Driverless technology might actually add as many jobs as it destroys, but the new roles will be 'the worst trucking jobs around'

cate_89/ShutterstockTruckers won’t be wiped out by driverless technology, but many of the best trucking jobs may be lost.

  • The trucking industry is expected to be disrupted by driverless technology in the coming decades.
  • There are 1.8 million truck drivers in the US.
  • A new report by University of Pennsylvania sociologist Steve Viscelli suggests that not all 1.8 million jobs will be lost by driverless trucks. In fact, many will be replaced by the expansion of “autonomous truck ports,” where local drivers will bring goods to the driverless trucks.
  • Those new jobs, though, are likely to emulate existing port driving jobs, which are poorly-paid, less likely to have benefits, and average 59 hours a week of work.

Autonomous vehicles were forecasted last year to threaten “more than four million jobs,” the vast majority being careers in heavy truck driving.

Silicon Valley seems keen to hasten the arrival of those driverless trucks. Starsky Robotics, for instance, said it will put driverless trucks on the road as early as this year.

Once again, it appears the robots are taking over – and working-class Americans will lose, yet again.

A new report by University of Pennsylvania sociologist Steve Viscelli diverges from that narrative. Driverless technology may add as many jobs as it takes away, Viscelli wrote.

Based off extensive research and interviews with tech companies, trucking manufacturers and firms, drivers, unions, academics, and others, the report indicates that around 294,000 jobs would be lost in a world with autonomous trucks. Many of the lost jobs would be in long-distance trucking, which involve transporting goods for hundreds of miles a day over the highway.

Still, it’s projected that there will be enough jobs added to accommodate displaced drivers. These will be found in sectors like local driving and transporting goods to what he calls autonomous truck ports (ATPs).

Here’s the situation he wrote was most feasible in the near-future:

“Human drivers would take care of non-driving tasks and navigate complicated local streets, then swap trailers with self-driving trucks at an autonomous truck port (ATP) next to the highway. The autonomous truck would handle the long-distance freeway driving, then hand off the load at an ATP near the destination.”

Well paid trucking jobs expected decline growth driverless trucksShayanne Gal/Business Insider, ‘Driverless?: Autonomous Trucks and the Future of the American Trucker’ by Steve Viscelli

Enough jobs would exist for displaced drivers, but they wouldn’t be good ones

Industry experts aren’t worried that driverless technology would destroy all driving jobs, but it is likely to nix tens of thousands of some of the best jobs in trucking, as well as relatively well-paid jobs.

Around 51,000 jobs in less-than-truckload driving, for example, are at risk of displacement from autonomous technology. These drivers bring shipments from different customers to one destination, but they do relatively little non-driving work and mostly drive on the highway. That means they’re particularly likely to be replaced by driverless trucks.

And that’s a major loss. Many of these workers are unionized, and the average pay in less-than-truckload driving is $US69,208.

Compare that to the average pay of port drivers: $US35,000. This segment is expected to boom as autonomous trucking expands, because these drivers will be needed to transport goods from factories or warehouses to the autonomous trucks before those vehicles hit the highway.

However, they’re “among the worst trucking jobs around,” Viscelli wrote. Port drivers are less likely to have health insurance or retirement benefits, work an average of 59 hours a week, and are usually classified as independent contractors rather than employees.

“Twenty-five years from now, there will likely be many more jobs moving goods than there are today,” Viscelli wrote.

“(T)he jobs created by autonomous trucks will pay far less than the jobs we might lose,” he continued. “The risk of autonomous trucks is not that there won’t be enough jobs for American truckers, it’s that there won’t be enough good jobs.”

Are you a truck driver with a story about the industry? Email the author at [email protected].

Click here to explore the entire report, commissioned by the Working Partnerships USA and the UC Berkeley Labour Center.

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