Russell Stubbs knows trucks. In fact, you could say trucks are in his DNA. Russell is the former President and CEO of Frozen Food Express, a refrigerated Truckload and LTL carrier started by his family in 1948. He was the third Stubbs to serve in that capacity at FFE and also the only third generation Chairman of the Truckload Carriers Association. As head of the TCA, Russell focused on setting the groundwork for the organization’s long-term success by refining its operational practices and resource management.
All of which is to say that, as a lifelong trucking advocate and executive, Russell embodies the past and the present of transportation—so who’s better positioned to understand the industry’s future? Fresh from his stint as TCA chairman, Russell sat down with us after the Association’s 2017 Annual Convention to discuss the current challenges and opportunities the US transportation industry is facing in terms of technology, retention, and regulations.
This conversation has been condensed and edited from its original form.
JOHN PIPER, Compli: Welcome, Russell. I know you had a whole year at TCA, but let’s talk first about this last week—the Annual TCA Conference. What were some of the highlights? Did you see anything innovative, earth-shattering technology-wise, maybe as it relates to maybe hours of service, compliance, or drivers?
RUSSELL STUBBS: One hot topic is autonomous trucks. We actually had a panel on that with a couple of [original equipment manufacturers] and a couple of carriers, talking about autonomous trucks and what they see in the future. I think the consensus is we’re not going to replace the driver—we know that. I think is the industry’s going to be behind is more of a driver-assist model.
So, for the audience, would we envision an 80,000-pound truck and trailer full of produce going through Dallas with a driver maybe in the sleeper berth or the passenger seat—there would be a professional driver in that vehicle?
My vision would be they’d be sitting behind the wheel, and not necessarily driving but being there to monitor things. And obviously, down the road, if it gets better and better and better, what you just said could be a possibility. I don’t know how that would affect our service if a guy’s not physically holding the wheel and staring down the road, but the technology is there. The breaking technology, the sensor technology—all that stuff’s there. Optimizing fuel mileage: if you take the variables out, you can get better fuel mileage—that the truck would know exactly when to shift gears in whatever road condition. There are so many drivers that are so good at that that they will be just as good as the autonomous truck, but there are also so many new ones coming in the industry that aren’t as familiar with fuel savings and optimization.
Right. I see articles posted that say, “hey, autonomous trucks will solve the driver shortage,” but in that scenario, it wasn’t because you still need a professional driver in the seat. It would really just help improve drastically safety and compliance.
That’s what they’re claiming. Now I haven’t seen all the data, and obviously, a lot of testing has to happen. And I mean, somebody brought up the analogy of airplanes. You’re talking about something that can really be automated is airplanes—but would you want to get in a plane without a pilot?
…And I don’t think anybody else would. And same thing going down the road: Would you want a truck following you or your family without a driver back there in case there’s a malfunction? Maybe that could happen one day. But when you’re on the freeway and there’s other motorists involved, it’s really going to have to be good technology for someone not to be in the cab. I’m not saying it won’t happen. I’m just saying that, right now, you’ve seen all the other technologies that are out there. There’s a lot of aerodynamic stuff out there. There’s a lot of fuel optimization stuff out there that’s been around awhile. The anti-collision stuff’s big. The driver cameras are big.
I don’t want to say bigger fleets are smarter, because some are and some aren’t, but bigger fleets tend to have the cash to invest in these technologies, so they’re usually the early adopters. You talk to them and say, “Here’s what these driver cameras have done for us. Here’s what this anti-collision, anti-rollover—all these things have done for us,” and you look at it and the numbers are there. And. you know, safety’s got to be our number one priority, always.
You’ve said that bringing in drivers through driver schools seems to be the big trend across the industry with the retirement of the baby boomers. The big question everywhere I go is “How do we improve driver retention?” What were you hearing this last year as you went around the country as TCA chairman?
Number one: we, as an industry, have to make it a better job. And that means shippers, that means carriers, that means OEMs. It’s a tough job. You’ve been around a long time and you know these drivers are out there fighting traffic, fighting weather, fighting deadlines, fighting regulation. There are so many obstacles that we have to deal with that people don’t realize. And so, making it a better job means respect. It means managing their time off. We no longer live in a world where driver’s going to come in and say, “Run me until I want to come home.” These drivers want to be home with their families, and I don’t blame them.
Having good, reliable equipment—we’re getting there—and more pay. More pay has to come all the way up the ladder, from the shipper to the consumer. That’s the reality of it. It’s a good job for someone that doesn’t have a college degree and is just getting out in the industry. You know, you can make that $40,000 range, but the top is in that $100,000 range unless you become owner-operator and get real successful. You know, this thing needs to be a $50,000–150,000 range somewhere, and I don’t know how we will ever get there because of the margins of carriers.
I managed a large fleet for a number of years. The money just is not there to make the driver pay increase impactful, and I wish it was. And shippers understand it, and a lot of them are working with us on the driver comfort side as far as building waiting areas for drivers and having a room they can go sit down and watch TV while they’re being unloaded; and restroom facilities, and laundry facilities, and stuff like that that didn’t exist 20 years ago. In many cases, drivers weren’t even allowed to get out of their trucks—they would just pull up, back into the door, and [shippers] would say, “We’ll let you know when you’re loaded or unloaded.”
“Well, I need to go to the restroom.”
“You go to the truck stop after you’re done here.”
It’s being treated like a second-class citizen.
Yeah, it all pushed down on the drivers. And it’s a shame because they’re the backbone of the industry. Without them—and this is cliché—but without them, America stops. People say, “Without trucks, America stops.” Without truck drivers, America stops.
You’ve always impressed me with your ability to relate to the professional driver. You knew early on how important that driver was to the business.
That really started with my great uncle Cy Weller, even though we didn’t get to work together. He was long retired when I got out of college, but I remember several discussions that I had with him: “You get [the driver] in your office, and you look him in the eye, and you talk to him about finances and expenses and expectations.” And a guy I worked with, who I know you’ve known forever, Mark Rhea—he and I really changed the way we looked at drivers at Lisa—basically just becoming truthful, setting the right expectations for them, and saying, “We know your truck’s going to break down. We don’t want it to, but it’s going to happen. You’re going to get caught in a snowstorm and lose two days of productivity. The shipper’s going to cancel a load on you. These things are going to happen, and that’s the business.
“And don’t walk in thinking everything’s going to be perfect. And when that happens, don’t quit, because if you quit and go somewhere else, this is going to happen again there—it’s going to happen again at the next place.” It’s unfortunate that all that falls on the driver, but it does.
We try to do our best to put them in a nice, comfortable truck when they do get stuck somewhere. You’ve seen these tractors with the big sleepers, refrigerators, TVs, and microwaves. You know, you get cabin fever, and it’s just a tough job. Another challenge they have—and he have as an industry—is parking: there’s not enough truck parking on the interstate system in this country. Truck stops get full on the weekends and holidays. Rest areas get full. And drivers are required to stop when their hours of service are up, and there’s nowhere for them to park.
What’s the solution?
We’re hoping that, in this infrastructure rebuild that Congress and the President are talking about, there are some dollars available for more rest areas and more truck parking. A big group of truckers were up on the Hill, at the White House, just two weeks ago.
What did the truckers talk to Washington lawmakers about? Sorry to leave you on a cliffhanger, but we’ll return to this conversation next week! Stay tuned for Part 2, in which we’ll talk to Russell about the possible changes coming to transportation regulations, and more.