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Category: Transportation and Logistics

Supply Chain New: Will Autonomous Trucks and Drivers Happily Co-Exist?


Short and Even Medium Term Impact on Driver Jobs Looks Modest at Best

June 13, 2018
SCDigest Editorial Staff

As autonomous truck technology rapidly marches on, there have been many concerns raised about what the impact will be on the jobs of the more than three million US truck drivers and tens of millions more across the globe.

Recently, ride sharing giant Uber, which is also developing autonomous truck technology, offered a different view. In February, Uber said it had done some deep analysis on this key issue and found that under all scenarios it has constructed, total trucking jobs will actually increase in the US through 2028.

Supply Chain Digest Says...

"It will help to ease the driver shortage, but we're never going to eliminate the driver's job as I see it today, at least not in my lifetime," trucking exec says.

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How is that possible?

Here is Uber's logic: It says the deployment of self-driving trucks will improve 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, though acknowledging some long haul driver jobs will be lost in the transition.

Now, an article last week in Transport Topics, the magazine of the American Trucking Associations, takes a similarly optimistic view.

Developers of autonomous truck technology in fact "are working to build a future where drivers and automation work hand in hand to transport freight more safely and efficiently," the article says.

For example, the several technology firms and startups hope to introduce fully autonomous trucks in the near future by limiting the scope of where they can operate, leaving much of the work to drivers in conventional vehicles.

That includes the "transfer hub" model championed by Uber, under which unmanned long haul trucks would travel from exit to exit on freeways and swap trailers with trucks operated by local drivers at designated transfer stations.

The article cites other concepts, such as "teleoperation" of autonomous trucks with remote backup drivers, or use of truck platooning technology to create mixed convoys of piloted and autonomous vehicles.

These business models could begin to address trucking's persistent labor shortage and high driver turnover rates, but they also may require fleets to make changes to the structure of their operations while still keeping lots of drivers employed.

However, models that still involved lots of drivers may have issues with return on investment from self-driver technologies.

"The common theme, when you look at all these business models, is that these are limited applications" for autonomous trucks, Mike Cammisa, vice president of safety policy, connectivity and technology at the ATA, told Transport Topics.

He added: "They lend themselves to certain types of freight movement, but not all. That's why we still see that need for truck drivers. You still need the driver to handle certain elements of the driving task."

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Along the same lines, Bob Verret, chief information officer for Dupré Logistics, said the industry likely will move toward "hybrid" business models that incorporate both drivers and automation.

"There's going to have to be some marriage of the technology with the driver that maybe makes the job a little more pleasant for some people," he said. "It's a tough job to be a driver, and some of these technologies are making it just a little bit easier to do it."

Verret predicted that truly autonomous trucks would be restricted to large freeways and would perhaps drop trailers at depot stations for drivers of conventional trucks to pick up.

"It will help to ease the driver shortage, but we're never going to eliminate the driver's job as I see it today, at least not in my lifetime," he said.

Even the technology developers that are working to enable fully autonomous trucks still see a definite need for drivers for many years to come.

"This is something that is going to happen at a methodical cadence, not an instant rush," said Alex Rodrigues, CEO of self-driving truck startup Embark.

The company aims to refine its technology to the point where autonomous trucks can operate on freeways with no one onboard as part of a transfer-hub arrangement.

Even so, Rodrigues said he believes that younger truck drivers won't have a hard time finding work later in their careers given the existing driver shortage, the large number of workers retiring from the profession and the fact that many trucking applications are not well-suited to automation.

The bottom line: autonomous trucks may reduce driver jobs down the road, but given the likely pace of adoption, limited applications for now, and an on-going driver shortage, the social impacts related to job loss are simply not short term worries.

What do you think the impact of autonomous trucks on drivers jobs? Long way off? Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback section below.


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