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Changing economy will strip truck freight in the coming decades, says trucking forecaster

Noȅl Perry, a chief economist for FTR speaking at conference

Perry speaking at the FTR Conference on Wednesday. Trucking faces stiff challenges in the coming decades as the economy works to eliminate certain transportation needs, he said.

Long-term freight challenges loom for the trucking industry as the economy and the supply chain become more efficient, more digitized and, thus, less reliant on transport needs, said Noȅl Perry, a chief economist for FTR and Truckstop.com.

Perry, who gave a trucking economic outlook Wednesday at the annual FTR Conference in Indianapolis, said freight movement continues to drop as a share of the country’s overall economy (as measured by GDP). “The economy constantly finds ways to economize on transportation,” he says. “It’s falling and it continues to fall. And in the 2020s it’s going to fall at an even greater rate.”

Short-term, Perry forecasts the industry to grow in its own right, its share of GDP aside. Perry expects growth of 5 percent this year over last year, 3 percent in 2018 and another 2 percent in 2019.

Long-term, the picture becomes more dire. Perry sees a “substantial reduction in international movement of finished goods,” over the next decade and a half as low-cost labor in places like China and Mexico is increasingly replaced by automation. This shift in global manufacturing will cut into truck freight in the U.S., he says. Some of that freight will be replaced with domestically produced goods, but it won’t make up for the losses, he says. Currently, about 30 percent of U.S. truck freight stems from imports.

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The number of inventory holding points for both online and brick-and-mortar retailers will “drop dramatically,” Perry says. He blames the drop on the trend of expedited movement of consumer products (that is, consumers wanting goods ordered online within hours, not days) and the likelihood of autonomous vehicles coming to market. “This is another way in which the smart supply chain people are taking transportation out of the economy,” he says, “by substituting high service trucking but taking ton-miles out of the economy.’

Truckloads of fuel will also plunge in the coming decades, Perry forecasts. Increased fuel economy, greater reliance on alternative fuels and fuel conservation efforts will by 2030 cut the number of fuel loads by two-thirds, he says, from about 9 million a year to just 3 million. “That’s great news for the economy, but not so good news for” trucking, he says. “This is a great example of why that transportation to GDP ratio keeps going down.”   

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James Jaillet is the News Editor for CCJ and Overdrive. Reach him at jjaillet@randallreilly.com.

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