OGALLALA, Neb. – Rolling west on the interstate highway system through the American Heartland, it’s hard to avoid wondering if Amazon.com-founder Jeff Bezos isn’t responsible for adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than anyone since Henry Ford.
Ford brought the world the Model T widely credited with starting a revolution destined to make hydrocarbon-powered motor vehicles the everyman and everywoman form of daily transport by the end of 20th century.
The boom in online business that followed in Amazon’s footsteps can now be largely tracked in the tonnage of freight moving on U.S. highways. It climbed slowly from less than 7.5 billion tons at the start of the new millennium to 8.8 billion tons by 2008, according to figures from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
Tonnage fell when the Great Recession began in earnest along about the same time, but then exploded after 2010 as the U.S. began to emerge from that economic catastrophe and e-commerce really took off.
Driven by wants as much or more than by needs, American consumers embraced the internet with fingers flashing across keyboards. Suddenly, you didn’t need a store to shop.
You could order almost anything by computer from the comfort of your sofa or kitchen counter or anywhere and have it shipped to your door.
Correlation is not causation, but it is hard to find any other good reason for truck tonnage to soar from 7.5 billion tons in June of 2009 to 12 billion tons in August 2019.
This 60 percent increase – unprecedented in U.S. history – is now in-your-face visible in the sheer number of trucks on the road.
Buy, buy, buy
The trend caught the attention of the U.S. Federal Reserve a half-decade ago.
“A few simple observations,” the Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED) blog observed in late 2016: “The United States is large. Americans buy things often. So, all kinds of goods get hauled over great distances all the time.”
The post was headlined “Cargo is cloudy for planes, ships slip and trains don’t gain, but trucks are in luck and pipelines are fine.”
A boots-on-the-ground look at the scene a half-decade later leads to the conclusion the trucking business powering across the plains and prairies of the U.S. and punching through the mountains is doing more than just fine.
The trucking business is doing so much better than fine that a goodly number of trucks sport backdoor signs advertising for more drivers.
The driver shortage is such that an ABC News affiliate in Alabama said some lawmakers in the South are considering changing laws to allow teenagers with commercial driver’s licenses to drive trucks across state lines.
And this comes as highway accidents involving trucks are steadily climbing. Policy Advice, an insurance consultancy, reported:
- A 52 percent increase in truck accidents since 2009.
- Seventy-four percent of fatal passenger vehicle accidents now involve a large truck.
- And 68 percent of all truck fatalities are passenger vehicle occupants.
The dangers of the huge number of tractor-trailer rigs on U.S. highways have begun to attract some attention.
“More than 4,300 people were killed in collisions with semis and other large trucks in 2016, a 28 percent increase over 2009, according to the federal government. It would be equal to a 737 airliner crashing twice a month, killing all on board.”
“Those should be eye-opening numbers,” John Lannen of the Truck Safety Coalition told the newspaper. “If air carriers or railroads reported similar numbers, there would be national outrage.”
The newspaper later editorialized for federal regulations to mandate forward collision warning systems, a theme picked up by some other mainstream media.
Carbon dioxide emissions from the growing fleet have attracted far less attention, but they have not gone wholly unnoticed.
Today’s Trucking magazine in November published a story headlined “Freight’s carbon footprint soaring,” which cited Canadian researchers warning that greenhouse gas emissions from trucks could surpass those of passenger vehicles by the end of the decade.
The problem, the magazine noted, isn’t just the long-haul, tractor-trailer rigs that years ago passed trains as the main way of moving freight across the country, but the growing number of trucks everywhere.
“As urbanization, economic activity, online shopping and the demand for same-day home delivery increases, the number of delivery trucks and vans on the streets of our cities is growing,” according to Maddy Ewing, a transportation and urban solutions analyst at the Pembina Institute, a Canadian think tank.
Ewing addressed the Smart Freight Symposium 2020 last fall where she presented an Institute graph that fingered trucks as the biggest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in a world trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
While passenger vehicle manufacturers are electrifying and ship manufacturers are turning to liquified natural gas (LNG) to reduce emissions, truck manufacturers are struggling to settle on a cleaner source of fuel.
Aside from improvements in clean-diesel technology, the trucking industry has seen little in the way of an emissions cleanup. A Tesla electric semi-truck unveiled amid much fanfare in 2017 isn’t expected to become available until this year and demand for the vehicle remains an unknown.
At this time electric, natural gas and hydrogen vehicles all appear to remain in the mix with manufacturers other than Tesla. Few of these alternative fuel vehicles are on the road. They are largely experimental.
“It’s early days on these technologies right now as far as their readiness for commercialization,” Paccar CEO Preston Feight confessed to Trucks.com in July. “There will be some invention; there will be some cost downs during the coming few years. Our goal is to make sure that we’re in a position to provide our customers the lowest operating cost vehicles, whenever the market is ready for them when there is infrastructure, when there is regulation and when the technology is ready.”
The manufacturer of Peterbilt and Kenworth trucks in the U.S., Paccar is a major player in the trucking business both nationally and internationally. A Fortune 500 company, it is ranked as the fourth biggest truck manufacturer in the world based on global revenues.
The caveats loom large in Feight’s outline of Paccar’s move to low-carbon or carbon-free trucks. It would seem trucks will continue to spew a lot of carbon dioxide into the near future as they have in the near past.
Bezos can’t be blamed for all of the increase of greenhouse gases linked to truck emissions, and in Amazon’s defense, the company has promised to reach net-zero-carbon emissions businesswide by 2040 – a promise easier to make than to keep.
But Bezos was the biggest playing in setting in motion the changes that moved markets to where they are today with e-commerce tripling since 2011 and still steadily growing, according to Census Bureau tracking.
Though brick and mortar stores have been largely holding their own, Freight Pros observed that “2017 was the worst year on record for traditional retail, a year in which stores announced more than 6,700 closures. By the end of 2017, that number came to 6,985. This is a trend that will continue through 2018 as online retailers keep chipping away at the brick and mortar storefront. As the top e-retailer, Amazon is leading the online charge that shows no signs of letting up.”
That trend of the 2010s has accelerated in the wake of the global pandemic, but some of the data on retails sales would also appear to indicate Bezos helped create something of a feedback loop, with the ease of online shopping drive an overall increase in the country’s consumer frenzy to buy, buy, buy.
There is no denying the way Amazon changed the market. It drove every major retailer from Walmart, number one in the list of the top 100, to Nieman Marcus, number 93, to up their online game.
Americans can thank Bezos – the Henry Ford of online retail – for making their already easy lives even easier. But as with so many other changes that did so, there come environmental and social consequences.
The Model T set the stage for the development of a nation centered on motor-vehicle transport with all the associated carbon dioxide emissions. Amazon with its online presence tied to anywhere deliveries set the stage for a boom in trucking with its increase in carbon emissions.
The trains of trucks now rumbling across the plains and into the mountains pump vastly more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than the trains that once moved most American freight across the country.
A study out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison concluded that moving freight by rail today produces about a third less carbon dioxide per ton than moving it by truck. Considering the billions of tons of freight in play, this equates to a massive increase in greenhouse gas.
Yet, as the FRED noted, trucks have become the predominant means of freight shipment.
The sheer volume of them on the interstate highways across the American Heartland these days is staggering. Along a 10-mile stretch of highway here, a random Wednesday count found the eastbound semi-trucks outnumbering passenger vehicles.
Along with boosting carbon dioxide emissions, they have changed the driving experience. But thankfully at least 99 percent of truck drivers understand the idea that highway track flows best when drivers adhere to the interstate rule to “keep right except to pass.”