What happened to individually owned tractor trailers?
July 31, 2007 2:08 PM   Subscribe

What happened to individually owned tractor trailer cabs?

As a child (80s, maybe into the early 90s) I clearly remember being fascinated by the ways truckers decorated their cabs: different colored lights, fancy paint jobs, (feminine) name of the truck airbrushed on, name of the driver with "owner/operator" underneath, little stickers for all the states visited. Taking a trip several months ago, I idly began watching for interesting looking cabs and realized that every one I saw was clearly company owned. Since then, I've sort of been watching the road and have only seen a couple that might have been privately owned, but even those I couldn't be sure about. So: what happened to what I'm assuming were individually-contracted truckers? What changed in the trucking industry since then? (If my take on this is completely wrong or fallacious, I'd like to know that too.)
posted by frobozz to Travel & Transportation (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
They are still around, just less prevalent than they used to be. John McPhee's A Fleet of One is a wonderful article, published in the New Yorker in 2003, that chronicles a few weeks in the life of one of these truckers. You absolutely must read it, because he is a superb Pulitzer-winning writer and you'd like the article even if you weren't already interested.

I see that McPhee has a book out about long-haul freight transportation, called Uncommon Carriers. It probably includes "A Fleet of One." I'm glad your question made me find out about this book; I'm going to buy it.
posted by ikkyu2 at 2:23 PM on July 31, 2007 [3 favorites]

They call them owner operated cabs, and they are alive and well but definitely not as prevalent anymore since the entry cost to this profession is rather high. You can make very close to the same money (look at billboards, you'll often see places paying something like 59 cents a mile for company drivers, 69 cents a mile for owner-operated) as a company driver, without the initial outlay for a truck.
posted by Loto at 2:29 PM on July 31, 2007

frobozz - See the show "Trick My Trick" - it's Pimp My Ride but with owner/operators. I think it airs on CMT.

ikkyu - that book is awesome.
posted by djb at 2:33 PM on July 31, 2007

ikkyu2, thanks for that article, I'm about three pages in and thoroughly enjoying it.

Maybe the general excess of the 80s made for such highly decorated cabs they were just much harder to miss - I haven't seen a really pimped out cab since I've been looking, and the highways near where I live have a fairly high concentration of tractor trailers. I have been looking for more than just decoration though, and the cabs nearly all seem to have company information on them; although admittedly it's hard to make a thorough survey when you're driving at the same time.
posted by frobozz at 3:09 PM on July 31, 2007

I was in Wyoming, I think, late at night and after driving an RV for like 8 hours or so, I saw a tractor with four spinning rims on the two drive axles. This remains one of the greatest thing I've ever seen in my life, I wish I had a picture. Also, this may have been a hallucination from being awake/driving too long, but I sure hope not.
posted by knowles at 3:46 PM on July 31, 2007

I see these on longer trips, but not around home. My totally random guess is that the people who owned their own trucks have enough experience/seniority to get their pick of trips, and that they mostly avoid near-city congestion. (Also, I seem to see them more at night, which fits--avoiding traffic.)

And yeah, I've never seen a really really crazy cool cab, just the basic non-company paint jobs... painted in flames, painted with a big flag, etc.
posted by anaelith at 5:14 PM on July 31, 2007

@anaelith: yeah, I think you're right. I see them pretty frequently out here in the middle of nowhere. But not to the extremes that the Japanese have taken customization to, though.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 8:36 PM on July 31, 2007

I'm not an expert, but my brother used to be a long-haul driver, and his ex-wife's hubby is a regional driver. Some of the factors impacting the mix of owner-operator vs. fleet truckers:

* Increasing automation, allowing a fleet to physically keep track of all its drivers (satellite/gps/cell phone/cab computer)
* Increasing consolidation in the retail and restaurant industries, leading to corporate-sized fleet contracts
* Increased overseas/Mexican imports, more likely to be handled by fleets
* Increasing regulation and insurance thresholds, creating barriers to entry and higher investment costs
* Decreasing tolerance for the helter-skelter life of a driver without a regular schedule (senior drivers in a fleet can get more regular runs, or have their pick of runs) Yes, sort of the opposite of what anaelith says.

McPhee usually previews his books in the pages of the New Yorker so that guess is most probably correct.
posted by dhartung at 8:54 PM on July 31, 2007

Off topic sort of... I read a work of fiction called "Gonzalez and Daughter Trucking Co." recently, and it was a fun read about an owner-operated truck.
posted by BrotherCaine at 7:07 AM on August 1, 2007

I've got a friend who's become a trucker rather recently (he used to tour with his band, so I think he just got used to being behind the wheel). What's been happening is that there's been, over the last ten years, a shift in two important things that had made owner/operator surge during the '80s and '90s. The first thing that you've got to understand is that it only makes sense to be an independent when you can make more money doing that than working for another outfit; from there, the increases in gas prices and increased driving hours regulation have made it so that margins got thinner and thinner for independents, until a lot of 'em either gave up or went to work for the bigger companies.
posted by klangklangston at 11:16 AM on August 1, 2007

Thank you, everyone, for all your answers. In case anyone else is interested in this, I'll add a small section from the New Yorker article that succinctly goes over some pros/cons of this issue:

Most owner-operators own just their tractors. They haul company trailers. In the hazmat-tanker business, Ainsworth knows of only one other driver who owns his whole truck. Insurance is near prohibitive. Per vehicle per accident, the limit of liability for a dry box or a flatbed is seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars. For a chemical tanker, the limit of liability is five million. So why did Ainsworth want to own the whole truck? "First," he answered, "my piece of the pie increases. Second, I maintain her. I know what kind of shape she is in." ...

...companies pay them [non-union drivers] thirty-five thousand a year. Specialists like auto-haulers can make a hundred thousand a year. An owner-operator may gross a hundred thousand, but roughly half is overhead: payments on the tractor, road taxes, insurance, maintenance, and about seventeen thousand dollars' worth of fuel. There are some three hundred and fifty thousand independents on the road, hauling "mostly reefers and flats."

pages 7-8
posted by frobozz at 1:58 AM on August 6, 2007

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