Autonomous Tech Won't Displace Truckers, Biased Studies Claim

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

Last year, the Center for Automotive Research said robotic vehicles will eventually displace professional drivers in figures that will be “certainly in the millions.” Meanwhile, Goldman Sachs predicted trucking job losses of 25,000 per month as autonomous vehicles roll out in earnest. Truckers are going to end up like pinsetters and switchboard operators — saddled with a career that have been nullified thanks to automation, until they become extinct. However, we’ve also heard there’s a lack of manpower within the industry and that’s helping spur development.

This year, a glut of new studies emerged that suggest self-driving vehicles will actually benefit truckers. Unfortunately, they all come from sources that really want you to be stoked with the technology.

One of these studies, commissioned by the American Center for Mobility and led by Michigan State University and the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, concludes that autonomous vehicles will “largely support truck drivers instead of replacing them” over the next decade.

“Automated vehicle technology could incorrectly be viewed as a change that will eliminate driving jobs; however, the more nuanced assessment is that over the next decade the innovation will foster broader societal changes resulting in shifts in the workplace and workforce demands,” said Shelia Cotten, MSU Foundation Professor at Michigan State University, who led the research. “Additionally, this level of advanced technology has the potential to lead to the creation of thousands of new jobs in the engineering, data analysis, cybersecurity and vehicle ‘monitoring’ areas. Based on data collected from industry experts during the study, there is already a significant demand in several of these areas related to AVs.”

The study also suggests a need to “transition the workforce and public for automated vehicles” as a way to mitigate future headaches. But truckers won’t be eliminated outright. Instead, there will be a period where autonomous vehicles will only be able to take over during the long-haul. A human driver will still need to be present to navigate tricky urban areas, refuel, and line the trailer up at the shipping docks.

Studies like this also discuss the idea of automated convoys, where the lead vehicle is human operated and followed by one or more autonomous trucks. This is framed as a way to help cope with the shortage of truck drivers. Earlier this year, Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group made similar claims through research of its own. It estimated that approximately 1 million self-driving trucks will be on the road in 2028, operating at twice the capacity of their human-operated counterparts. But it still said the shift would be good for truckers.

From Uber:

“In our baseline projections without self-driving trucks, the number of trucking jobs nationwide increased 766,000 by 2028. When we add self-driving trucks into the scenario above, truck driving jobs increase even more, with many long haul jobs shifting to local haul to support growing freight volume moving in and out of transfer hubs. Why? The deployment of self-driving trucks improves efficiency on long haul routes, lowering the overall cost of trucking and reducing the total cost of the goods being shipped. When goods are cheaper, consumers buy more of them.”

That sure sounds good, as truckers will be able to spend more time with their families by avoiding the long haul. But imagine how much more time they could spend with them if they were unemployed!

Obviously, we’re skeptical of research based entirely on estimates and shared by outlets that have good reason to sway your opinion. But there’s still some valid points being made here. For starters, the long-haul aspect could be a boon to drivers in the short term and help with the workforce shortage. However, the end game is still the replacement of flesh-and-blood drivers with machines.

Replacement jobs within the tech industry are all well and good, but comes with a few problems. They have to equal the number of jobs lost to be an effective remedy, and we’re doubtful the average trucker will be able to hop right into positions like that when they’re ultimately let go. More cutting-edge jobs are wonderful, but it won’t help someone who spent the last 25 years sitting behind the wheel of a big rig.

There’s also a host of problems with how effective this technology truly is. A few highly publicized screw-ups could set the timeline back years, and we’ve seen the limitations of automation within the automotive industry already. There are numerous examples of automated assembly lines that were simply too expensive to maintain. Many of the most robotized factories hit severe slowdowns whenever there is a production curveball. Humans, on the other hand, are adaptable, flexible, and the industry has not abandoned them as a result.

The trucking revolution will supposedly take place swiftly, but plenty of line workers and manufacturers said the same thing when robotics first came about. Trucking jobs will still be lost; it may not happen as fast as everyone thinks. Although, based on how interested automakers seem to be in developing autonomous ride-hailing fleets, truckers will be the second group to face elimination. If everything goes to plan, cabbies are supposed to begin confronting their robot overlords as early as next year.

While we understand these industries need to put out studies that make the prospect of autonomous vehicles seem less scary, it’s unrealistic to assume they have a lock on the future. Take these claims with a grain of salt. There are many hidden variables, and the technology hasn’t exactly proven bulletproof ( even the stuff that’s already on the road). Likewise, it is going to be a bloodbath for truckers if everything runs smoothly. But that’s progress for you.

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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2 of 17 comments
  • Hpycamper Hpycamper on Aug 09, 2018

    Without dedicated roadways, autonomous trucks are not likely. Relying on everything to work right 100% of the time, which it would have to, is a fantasy.

  • Timotheus980 Timotheus980 on Aug 12, 2018

    I can think of lots of good reasons why many carriers wouldn’t want a robot driving their rig. If the Iranians can hack a US military drone, someone will figure out how to hack a rig and redirect its cargo. There’s also all those pesky records that computers keep that could incriminate some of the shadier operations