America's 1.8 million truck drivers don't need to worry about autonomous tech threatening their jobs anytime soon, experts say

  • The trucking industry is expected to be disrupted by driverless technology in the coming decades.
  • There are 1.8 milliontruck drivers in the US.
  • While tech companies are keen on saying that all of those drivers will be replaced by autonomous technology, transportation analysts disagree.

When I tell people I cover trucking, they’re usually quick to offer up one of two hot takes.

The first concerns “the truck-driver shortage,” usually helped along by headlines like “America has a massive truck driver shortage. Here’s why few want an $US80,000 job.” (The median trucker salary is actually about $US42,000.) While firms are certainly struggling to recruit new truck drivers, it’s not usually mentioned in these discussions of a shortage that driver salaries are as much as 50% lower than what they were in the 1970s.

The second, more common thing people ask about is self-driving cars. I’m often asked if America’s truck drivers are all going to be unemployed pretty soon as autonomous technology renders their jobs redundant.

Tech leaders and financiers alike are confident that self-driving trucks will become the norm as early as in the next decade, phasing out around 1.8 million truck-driving jobs and saving the industry an estimated $US300 billion.

It would be a massive issue for truck drivers. The federal government estimated there are 1.8 million heavy-duty truck drivers in the US, though the American Trucking Associations estimated there are as many as 3.5 million. Indeed, the most common job title in the majority of states is “truck driver.” The average one is about 55, which basically leaves out the possibility for retraining.

At the same time, autonomous vehicles would save the trucking industry billions and increase fuel efficiency, according to a Morgan Stanley report. Labour savings alone would cut costs $US70 billion per year, and productivity would be up 30% because driverless trucks would run 24/7.

Robots may replace as many as 800 million workers by 2030; they have already displaced key blue-collar jobs across the US.

But are truck drivers next? According to most trucking industry analysts, probably not.

First of all, there’s the legal problem

Donald Broughton, the managing partner of transportation-analysis firm Broughton Capital, said it’s true that self-driving trucks won’t be barreling down the highway in the next five years.

“Everybody is talking about, ‘Ooh, it’s cool technology,’ without considering the legal component,” Broughton previously told me.

That legal issue: There’s no clear path to suing a self-driving truck who hits and kills those outside of the truck. In 2016, 3,326 passenger-vehicle occupants, motorcyclists, bicyclists, and pedestrians died in large-truck crashes. (Around 80% of car-truck crashes were caused by the passenger vehicles, not the truck.)


Read more:
Driverless technology might actually add as many jobs as it destroys, but the new roles will be ‘the worst trucking jobs around’

In cases where the trucker was at fault, the plaintiff might sue the truck driver, the trucking company who hired the driver, or the company who hired the trucking company, Broughton said.

But what if there’s no truck driver to sue? Following current liability laws, the freight company who made the equipment cannot be sued.

“We have to change the liability law to include and indemnify the maker of the truck,” Broughton told Business Insider.

That means the maker of the self-driving software, the equipment manufacturers, and everyone else involved in the truck’s machinery could be sued if a self-driving truck kills or maims a person.

The technology is not yet commercially viable at a large scale

The technology for self-driving trucks has been quickly developing. But, as FreightWaves CEO Craig Fuller told me, “We’re not at a place where the technology is proven.”

Many of these driving tests occur under highly monitored situations. The much-ballyhooed driverless Anheuser-Busch truck, which delivered 51,744 beer cans in October 2016, was surrounded by four Colorado state patrol cars and three other vehicles. (Two tow trucks also ensured the strip of highway was clear before the Otto truck barreled down it.)

And even commercially viable driverless trucks aren’t yet equipped to handle a range of real driving situations. Volvo’s mining trucks in the Norwegian mine of Brønnøy Kalk are operating in “a confined area on a predetermined route.”Companies, such as TuSimple, are running autonomous trucks on typical highway routes, but people are still in the truck cabin.

Certainly, that technology will be able to move from the testing lab to more general commercial use, but, as Ars Technica reported, it will take many years before these cars are truly free of drivers.

By the time the technology and the law are worked out, many drivers will be aged out of the industry

A report by University of Pennsylvania sociologist Steve Viscelli said, in part, because truck drivers are on average in their mid 50s, there won’t be as many job losses in trucking when autonomous driving is finally implemented.

Viscelli said there will be job losses, but autonomous trucking would also create as many jobs as it destroys:

While as many as 294,000 jobs could be lost to autonomous trucks, given the ageing workforce, growing demand for trucking services as costs decline, and other factors, there will likely be enough jobs to accommodate the displaced drivers. In fact, with the growth of e-commerce and the need for local drivers to shuttle freight to and from ATPs, we could see many more local trucking and delivery jobs.

The larger concern Viscelli wrote about is that the new jobs that autonomous driving creates will likely be bad jobs – independent contracting, long hours, and poor pay.

That serious problem aside, trucking experts are certain that driverless technology isn’t going to put America’s 1.8 million truckers out of work. The technology isn’t there yet, and the law is far away from catching up to it on the trucking side.

The technology in trucking that’s presently profitable is addressing issues like ensuring that truck drivers are paid while waiting for shipments and being able to find work. These are the problems truck drivers and their employers actually deal with today.

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