FORT LAUDERDALE, FL — One of the most critical issues facing the U.S. trucking industry is a major shortage of qualified drivers, said 77 percent of the industry leaders polled by e-mail and at the recent Bi-Annual Fleet Managers´ Conference attended by senior fleet operations managers for Fortune 500-level companies. Conference sponsor First Fleet Corporation, a provider of asset management, financial and operational support to private truck fleets, released on December 9 the results of the survey it commissioned on trucking industry concerns. Not far behind their concerns about drivers were the impact of skyrocketing fuel prices and the cost of maintenance, coupled with the struggle to find ways to reduce diesel consumption. 61 percent of those surveyed stated that they were adjusting vehicle specifications to lower fuel consumption, while 59 percent said they had made use adjustments for fuel efficiency by increasing the load on each truck. Some respondents mentioned the use of onboard telematic tracking/monitoring devices to help develop specific driving pattern improvements to decrease fuel consumption. 93 percent of the trucking executives surveyed said they would replace nearly 25 percent of their fleet within the next year, while 72 percent plan to replace half of their fleet in two or more years. New emission standards taking effect in 2007 appear to play a role in the decision-making cycle, with most respondents saying that they plan to replace an average of 38 percent of their fleet before the new tougher regulations kick in. Telematics is a hot topic among truck fleet managers, with exactly 50 percent of all survey participants reporting that their companies are using some kind of logistics or wireless communications device on board their trucks to increase productivity. An additional 37 percent of those surveyed also plan to install these boxes within a year. Interestingly, while these devices were originally intended for truck location and/or recovery of stolen property, only 13 percent reported using telematics for this purpose. The majority (81 percent) use the systems to monitor driving patterns and equipment specifications in order to develop fuel-saving, equipment maintenance and specification strategies. Homeland security issues drew a 53 percent response of those polled, who felt confident the security measures instituted by the trucking industry since 9/11 has succeeded in making us feel safer. Another security matter addressed was the newly required FMSCA portable driver history and more in-depth background screening of drivers. 77 percent said they were already doing extensive background screening and 43 percent said the new regulations make it easier to hire qualified drivers. When asked what steps their companies are taking to offset some of the fuel problems the industry has encountered, their responses included: "Consolidating fuel purchases via national programs through our corporate parent [has helped]," noted Chuck Schwenzer of Tropicana. And, Mike Lahr of LKQ Corporation said they are "studying a shutoff valve after idling 75 minutes." "Driver training to increase fuel economy," addressed the human equation in the response of Dwight Hammond of Chemcentral Corp. The survey was commissioned by First Fleet Corporation and conducted by Dr. Luiz Duarte, vice president, Starmark Market Intelligence. "The results point to interesting trends and significant issues of concern, including qualified driver shortages, fuel and maintenance costs, followed by performance and durability, all of which are conditioned by truck feature specifications."