How Technology Has Impacted The Progression of The Transportation Industry

January 5, 2024

The trucking industry has been an economic giant for decades, its size only growing as commercial industries have grown increasingly dependent upon it. But as normal as seeing a Semi on the road may be to us today, this wasn’t always the case. Technology has played a key role in the scaling of the transportation industry as a whole, affecting the efficiency of tractors and the guidelines surrounding their use. To truly understand this industry today and the future of trucking as a whole, it is valuable to look to the trends of the past and the growth that resulted after these key moments in history. 

Let’s go on a deep dive into the history of trucking and the technology that has shaped its future. While some developments we will discuss are impacted by other countries, our primary focus will be the evolution of trucking in America.


Going Back to the Roots

The first big boom in transportation was, of course, the train. The continued development of the railway system allowed for the widespread distribution of goods to once unreachable areas. While non-perishable goods could be transported via wagon, that method took months to deliver. Perishable goods typically wouldn’t make it very far before becoming damaged beyond use or spoiling.

The train changed the way we approached this issue. Not only did it exponentially increase delivery times, it also made previously untransportable goods (such as delicate produce) accessible to other parts of the country that had been otherwise unreachable.

However, there were still issues with this method of distribution. Railway stops acted as a central distribution center, but unless you lived in the immediate area, many goods would never make it back to your town. Wagons and personal vehicles were still limited in their reach. How would technology develop to include not only bustling trade hubs, but also more remote areas?

Enter… the Semi Truck


While sources often conflict on who created the first semi-truck design, Alexander Winton is largely accredited for its development in American transportation. At the tail end of the 1800s, Alexander, a car salesman in Cleveland Ohio, was struggling with a problem - how to transport the new cars he sold to their final destination. Again, if the buyer was local, there was little issue in getting the car to them with little time, expense, and wear on the product. But what about areas outside of Cleveland? Delivery to further areas not only took a lot of time and money, but by the time they made it across the difficult and dusty terrain between their lot and the buyer, this brand-new vehicle experienced significant wear and tear. Alexander wanted to find a way to transport his new cars to prevent this reoccurring issue and expand his reach. Enter… the Semi Truck.

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First Growth


Now, with the technology developed to cross longer distances with larger loads, trucking steadily became a more prevalent way for goods to be carried. By the 1910’s, truck sales had tripled. While that growth was significant from where it had started a decade before, their use was still only a small fraction of where it is today. There were a few reasons for this - the top being that roadways at that time were simply not equipped to handle such large vehicles. Difficult dirt roads were either impossible to navigate with such a bulky vehicle or too slow to be worth the effort. In addition, tires then were nowhere close to the durability and strength that we have today. It was around this time that the first states began to implement weight restrictions for these rigs on their roadways to prevent damage to either the road or transported goods.

The first World War was a turning point - precious shipments were needed more than ever for military use, expanding the road systems and reach of trucks. Improved pneumatic tires made it possible to traverse rough terrain and speed of transport doubled (Before you get excited, doubled in this case means going from 15 to 30).


Continued Development


Post-war, increased need to continue using this same method of transportation only continued to grow as roadways and technology vastly improved. The development of power-assisted brakes, six-cylinder engines, and three-axle trucks made trucking more efficient and more common across the United States than ever before. 

If I were to pick a pivotal moment in history that defined Trucking as we know it, it would have to be the 1930’s. For starters, it was in 1930 that we see the implementation of Hours of Service. This development really highlights how much the industry had grown by this point for regulations to be enacted surrounding its use. Of course, in the 1930’s, America saw an unprecedented economic downturn that affected the demand of goods and therefore reduced the need for transportation. While, like all other industries at this time, the transportation industry suffered, America kept trucking and made it through to see another large development in transportation: the diesel truck. That being said, you wouldn’t see this vehicle around much until about 20 years later in the 1950’s.

WWII provided even more roadblocks to the already stunted growth of the transportation industry. Rubber and metals were in high demand for the war efforts, making a large impact on truck manufacturing and repairs. Supply shortages of these precious materials meant getting new trucks was extremely limited and making needed repairs to your vehicle could be difficult if not impossible. Fleet production was at a standstill, which meant the trucks that were on the road became increasingly valuable.


Exponential Growth

Of course, this was only a temporary setback. After the war, the trucking industry once again stabilized and continued to grow at a steady rate.

It’s in the 1970s that we see a large spike - the first of several consecutive developments that have led to the modern-day scale of the industry as a whole. In this era, we see the development of what is commonly referred to as “piggybacking”. This led to a sharp rise that spiked even higher after the Motor Carrier Act of 1980, a legislation that made it easier for carriers to reduce their rates and expand their reach. 

Between 1980 and 1990, the number of licensed carriers grew from 17,000 to over 40,000. While many in that number were still restricted to a limited number of states, the number of carriers allowed to operate nationwide went from under 100 to a staggering 5,000. We did the math so you don’t have to - that as a growth rate of 4900%!

Regulations and processes continue to be refined from this period onward. Hours of service regulations are adapted to match the increase in technology available, including the need for certain exemptions for industries with differing needs from standard operations. 


Modern Day


What many deem the largest development in the modern-day history of the industry is the ELD mandate. While paper logs served their purpose for HOS compliance, it is in 2017 that we see the nearly complete shift to ELDs, that is, electronic logging devices. These devices connect to the truck itself to automatically track HOS in lieu of paper logs. Truck manufacturers continue to make their trucks with this technology in mind, which is why some older models are exempt as the technology is not compatible with an ELD. 

In addition, technological developments that allow companies to run their back office more efficiently has allowed fleets to expand to a much larger scale than before. Such features as dispatching and more refined GPS systems have allowed drivers to avoid unnecessary delays, resulting in a larger profit for the company as a whole.

We continue to watch as other technologies and regulations make their way to the forefront, such as the development of the Electric Semi and the continued push by several states to reduce the Carbon footprint of the trucking industry. The implications of such developing technology as the autonomous Semi and the transfer hub method are huge. Such changes could mean the solution to issues such as the driver shortage, trouble complying with HOS requirements, and could vastly improve the efficiency of transportation. Demand for long-haul transport is only increasing, and as technology continues to advance, we look forward to seeing what the future holds for this industry.