The race for driverless trucks is on - and it's fiercely competitive. Tesla, Uber, Google and many large automotive companies have their eyes rigidly fixed on a future where human truck drivers are obsolete, or, at the very least, demoted to co-pilots. With so much investment and excitement around their development, driverless, autonomous vehicles will be here very soon. But what does this mean for an industry which, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employs 1.8 million Americans? Will driverless trucks be the end of truck drivers?
In a guest blog post on Tech Crunch, Ryan Peterson, the founder of Flexport, writes that 'no technology will automate away more jobs - or drive more economic efficiency - than the driverless truck.' He states that the cost of wages is the biggest outgoing for the industry. He's absolutely right, American Trucking Trends estimate that while trucking is a $700bn industry, a third of the costs go to compensating drivers. Wiping out wages would increase revenue - a lot.
Last year, the median income for a driver with three years’ experience was $57,000, according to a National Transportation Institute survey. And the more experienced drivers can find themselves earning upwards of $75,000 a year. Yet it's a job that requires little training and expertise, so it's long been an industry filled with opportunity for blue collar workers. No job embodies the American dream quite like the trucker, a career that pulls people up from their bootstraps and gives them the chance to make a good living. And the freedom and expanse of the road has been mythologized in literature and film, framing truckers as the cowboy of the 21st century. Many view the automation of trucking as the end of a golden era of American industry.
What those idealizing the trucking industry fail to see is that it is already a fast-dying trade. Truckers are ageing - according to the American Trucking Association (ATA), the average age of a driver is now 49 - and young people aren't taking their place. There's now a panic in the haulage industry over the lack of new talent. According to Logistic Viewpoints, some estimates indicate that the shortage could reach over 150,000 by 2024. The impact on the supply chain will be unequivocal.
Long-haul drivers are now the most sought-after people in logistics. The result? Truckers can demand higher wages as demand outstrips supply, escalating the cost of truck shipments. It's easy to see why automation seems to be the answer to the labor shortage.
People are moving away from working in trucking because, simply put, it is not a very comfortable or fulfilling job. It requires being away from family and friends for sometimes months at a time. Truckers are at the wheel for days in a row, working laborious hours, sleeping in and living out of their trucks. The turnover is huge because of the stresses of the lifestyle, with an ATA survey revealing that the average annual driver turnover runs nearly 100% for large truckload carriers. It's also an unstable line of work given the huge turnovers and stresses on traditional lifestyles.
And these issues don't even begin to take into account the dangers of the road. Each year, around 4,000 Americans die in truck-related collisions, according to a Department of Transport survey, and human error is responsible for many of these accidents. An automated truck won't get tired, bored or distracted, they can't be influenced by drink or drugs. Autonomous vehicles will instead be able to sense and communicate with one another to avoid fatalities altogether. In an interview with the Guardian, Finn Murphy, author of The Long Haul, a biography of his life long-haul trucking, predicts that in the future 'they are going to look at driver-operated vehicles the way people now look at a pregnant woman smoking.'
Peterson addresses the benefits of removing humans from the wheel in his blog: 'where drivers are restricted by law from driving more than 11 hours per day without taking an 8-hour break, a driverless truck can drive nearly 24 hours per day. That means the technology would effectively double the output of the U.S. transportation network at 25% of the cost.' Automating the trucking industry will mean transporting goods is much safer, much more cost-effective, not to mention incredibly time efficient.
Peterson also predicted in his article, written in 2016, that driverless trucks would be part of many supply chains in 2017. They were not. That being said, they are getting closer to being road-ready. For example, the start-up Peloton are developing a platooning system that uses vehicle-to-vehicle communication to connect acceleration and braking across the trucks. The trucks follow each other closely to save fuel, and each driver keeps their hands on the wheel while the engine and brakes are linked to the front truck, so they speed up and slow down in sync. Platooning will likely be the first step towards driverless trucks. But, speaking with the Financial Times, Josh Switkes, the chief executive of Peloton, says he still believes it will be at least a decade before drivers’ jobs are genuinely impacted by automation. 'Truck drivers today are not going to lose their jobs,' he says. 'We see a process where, at least for the foreseeable future, drivers become more important and more highly skilled.'
Before trucks can legally be operated without drivers, companies have a lot to go through. Governments will have to reconsider regulations and infrastructure to support the change, and society will inevitably struggle to accept unmanned vehicles at first - concerns that they could be hijacked for terrorism have already been voiced by numerous individuals. It could be many years before they become widespread.
Obviously the loss of 1.8 million jobs would be devastating for the individuals and disastrous for the economy, but driverless trucks are not going to happen overnight. The technology is still being developed, and this is before the hurdles of regulations and infrastructure adaptations can be addressed. Even when they are introduced, many experts believe the truck driver role will evolve into something else, something more skilled, important and without the huge negatives that come hand-in-hand with truck driving today. The much more pressing concern for the trucking industry is the very real, very worrying labor shortage.