October 10, 2016 4:00 AM, EDT

ATA Plots Future Course

New President Chris Spear Vows Aggressive Advocacy
John Sommers II for TT

This story appears in the Oct. 10 print edition of Transport Topics.

LAS VEGAS — The more than 2,500 attendees of this year’s Management Conference & Exhibition arrived here with the expectation of gaining insight on how American Trucking Associations’ new leadership team will set the industry’s course.

They departed the Oct. 1-4 event with a clear message from ATA President Chris Spear that the federation will aggressively take its message to lawmakers and the public, while planning further outreach to unite the diverse trucking industry.

“In the eyes of some elected officials, we look like a money-filled piñata. I’m here to tell you that those days, these impressions of our industry, are over,” Spear said during the conference’s opening session.

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His fiery comments included warnings to state lawmakers that ATA will actively assist with lobbying and litigation efforts when there are national implications, and he said anti-truck groups whose “one-line sound bites and baseless rhetoric” will be met with swift replies that expose “hidden agendas.”

At a press conference later, Spear, who replaced Bill Graves as president in July, said his message was designed “to ignite our industry.”

While ATA leaders may be the face of trucking on Capitol Hill, Spear said, “There is a much bigger, broader face of our industry and we really need to do more to capture that. I do believe the full breadth of this industry will drive outcomes.”

One person who will play a key role in pushing that message over the next 12 months is Kevin Burch, president of Jet Express Inc. in Dayton, Ohio, who was elected ATA’s chairman at the conclusion of the conference. Burch has been the leading voice of the “Trucking Moves America Forward” image campaign since its inception. He succeeds Pat Thomas, UPS Inc.’s senior vice president of state government affairs, for a one-year term.

“We have not done a very good job telling our story,” Burch said. “I’m going to be telling our story every time I can.”

While much of the conference covered familiar topics — speed limiters, highway funding, electronic logging and the hours-of-service restart provision — there was unmistakably a fresh message about the proliferation of autonomous-driving and platooning technologies.

During a panel led by Transport Topics, executives with Otto, Peloton Technology and Daimler Trucks North America touted their investments in these areas as well as a vision for how the technology will alter the industry’s operations for years to come. That took place two days after John Bozzella, president of Global Automakers, said the technology is ready but a lack of federal regulations and other barriers remain hurdles.

“We all appreciate and agree the technology is here. It is real, and it isn’t going away,” Spear said, while expressing disappointment the federal government had not engaged the trucking industry as it begins considering a regulatory framework for autonomous vehicles.

“We want to understand and help shape how this is going to look. We have to advise our members if this is good or bad and to do that we need to be involved,” he said.

Spear was blunt in his criticism of the recent proposal on speed limiters for heavy-duty trucks from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, saying, “In my humble opinion, I think it is flawed.”

He said MCE provided a good opportunity to begin crafting comments to the proposal, which did not specify a speed. Rather, it sought feedback on setting the limiters to 60 mph, 65 mph or 68 mph.

A lack of safety data or focus on speed differentials in different states raises questions with the plan, which already has received more than 2,400 comments.

“We cannot afford to elevate risk to the motoring public,” Spear said.

FMCSA Administrator Scott Darling, in attendance at MCE, announced that final rules for minimum entry-level driver training requirements and a drug-and-alcohol clearinghouse are expected to be published by the end of the year.

“We will continue to work with Administrator Darling and his team to be sure each rule is transparent, based on sound science and research and accomplishes its intended goal,” Spear said.

The conference also covered economic ground. ATA Chief Economist Bob Costello said freight demand remains restrained by larger-than-normal inventories, but he was hopeful for a modest rebound ahead.

The exhibit hall featured two new truck models: International’s LT Series (unveiled a day before the start of MCE) and Freightliner Truck’s redesigned Cascadia.

Volvo’s SuperTruck also was prominently displayed in the exhibit hall.

While MCE is focused on business, there also is entertainment. Grammy-award winning singer John Fogerty performed at the closing banquet, which came one night after the Rolling Stones played a surprise set at the Freightliner customer appreciation dinner.