sustainable and efficient road transport industry.

It’s an illuminating report that highlights the prevalence of work health and safety risks and unsustainable commercial practices across the industry.

It reveals some pretty serious stuff. You can read a summary of the recommendations here.

But – to my knowledge – nobody has ever done a comprehensive study as to what would happen if truck drivers suddenly disappeared from the industry.

But it’s easy to imagine the impact.

Say goodbye to stocked shelves

The flow of products throughout our supply chains would come to a grind to a halt.

Store shelves would quickly empty, leading to shortages of essential goods, ranging from food and medicine to electronics and clothing.

Goods that arrive by vessels, aircraft and rail will often still need to be transported by truck – whether the destination is in a rural area or in one of our cities.

A spiralling economy

As I’ve explained above, the economy relies on the smooth functioning of transportation networks.

Industries that depend on just-in-time delivery systems would face the worst kinds of production delays possible.

Not to sound dramatic, but their bottom line would evaporate before their very eyes.

Job losses everywhere

As businesses struggle to operate without a steady supply of raw materials and finished products, they’ll suffer financial collapse and start laying people off.

The trucking industry itself is a significant source of employment.

From truck drivers to mechanics, logistics professionals, and administrative staff – countless jobs are tied to the functioning of the trucking sector.

If trucks were to disappear, a domino effect would lead to massive job losses and the potential collapse of businesses directly and indirectly linked to transportation.

An overload in infrastructure

The sudden absence of trucks would force businesses to rely more heavily on other modes of transport – ships, plans and rail.

I’d say this would overload those alternative modes of transportation.

We’d see more congestion, delays and potential breakdowns in the infrastructure supporting them.

The depression of rural communities

The death of road transport infrastructure would have disproportionate impacts on remote and rural communities – who often solely rely on trucks to receive their goods.

The disappearance of trucks would exacerbate the existing challenges faced by these areas.

It would lead to isolation, shortages of essentials, and a decline in the quality of life for those residing in remote regions.

The future of ‘keeping Australia moving’

Truck drivers keep Australia moving, but will that always be the case?

Will our economy depend on road transport forever?

We talk a lot about artificial intelligence eliminating the need for human drivers.

Can AI keep Australia moving the way our drivers can?

I don’t think so.

I am yet to see any kind of AI that can:

·      Deploy commonsense reasoning to handle unexpected crises.

·      Deal with human situations that occur outside of the vehicle.

·      Understand humans with empathy and provide nuanced customer service.

·      Solve issues pragmatically with imperfect information, which is commonplace in logistics.

This is something our drivers do every day. And there’s a lot to the job that can’t be programmed.

AI cannot keep Australia moving.

But our drivers can. They do. And they’ll continue to do so.

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