MIT CTL Research Scientist David Correll was recently invited to give expert testimony to the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. He served as a witness at a committee hearing held November 17 to dive into the ongoing supply chain bottlenecks and explore the issue from the perspectives of industry and labor.
Citing his research from the Driver Initiative, a research project of the MIT FreightLab, of which he serves as co-director, Dr. Correll illuminated how inefficient use of U.S. trucking capacity has contributed to the current logjam. Having analyzed the working hours of some 4,000 over-the-road truck drivers since 2016, Dr. Correll’s research has found that the driver “shortage” is not a shortage, but rather a problem of “chronic underutilization” of existing drivers; though allowed a maximum of 11 hours of drive time per day by law, truckers spend on average only six and a half per day. “This implies,” he told the committee, “that 40% of America’s trucking capacity is left on the table every day.”
This gap is driven by detention time, or the time a driver spends at a warehouse waiting to load or unload—for which they are often not paid. These delays can often take several hours, costing truckers work hours that could be spent on the road. This is not, Dr. Correll said, “a function of what the drivers themselves do or don’t do, but rather an unfortunate consequence of our conventions for scheduling and processing the pickup and delivery appointments.” Just 18 minutes of added drive time per driver per day could close this gap. “My research,” he continued, “leads me to see the current situation not so much as a headcount shortage of drivers, but rather an endemic undervaluing of our American truck drivers’ time.”
At the heart of it, Dr. Correll said, increasing drive time is not a simple clerical matter such as changing schedules or adding more drivers or staff. Responding to a question from Rep. Thomas Massie ’93, ’96 SM; R-Ky.; Dr. Correll underscored the complexity of the factors at play:
“We tend to frame this, to use a television analogy, kind of like it’s a detective show. Like if we just analyze this issue consistently enough or cleverly enough, we’re going to ID the one culprit. [Instead,] I think it’s a reality weight loss show. We’re all just sort of living with the consequences and prioritizations that we’ve made in America over years and over [the course of] the pandemic. And the only way that we can do better is to reprioritize in a way that respects truck drivers’ time, respects truck drivers’ dignity, and harmonizes our systems.”
Dr. Correll offered a few recommendations for solutions to cutting down on detention time and improving efficiency. Fortunately, the fundamentals are sound, he said. “We’re facing a software problem, not a hardware problem.” Broadly, his recommendations centered on making systems transparent, standardized, and technologically modern. Like a health letter grade in a restaurant window, carriers could use a standard system to rate facilities based on detention time and how truckers are treated. This way, all drivers could share information and know up front exactly what to expect, and transparency into those facilities’ practices would provide an incentive to improve. Taking a cue from the airline industry, which successfully upgraded its technology, he suggests doing away with cumbersome paper systems at warehouses and other facilities in favor of electronic systems, which would dramatically streamline many trucking processes. And furthermore, more data collection on detention time would continually shed light on what needs improvement.
But at the very least, Dr. Correll said at a recent research talk, “Just treating truck drivers with respect and giving them a bathroom would go a long way.”