The speed of technological change has been such an uncontrollable force the last 20 years that the only constant has been articles on the speed of technological change.
Email disrupted the post office. Websites disrupted newspapers. YouTube disrupted television. Netflix disrupted video rentals. Amazon disrupted, well, everything.
In allowing people to shop for so much so conveniently, Amazon has altered the nature of supply chains across the country. Alas, they’ve moved so quickly that laws haven’t kept pace. But now Congress has the chance to update regulations to better match the changing economy, new technology, and the needs of 21st Century consumers.
One of the most common vehicles for shipping is a twin 28 — a truck that pulls two 28-foot trailers. (You probably drive past these every day, and now you know what they’re called.) To accommodate wear and tear on roads, adequate breaking distance, and other safety concerns, the truck, trailers, and cargo can weigh no more than 80,000 lbs., according to federal guidelines set in 1982.
This was a great idea in 1982, allowing commerce to flow through the nation’s arteries safely, but hasn’t kept up with the increasing demands of diverse shipping requirements.
The solution many shippers want to see is approval of the slightly longer twin 33s. While each trailer is 5 feet longer, shippers get 18.6 percent more space. It’s volume, not mass, that shippers need nowadays.
In traditional shipping, identical items in identical packages are packed tightly into the same container. But that’s not how shipping works nowadays. To meet the needs of clients ordering everything from – to borrow an expression — A to Z, Amazon ships all varieties of sizes of items, but with over-sized packaging to accommodate spacing needs. Combining different inventories makes sense on paper, but it’s complicated in real life. (They even talk about this fact on an episode of “The Office.”)
We’ve all bought tiny items off Amazon that came in comically over-sized packages with lots of plastic wrap — shippers these days probably need less weight than they did before, and twin 33’s would still keep the 80,000 lb. weight restriction already on twin 28’s would still be in place.
And speed of shipping is essential for companies eager to meet the increasingly impatient demands of clients, who don’t just want something in two days, they want it in two hours. Amazon, Walmart, and others are all trying to out-do each other. The Wall Street Journal recently summed it up in “The Prime Effect.” Reporter Christopher Mims wrote:
Amazon.com Inc. has made its Prime program the gold standard for all other online retailers, according to surveys of consumers. The $119-a-year Prime program — which now includes more than 100 million members world-wide — has triggered an arms race among the largest retailers, and turned many smaller sellers into remoras who cling for life to the bigger fish.
Fast, efficient shipping is important for the big guys, but it’s now essential for the little guys. Improving our highway’s shipping capacity will help mom-and-pop stores from getting overwhelmed by industry leaders against whose volume they can’t possibly compete.
Safety is one of the concerns about larger trucks — that’s why Congress set the guidelines it did in 1982 — but longer trucks are actually safer than shorter ones, despite the intimidation factor other drivers on the road may feel.
A 10-year study from Sweden’s Chalmers University of Technology found an inverse relationship between vehicle length and risk: the longest trucks (double or triple trailer) had the lowest serious crash rate at 4.4 per 100 million kilometers. One reason they found is that longer combination trucks stay mainly on major motorways, the safest roads. Given how many “fulfillment centers” that Amazon and other companies have across the Fruited Plain, sticking to major motorways won’t be a problem.
Moreover, more bigger trucks mean fewer smaller trucks, which reduces congestion, wear and tear on the roads, pollution, and traffic hazards. Twin 33s are a twin-win.
Something standing in the way of twin 33s is those who stand to gain the most from keeping them off the roads. Powerful regional rail interests that don’t want the competition from bigger trucks, so even though the House appropriations bill for transportation includes a provision to allow twin 33s, the Senate bill does not. Maybe standing in the way are some senators from states where short rails are common — The Wall Street Journal suggested Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) might be the guilty party in “We’re Gonna Need A Bigger Truck.” (Curse them for writing that headline before I had the chance.)
Technological change has been an uncontrollable force the last 20 years. We can’t predict many of the changes of the next 20, but we do know that slightly bigger trucks are safer and better for everyone involved.
Jared Whitley is a long-time politico who has worked in the U.S. Congress, White House, and defense industry. He is an award-winning writer, having won best blogger in the state from the Utah Society of Professional Journalists (2018) and best columnist from Best of the West (2016). He earned his MBA from Hult International Business School in Dubai. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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