The History of Truck Driving

Lindsey Woods
12 Minutes

The history of trucking goes back decades, even an entire century. The Trucking Industry as a whole is an essential, yet under-appreciated player in the development of our national economy and growth as a nation.

The Truck is Born

The first what we would consider a 'truck' dates back to 1896. German engineer, Gottlieb Daimler used a horse-drawn cart and fitted it with a rear-mounted, four horsepower, two-cylinder engine. The first trucks had no front nose, solid rubber tires, and the motor was located under the driver's seat, and thus the truck was born. Back in the early years of automobiles, there were hardly any paved roads for these vehicles to drive on; by 1914, there was less than 15,000 miles of paved road.

During this time period, the previous form of transporting goods was by railroad, but as the years went on, trucking soon took its place. Originally, the trucks of this time were motorized wagons that helped in local economies to transport goods to neighbors or people across town. They couldn't travel great distances, but did help to advance small towns. As the new century emerged, new advancements brought in a whole new era of trucks.

The Early 1900s

By the 1900s, trucking had started to grow, spreading to small towns and helping grow local economies. The demand for cheap transportation grew, but the drivers to transport didn't. Within just a few years, truck drivers were forced to work 12-18 hour days, 7 days a week. They were typically only paid $2.00/day and were liable for any damages to the goods they delivered. Tired of being forced to work ridiculous hours for little compensation, 1,700 drivers from across the country banded together to create a workers force called Team Drivers International Union. The first truckers union formed in 1900 and paved the way for many more to follow. The most well-known and influential trucking union soon followed after, the Teamster National Union, later changed to the International Brotherhood of Teamsters in 1902. The Teamsters union is considered to be the "most powerful trucking union in history", having strong leaders who influenced legislation and policy for the betterment of the industry, such as Dan Tobin and the infamous Jimmy Hoffa. The unions demanded better compensation and safer worker conditions for truck drivers, supporting other groups and protests around the country.

By 1912, the trucking industry took off, nearly reaching 10,000 trucks in the U.S. New innovations in technology like electrical running lights allowed drivers to drive at night, making delivery times much faster than before. Within the next decade, the government spent $75 million on new road construction, opening the possibilities for new places to deliver. In 1912, Teamster drivers made the first transcontinental delivery, leaving Philadelphia and driving to Petaluma, California arriving 91 days later. This was the start of Over the Road Trucking. Two years later, another trip delivering from Seattle to New York City lasted only 31 days, proving that trucking was going to be big.


Between 1914-1915, the modern truck emerges. Otto Neumann and August Fruehauf invent the semi-trailer, and in 1915 Charles Martin created the first fifth wheel, meaning you could now quickly hitch and unhitch semis to trailers. In 1918, Maine is the first state to set a weight-limit for transportation, setting the standard for weight limits today. Lastly, in 1920 pneumatic air-filled tires were invented, meaning less damage to goods being transported, and faster, smoother deliveries.

Although trucking had already been around for a few years, the first time they start gaining national attention is when America enters World War I. To deliver the supplies to troops across the country, trucks were used and truck drivers were recruited.

The 1930s

America was now a part of the global economy, and trucking really grew. The aftermath of WWI left the railroad industry hurting, but with the expansion of trucks and improved roads nationwide during the war, trucking becomes the new norm. Like every industry, trucking suffered during the Great Depression. To start the process of recovery, President Roosevelt created the New Deal. Many of its policies pertained to laborers and industries, such as the trucking industry. Through the Public Works Administration, new roads were constructed and old ones repaired. In 1933, the American Trucking Association was formed to "develop, advocate, and advance" the interests of truckers. The Great Depression saw many entrepreneurs take advantage of the reduced competition, and forcing drivers to work over hours and in dangerous environments. More strikes like the Minneapolis general strike of 1934 saw trucking unions join together to demand better working wages and conditions for the second time in the industry.

Another important event for the industry was the Motor Carrier Act of 1935. The railroad industry had expressed its concerns about the lack of regulation on the trucking industry, leading to a dip in railroads. The Motor Carrier Act created the Interstate Commerce Commission to monitor and regulate the trucking industry, and harboring a "more stable and equitable system" Many drivers to this day still benefit from the Interstate Commerce Commission, even though it no longer exists.


With the start of World War II, trucking started to shift. Truckers were mobilized for war, being the ones who transported troops and supplies across Europe. After the war was over, trucking boomed. Small roadside pull-offs were the start of today's truck stops. In 1945, Al Gross invented the CB radio, which was a massive revolution to truck drivers.

American Trucking during the 1950s and 60s

The 1950s was a revolution for the trucking industry. Trucking was put back into the spotlight when singers and movie stars focused their subject matter on truck drivers. Songs like 'Truck Drivin' Man' released in 1954 were seen as "a tribute to the triumphs, hardships, work ethic, and free spirit that defined the American Trucker" ( In the years following, 'Truck Drivin' Man' soon put the Truck Driver as an American icon.

Social and political movements were changing in the 50s. The cold war had begun in 1948, but by the early 50s, the fear of nuclear war was on the rise. As a response, the government felt the need to prepare to mobilize for a nuclear attack. In 1956, Congress signed the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act and thus the Interstate Highway System was created, which led to the interstate system we have today. This allowed anyone with a motor vehicle to travel between any two points in the country.

In 1957, Jimmy Hoffa was elected president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. While he was president, he crushed anyone who opposed him, including Bobby Kennedy, and cemented his power. Hoffa fought relentlessly to negotiate better contracts for his constituents and expand the Teamsters membership, nearly bringing all truck drivers in America under one contract. He became a blue-collar hero and was despised by politicians. To this day, his disappearance is one of the most famous in American history.

The end of the 50s leading into the 60s, the Civil Rights Movement was in full force, backed by many Teamster union members. The Teamsters "provided money and supplies to many civil rights groups, including the more than 700 families living in 'Freedom Village' who faced retribution for registering to vote in 1960". Freedom rides were driven by Teamster drivers, and they advocated for equal rights and equal pay. The same year as the Civil Rights Act, the Master Freight Agreement was signed in Chicago, which provided non-craft laborers the basic benefits and protections that were already in place for other blue-collar workers. Truck drivers were now among the middle class.

1970s, 80s & 90s

New regulations were put in place in the 70s. President Nixon signed a bill mandating a national interstate speed limit, to conserve oil during the Oil Crisis. The Oil Crisis (or the Energy Crisis) was another time when the government had set regulations on the transportation industry, such as special federal agencies like the Department of Transportation to check the trucking industry. By 1980, the second Motor Carrier Act was put in place, which deregulated the trucking industry. The deregulation of the trucking industry led to drivers de-unionizing, and a more self-regulated system.

During the 80s, trucking companies grew more competitive. More advancements in safety technology like tractor and trailer design came during this time as well. The Department of Transportation newly elected Elizabeth Dole, who quickly put in place more restrictions, standardizing the requirements of safety in the industry.

Trucking in the 21st century

With the trucking industry thriving throughout the 80s and 90s, trucking companies challenged each other to offer the best designs and safety features for trucks and trailers. Competition led to further advancements throughout the 21st century. When the attack on 9/11 occurred, many industries in the US were transformed, including the transportation industry. Getting Hazmat on your license became much more difficult along with increased safety checks.

The increase in Ecommerce grew exponentially, taking its own toll on the trucking industry, trying to keep up with the quick delivery dates and increased number of goods. The vastly growing consumer demand changed other aspects of the United States. Robotics and autonomous machines have just begun their journey, with a truck delivering 2,000 cases of Budweiser to Colorado being fully autonomous in 2016. The combination of consumer growth and not enough workers in the workforce created a trucker shortage that had been brewing for a few years. The driver deficit grew from 10,000 to 60,800 in one year ending in 2018, with it expected to continue to grow in the coming decade. The impact of Covid 19 to the trucking industry is just beginning to show its affects with brick-and-mortar businesses suffering and trucker exhaustion reaching a high point.

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