From deliveries of online shopping orders to massive pieces of equipment, the open road and trucking help drive the U.S. economy. Autonomous cars and drones may be on the horizon, but trucks—with drivers—still haul and deliver goods to doorsteps. There's just one problem.
America has more open trucking jobs than available commercial drivers. As older drivers retire in greater numbers, the industry faces a driver shortage.
The yearslong labor shortfall was masked during the recession as trucking volume plummeted. Consumers bought less, and builders hauled fewer materials with the housing market's collapse. The U.S. economy and trucking volume have since recovered. And the industry has some 30,000 to 35,000 unfilled truck driver jobs, according to the American Trucking Associations, or ATA, which represents the national trucking industry.
"The underlying driver shortage never went away,"said Bob Costello, ATA's chief economist.
The driver shortfall feels more acute this time. "As the economy continues to recover, now we're feeling it again, but worse than ever," said Brian Fielkow, president of Jetco Delivery, a Houston-based company that specializes in regional trucking.
The turnover rate of drivers at large truckload carriers leaving the industry averaged 130 percent in 2005, according to ATA data. While off those levels, the turnover rate was still high for the first quarter of 2014 at an annualized rate of 92 percent. And the trucking industry is trying to avert a more severe driver shortage.
It's turning to recruiters, and working with driving schools to court the next generation. Some student drivers are securing jobs even before graduating with commercial driving licenses. The industry is paving a transition for military veterans, considering a trucking career.
The stakes, meantime, are only getting higher.
The business of delivering goods is incredibly fragmented among big and small trucking companies, shippers and receivers. The supply chain has to work in tandem to yield glitch-free deliveries. But like in any industry, stuff happens. There can be mechanical delays, or hourslong waits at transition points.
And while still nascent, pockets of the industry already are investigating driverless trucking. Google's self-driving passenger cars in California are just the start for the emerging technology. Some experts see a future where autonomous trucks will cruise less-populated U.S. highways, with a driver taking over as deliveries reach densely populated regions.
Driverless trucking obviously would mean thousands of driver jobs lost. Operating costs over the lifetime of a long-haul truck, about 600,000 miles, could drop by about half using self-driving trucks versus trucks with drivers, according to estimates from The Boston Consulting Group.
"Ultimately this driverless technology will be ready," said Jan Gildemeister, a trucking expert and partner at the consultancy. "It's going to be baby steps in having trucks making more and more of the decisions."
But widespread driverless technology—and public acceptance—are years away. For now, America needs drivers.
"The industry is not attracting drivers at anywhere near the rate to keep up with demand and growth," said Fielkow, whose company Jetco Delivery has about 100 drivers. The drivers' average age? Early 50s.
Driver shortages and available work have fluctuated. But over time, changing quality-of-life expectations have picked away at trucking's appeal. Fewer guys want to do long-haul trips. The vast majority of commercial drivers are still men, though there are women and some couples in their 50s, who team up as one partner drives and the other sleeps.
Younger drivers prefer regional jobs and a family life. "Guys don't want to sleep in trucks anymore. They want to sleep in their bed," said Fielkow.
And for those long-haul drives, there's a push to make trucks even more efficient and comfortable.
Modern trucks feature technology to help drivers communicate in real time. New diagnostic tools allow remote monitoring of trucks. Such advances are appealing as repairing and maintaining a truck over its lifetime isn't cheap—about $91,000, according to BCG estimates.
"If you can anticipate, and make sure mechanics and parts are in place ahead of time, that's a game changer." said Gildemeister.
Sleeker truck designs and trailer skirts, at the bottom of trucks, also are improving fuel efficiency—an ongoing quest in trucking.
Another not-so-small change has been a shift to automatic transmissions in trucks. "New drivers don't want to drive stick shifts. Automatic trucks were unheard of a few years ago," ATA's Costello recalled.
Inside the truck, fancier cabins might feature the comforts of home. Students at Carnegie Mellon University's Integrated Innovation Institute, for example, created design ideas for trucks including an ergonomic kitchenette that allows drivers to cook their own meals. Another design idea includes a structure within the truck to transport pets, complete with a water jug, harness and gate.
A doggie water bowl sounds like a great idea for a pet. But in the end, nothing may attract the next generation of truck drivers like higher pay.
Average annual pay for drivers was under $50,000 last year, up roughly 28 percent from around $39,000 in 2000, according to data from ATA and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Drivers who earn specialization in hauling dangerous materials over long distances can earn around $70,000 and up.
"This is a job where wages will continue to go up because drivers are in demand," Costello said. "But it is a lifestyle commitment."
And therein lies the stubborn rub of trucking. A romantic, open stretch of highway isn't enough to entice younger drivers—especially when other sectors like technology can offer more lucrative salaries and better hours.
Safety is an ever-present concern, and delivering goods on time can be stressful.
But a trucking career, which includes a certain amount of independence, can appeal to the right worker—no college degree required. Just a commercial driver's license.
"I like being on the road. You turn the radio on and just go," said Kerry Contas, a regional driver for Jetco Delivery. After working and driving for a moving company, he transitioned to commercial trucking. Contas enjoys using his hands, and learning how to tie down and secure various loads.
"And I don't have a boss that's right behind me. As long as you do your job right, there's no problem," said Contas. He wants to train to drive specialized loads. "The more you know, the more you make," Contas said.
As trucking works to attract new drivers, pockets of the industry are experimenting with futuristic ideas—with and without drivers.
Driverless vehicles to haul stuff for industry are not new, if not rampant. For example, autonomous hauling systems have around mining for years. In the trucking industry, Daimler recently demonstrated a self-driving Mercedes-Benz "Future Truck 2025. "
Another emerging technology—with drivers—is platoon driving. This allows long-haul trucks to communicate and travel behind one another closely to reduce air drag and save fuel. One start-up in this space is Silicon Valley-based Peloton Technology. "Peloton" also describes a pack of road cyclists.
The technology system controls braking and acceleration, similar to cruise control, and drivers remain engaged and retain steering control. Automatic brakes could help eliminate perception and reaction time following a truck. Front collisions are the most common accidents involving heavy trucks.
But such advanced trucking ideas will take years before they're pervasive on, say, Interstate 80. For now, the American trucking industry needs drivers.
"It really is a noble profession and calling," said Fielkow of Jetco Delivery. "Without them, the economy stops."
—By CNBC's Heesun Wee. Follow her on Twitter .