After being driven slowly insane by a year of isolation, Americans are ready to hit the open road this summer. Vaccinations have been out for a bit, and cases are dropping even in states that ended all of their COVID restrictions. With an increasing feeling of safety, summer travel is again on the calendar. There’s one problem: gas stations are already having trouble getting gas in, and people are going to need a lot more when school gets out and travel season kicks into a higher gear than usual.
“We’ve been dealing with a driver shortage for a while, but the pandemic took that issue and metastasized it,” Ryan Streblow, the executive vice president of the National Tank Truck Carriers told CNN. “It certainly has grown exponentially.”
Why There’s A Driver Shortage
Without enough tank truck drivers to deliver fuel to stations, stations are already struggling to have fuel to sell to drivers, and there’s no short-term end in sight. As summer comes and some places sell a lot more gasoline, prices are going to spike and some stations in popular travel corridors are likely going to run out of fuel entirely.
As Streblow told CNN, it’s not a new problem, but the pandemic made it a lot worse. During the worst of the lockdowns, many drivers left to find other driving work because demand for fuel dropped drastically. Now, with the restrictions easing up, the usual flow of new tanker truck drivers into the industry was severely disrupted by the pandemic while the normal flow of people out of the industry continues.
There’s no short-term solution, either, because new drivers won’t be ready to work for months.
Pulling other loads requires a relatively short CDL school, but carrying flammable liquids is far trickier and more dangerous than other loads. To get certified for this, a student needs to go to school for their CDL, then complete a four-week course just for tanker drivers, and then go on to get 160 more hours of training. The whole process can take 6 months, so even schools starting off new drivers in February (when many restrictions started easing up) wouldn’t help the situation until the end of the summer travel season.
CNN talked to experts about this, and they don’t expect stations to run out of fuel for terribly long, but the effects will spread down the road. Drivers will start filling their tanks up when it hits the half-tank mark to avoid getting stranded, which will push the demand to other stations down the road from the ones that are actually running out, and this will partially alleviate the problem through dilution if it isn’t that bad. If shortages get bad enough, though, it will lead to wider spread shortages.
This will be amplified or pushed even further down the road if drivers start resorting to using jerry cans in places with better fuel availability.
Is Expanded Unemployment To Blame?
Conservative outlets like Fox News are blaming easier availability of unemployment benefits for the issue, but this doesn’t seem terribly likely. Even the lowest-paying tanker truck driver jobs are paying double what one could get from unemployment, and in many states, they can get 3–4 times what unemployment pays out. While minimum-wage jobs like fast food can’t compete with the benefits, there’s just not much motivation for tanker truck drivers to sit at home.
The unemployment argument falls flatter when you consider that companies are offering truck drivers up to $14,000 weekly bonuses to get out on the road. Nobody is going to turn down pay approaching a million dollars so they can sit at home and collect unemployment unless there’s a compelling reason to be home.
I think we can very reasonably call this particular myth BUSTED.
Gas Won’t Run Out Most Places, But It Won’t Be Cheap
Places most popular with travelers will feel this the hardest, and if any stations run dry, it will be those and the ones down the road, as described further up. That doesn’t mean all fossil fuel drivers won’t feel the pain, though.
The big bonuses companies are using to take drivers away from other companies have to come from somewhere, and the answer is that it will be coming out of YOUR pocket if you’re buying gasoline this summer. With more drivers chasing less gas, there won’t be any problem with a gas station charging a premium on top of the extra tanker expenses.
Thus, even if you don’t run into a station that’s out of fuel, you’ll definitely run into high prices this summer. CNN‘s experts say the national average could “flirt with $3 a gallon,” which would mean some places will be far higher than that. Some outlets are saying to expect $4 per gallon during the summer, while Forbes says that’s probably just clickbait. The truth will probably be somewhere in between.
Either way, a long road trip will definitely cost fossil fuel drivers anywhere from $10–100 extra, plus the cost of inconveniences when anyone runs out of fuel to sell.
This Could Help Sell EVs
While it’s tough to get the scratch together to build an EV rapid charging station, it’s got one major advantage over gas stations: no truck drivers are needed to bring in the electricity. Along with that, electricity’s price doesn’t fluctuate the way gasoline and diesel prices do.
Looking at the U.S. DOE’s fuel prices charts, it’s pretty clear that gas and diesel fluctuate a lot while electricity prices remain basically flat (and this chart does adjust for the gasoline gallon equivalent of the cost of electricity for fuel, so it’s a fair comparison). Unless severe weather disrupts the supply of electricity (hurricanes can do this), expect EV charging stations to have plenty of electrons to charge up with at the same price you’re paying today.
If enough people see their travel woes increase due to gasoline availability, and they see that their friends with EVs did just fine on their road trips, it will become a big selling point for EVs. Sure, some vehicles like my 2018 Nissan LEAF are completely unsuited to road trips, but Teslas and many newer EVs from other manufacturers do just fine on the highway.
When people see the difference, some will want to make the jump to electric.
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