By on August 8, 2018

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.

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17 Comments on “Autonomous Tech Won’t Displace Truckers, Biased Studies Claim...”

  • avatar

    The CB radio craze was another highlight of the Malaise Era. Truckers were en vogue for a couple of years. Whip antennas, denim jackets, trucker caps, and wallet chains were ubiquitous. It’s kinda sad that truckers will be replaced by computers. Philo Beddoe wouldn’t be pleased.

    • 0 avatar

      urban hipsters are doing their part buying denim jackets, trucker caps and wallet chains, not to mention the manicured beards.

      They won’t have anything to do with two way radios though.

  • avatar

    The biggest problem for self-driving systems will be that they can’t handle difficult weather. Snow, ice, fog, rain, dust will cover or disable cameras and sensors so the vehicle will not be able to see and drive without human help. As they used to say in the mail business – Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds – the freight must go through.

    I can imagine similar problems with regular “self-driving” cars where the owner has over a period of months gotten used to reading books or watching porn during the drive time and one day snow and freezing rain starts to fall and the self-driving system suddenly broadcasts that the human must take control because the roads are too dangerous for the self-driving stuff to continue. Nothing like a distracted, totally out-of-practice human driver to start relearning how to drive on icy roads to improve road safety.

    • 0 avatar

      Yep. Good luck with that autonomous semi when a bunch of sensors are clogged with ice and slush. I’ve seen a bunch of posts about foul weather gremlins on some of the Honda forums. Seems the Honda Sensing bits don’t play too well with winter conditions.

      Companies that ship want to save money, but they also, as you point out, want their stuff delivered on time, reliably. Human drivers are more adaptable, more likely to get your stuff to the destination if conditions go south.

  • avatar

    I’ve long suspected that the real objective of the self-driving craze was all about jobs… and how to eliminate them.

    • 0 avatar

      Sure. Unemployed people sitting at home with their new Universal Basic Income make reliable voters and reliable audiences for all the tech companies whose CEOs are pushing UBI.

  • avatar

    Well, you’re right. Look I’m a big fan of EVs,first for environmental reasons although there are many other reasons related to national security, fun to drive, etc. The EV adoption rate is slow as these are soft reasons.

    Although there are tremendous safety reasons, adoption of autonomous vehicles will be driven primarily because of the economics – taking substantial cost out of the service. If your competition can deliver a substantially (20 to 50%) cheaper service, your business will fail. There’s tremendous pressure on transportation services that recognize this now trying to be the winning survivor, not the loser.

  • avatar

    There are already (almost) autonomous trucks.

    They’re called “trains”.

  • avatar
    Guitar man

    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.

    – My understanding is this is simply to stop people stealing stuff from unmanned vehicles.

    A human driver will still need to be present to navigate tricky urban areas, refuel, and line the trailer up at the shipping docks.

    – Well no this is already gone. The Sydney port for instance, is now totally automated.

  • avatar
    Tele Vision

    I’d like to see an autonomous truck reverse into and one-time a loaded 53′ on a slope in a sideways blizzard like the shunt truck driver could at the warehouse I worked in as a youth. He never missed and his only concession to the snowy weather was a set of chains. On the steering axle.

  • avatar

    If you ever wondered why, despite the reports of crashing Teslas on automatic pilot (with an apparently inattentive driver), automated vehicles were still being pushed, wonder no more.

  • avatar

    Line haul will go quickly. Local stuff will go much more slowly.

    For local delivery the human spends more time loading and unloading, signing paperwork, even picking orders than they do driving. It might be possible to have a yard man load all your trucks which then drive away by themselves but then you need someone on the other end as well.

    A lot of jobs will go but a more importantly a lot of well paid driving jobs will turn into poorly paid labouring jobs.

  • avatar
    Mike Beranek

    These “studies” are nothing but a slick PR job. The history of industrial automation suggests that human jobs are always eliminated once a more economical automated option exists. Why would it be any different in the trucking industry?
    The real upshot is this… where do most truck drivers live? In the country. In fact, truck driving jobs are the only thing pumping money into rural economies. There are very few farming or manufacturing jobs left in the sticks. Take away the truckers’ salaries and say goodbye to rural gas stations, grocery stores, restaurants, car dealers- all of those jobs go up in smoke too.
    Most rural counties are already struggling to keep businesses open and young people from fleeing to the job-rich metro areas. Mark my words- automated trucking means the death of rural America.

  • avatar

    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.

  • avatar

    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

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