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Supply Chain News: Here's a Different Take - Uber Says Autonomous Trucks May Increase Driver Jobs, not Eliminate Them

 

Because Goods will be Cheaper, Consumers will Buy More, Uber Says, Leading to More Local Pickups and Deliveries

Feb. 20, 2018
SCDigest Editorial Staff

As autonomous truck technology marches ahead towards what seems to be inevitable deployment someday – and maybe very soon - there has been much hand wringing about the impact on driver jobs, one of the most populous area of employment.

There are thought to be more than 3 million US truck drivers, for example, some 2% of all jobs in the country.

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Uber says it is also possible that as a result of all the trucking industry shift away from a "per mile" pay approach and towards hourly rates in support of the local haul model.

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Although it did not much venture a date for when this would occur, last year a report from Goldman Sachs Economics Research said that when autonomous vehicle saturation peaks, US truck drivers could see job losses at a rate of 25,000 a month, or 300,000 a year.

Meanwhile, late in 2017 a report from the International Transport Forum found that as many as 50-70% of truck driving jobs in the US and Europe could be lost by just 2030 due the rapid introduction of autonomous trucks into the market.

At the upper end of that range, some 4.4 million out of a total of 6.4 million driver positions could be eliminate, the report said.

The report then recommended the formation of advisory boards to look at the social issues that would arise from such a high level of displacement, and suggested that governments consider use of a permitting system for driverless truck deployment. In other words, the roll out of autonomous trucks would be metered by governments to slow the transition in a way that manages the social impact more gradually.

However Uber, the ride sharing giant that got into the autonomous truck business with its acquisition of start-up OTTO in 2026, has a totally different view of autonomous trucks and driver jobs.

In a blog post on its web site last week, Uber wrote that "While concerns [about job losses] are understandable, they don't account for the technical realities of self-driving technology or the industry's evolving demographics and economics."

In fact, Uber says it has created a team of engineers, computer scientists, and CDL-holding trucker drivers to study this issue.

Uber says it has already published its vision for the future of trucking: a mixed-fleet system where truck drivers and self-driving trucks work alongside one another, connecting long and local haul routes.

"We think this model could mean more growth in truck freight, an increase in better truck driving jobs, and more affordable goods for everyone," Uber says.

Uber's blog then goes on to note the well-publicized driver realities: a growing shortage of drivers in the US and across the world, and a worrisome aging of the current driver population that likely will mean even greater shortages in years ahead as the baby boomer cohort begins to retire.

Uber is far from the first to suggest autonomous trucks will be key to addressing that driver shortage and keeping rates from skyrocketing due to a lack of capacity.

The company foresees what it calls "transfer hubs." These, Uber says, will be "central exchange points that seamlessly connect automated long haul routes with drivers specializing in local hauls."

Uber sees a network of these transfer hubs placed strategically across the country, connecting local and long haul trucking. Drivers transport goods from warehouses and factories to transfer hubs near highways. Then self-driving trucks, designed for highway driving, pick up the shipments and drop them off at another hub where other drivers take them to their final destinations.


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Developing autonomous trucks for long-haul routes over highways is not so hard, Uber says. Having autonomous trucks operate over local roads and in urban areas is quite a different challenge. The transfer hub concept deals with this challenge.

Uber says it has been analyzing government and other data to understand the amount of freight moved on long-haul and local routes, using different scenarios relative to the pace of autonomous trucks for long-haul freight movement and truck efficiency in both types of movements.

In one scenario, Uber assumed there would be 1million self-driving trucks on roads in 2028, which it admits is highly unlikely but useful for analytic purposes. It also assumed that each self-driving truck could do the work of two of today's trucks because they can operate at all hours of day and night

As shown in the chart below, Uber says that in its baseline projections without self-driving trucks, the number of trucking jobs nationwide increased 766,000 by 2028.

All Uber Scenarios Analyzed Show More Trucking Jobs Through 2018

 


Then, Uber says, "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 is this the case? Uber says 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. And when consumers buy more, more new goods need to be shipped than before, which drives truck freight volume up.

"In this scenario, when 1 million self-driving trucks are operating on highways, we would expect to see close to 1 million jobs shift from long haul to local haul, plus about 400,000 new truck driving jobs will be needed to keep up with the higher demand," Uber says.

Very interesting indeed.

"Growth for self-driving trucks will therefore mean growth for truck drivers, on top of all the things we move getting cheaper and arriving faster," Uber adds.

What's more, those local haul truckers would be picking up and dropping loaded trailers, meaning big reductions in wait times at loading docks.

"And for drivers who prefer long haul, there will still be many routes across the country for years to come," Uber says.

This increase in trucking jobs was the same for all nine scenarios Uber considered, though it did note there may be a negative impact on linehaul driver wages as demand falls.

Uber says it is also possible that as a result of all this the trucking industry might shift away from "per mile" pay approach mostly used today and towards hourly rates in support of the local haul model, but that depends on many industry changes to policy and carrier structures that self-driving trucks won't directly influence.
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"This research doesn't give us a definitive answer on the future of trucking, but it helps us understand what could happen, using real economic data and insights about the actual products we're working to build," Uber concludes.

The full blog post can be found here.

Is Uber right that autonomous trucks will actually increase driver jobs?
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