As the history of the United States evolved, the truck has evolved with it. The trucking industry was introduced to America in the nineteenth century. Prior to trucks, most shipping was done on the railroads. During this time, infrastructure wasn’t in place to support trucking so many continued to rely on railroads for shipping. Due to the infrastructure limitations and the rail lines providing the services needed, there wasn’t a demand for trucks so there wasn’t much focus on innovation.
In the early 1900s, trucks were limited to short hauls and drivers had to be extra conscious of the weight of the goods they were carrying. Drivers opted for the more reliable electric wagons over gasoline or steam engines. By 1910, significant improvements had been made to the trucks like vertical four-cylinder engines and sliding gear transmissions which made them more reliable and quicker. During this time, manufacturers began to realize the opportunities that trucks presented over the rails.
The tractors and semi-trailers we are used to seeing today were introduced in 1912. A year later, drivers began to move away from chain driving in favor of new gear driving. 25,000 trucks were produced in 1914 and that tripled in 1915. By 1920, the number of registered trucks had sky rocketed to 1,107,6391. With more trucks being produced and driven, road infrastructure struggled to keep up. Rural roads couldn’t support the trucks so many remained on city roads.
As the country prepared for World War I, the military increased the demand for trucks. Trucking manufacturers began to produce and send trucks overseas for military use. The continued demand encouraged engineers to improve truck designs. As the war continued, railroads became more congested as they began to move items for the military as well as for businesses. In response, truck drivers began to make longer hauls. To withstand the longer hauls, improvements were made to the truck tires to handle different roads, increase speed, and withstand heavier loads.
After the first World War, the U.S. government created a federal aid system to continue the development of roads across the country. As the highway system expanded, so did the routes that trucks could take. Interstate trucking steadily increased throughout the 1920s. Truck developments also continued as components such as power-assisted brakes, six cylinder engines, and three axle trucks were created. As more trucks were on the roads, design elements were being developed to not only improve the capabilities of the trucks but also the safety for drivers and others on the roads.
Diesel trucks were developed in the early 1930s; however, they did not become popular until the 1950s when containerization was introduced to the industry. The containers were a great solution for shipping security and optimization. The containers also allowed for easy transitions between modes of transportation which introduced the idea of intermodal shipping. Trucks could easily transfer these containers to the rails and vice versa.
In its first 50 years, trucking transformed from a small operation with numerous limitations to a vital aspect to business. The trucking industry continues to reflect the changes in America’s economy to meet the demand of consumers and businesses. Since the 1950’s the trucking industry has continued to transform to improve efficiency and safety. Today, there are about 5.6 million tractor trailers registered for use in the United States2, nearly five times as many that were registered in 1920. These trucks continue to transform for more efficient means of transportation for a variety of industries.