The End of The Truck Driver

Self-driving is close to reality in trucking. The impact will be felt worldwide.

Autonomous driving capabilities have been well-demonstrated in millions of Tesla cars, as well as in robotaxis fielded by companies such as Cruise, Waymo and Baidu. But the most economically powerful use case for self-driving isn’t in taxi service, it’s in the trucking industry. 3.5 million Americans drive trucks, earning an average of over $48,000 a year. It’s good money for a craft that requires skill and concentration, but with minimal formal education and upfront training. Those skills are not likely to be easily transferable to some other line of work once the robots take over. California is proposing a law that would effectively prohibit self-driving trucks. Many pundits feel that this is only a delaying action, and the robotrucks are an inevitability. What then? Jim Anderton comments.

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Episode Transcript:

For years now, self-driving has been the hottest technology in the automotive industry. The race has been fast and furious to develop true SAE Level IV or V systems with sufficient reliability to let the driver read a book or take a nap while driving.  

While self-driving is probably the ultimate convenience accessory in a passenger car, the real money in autonomous vehicles is in trucking. Long-haul trucking in particular is bound by a unique set of costs. Driver salaries are frequently the biggest single component of motor freight transport over the long haul, and hours of service legislation to promote road safety slows down freight or forces the adoption of driving teams or Pony Express-style relays.  

If ever there was an industry ripe for automation, trucking is it.  

And compared to driving a cab in a crowded city, over the road hauling on interstates is a far simpler task to perform safely. It’s being demonstrated right now by companies like Tusimple and Argo AI, with modified conventional production Class Eight tractors. So far, it works well—well enough that the prospect of replacing America’s truck drivers with autonomous vehicles has become a political issue. Why?  

Three and a half million Americans are employed as truck drivers, who earn an average annual income of approximately $48,000. What makes this sector popular and important is that it is a skilled job that requires no postsecondary education, relatively little training and is in high demand.  

High demand with not enough supply, resulting in a labor shortage that is driving the industry toward autonomous driving. 

In California, Assembly Bill 316 proposes that a human safety driver be present at all times when an autonomous system is operated. This is obviously a backdoor prohibition on the technology, and it has significant support from labor unions, as expected.  

Self-driving is working under very difficult circumstances as robotaxis right now, as demonstrated by Cruise, Waymo and Baidu, among others. Several companies have demonstrated self-driving in Class VIII trucks, albeit with a safety driver present. There is reason to believe that these systems are ready for long-haul open road driving right now, and would represent significant cost savings at a time of labor shortages in this and other U.S. industries.  

The speed with which this technology can be implemented will be rapid. So, what happens to the three and half million people that are employed in trucking right now? Well, that’s the overarching question when any new production technology is adopted, and it’s been this way since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The Luddites smashed the early textile machines, because it destroyed their home-based craft industry and replaced it with the horrors of the dark satanic textile mills.  

In time, the benefits of industrial automation became apparent to everyone, and the same will be true with self-driving trucks.  

It’s the speed of transition that matters. A 50-something long-haul trucker with 30+ years of experience isn’t going to retrain to be a coder. So, what we do with the people that are displaced by this or any similar technology?  

That’s the question, and it’s where any legislative efforts should be targeted. Maybe a better compensation system that extracts some of the cost savings of the autonomous system to pay the displaced might work. Or maybe a universal basic income. But no matter what, the demographics show that the Western world is aging, and trucking represents a career path that offers relatively high reward with relatively little formal education.  

Finding equivalent jobs for those three half-million displaced won’t be easy.

Written by

James Anderton

Jim Anderton is the Director of Content for Mr. Anderton was formerly editor of Canadian Metalworking Magazine and has contributed to a wide range of print and on-line publications, including Design Engineering, Canadian Plastics, Service Station and Garage Management, Autovision, and the National Post. He also brings prior industry experience in quality and part design for a Tier One automotive supplier.