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Supply Chain News: Will or Will not Autonomous Trucks Eliminate Huge Numbers of Truck Driver Jobs?


Researcher Steve Viscelli is Back with New Analysis, Predicting a Modest Loss of about 300,000 Jobs


Sept. 5, 2018
SCDigest Editorial Staff

Most seem to believe autonomous trucks really are coming, if the timing is still highly uncertain.

But an perhaps more interesting question is what in the end will be the impact of self-driving trucks on the millions of Americans who drive trucks for a living. And perhaps surprisingly, there are all sorts of opinions on that topic.

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The jobs facing the greatest risk, Viscelli says, are those where drivers move cargo over hundreds of miles but perform few specialized non-driving tasks.

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Some industry observers, for example, have said use of autonomous trucks for line haul routes would have a minimal impact on driver employment overall, with many jobs involved in more local pick-up and delivery processes, at a time when there is a driver shortage estimated by the American Trucking Associations currently of at least 50,000 drivers and expected to get much worse in coming years.

Taking that line of thinking even farther, research sponsored by Uber earlier this year, for example, actually projected that while autonomous trucks would indeed eliminate some driver jobs, the net result would actually be an increase in the number of driver positions.


Uber said that under all the scenarios it had constructed, total trucking jobs will actually increase in the US through 2028.

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. (See Will Autonomous Trucks and Drivers Happily Co-Exist?)

That's one view. Someone with a much different view is Steve Viscelli, a sociologist who is a fellow at the University of Pennsylvania's Robert A. Fox Leadership Program and a senior fellow at its Kleinman Center for Energy Policy.

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Viscelli made a name for himself in logistics circles in 2016, when he authored a book titled "The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream," in which he said it should be no surprise there is a truck driver shortage.

"The job is terrible, and the companies know it," Viscelli wrote at the time, with a big focus in the book on the plight of contract drivers.

Now, Viscelli is back, with fresh analysis that finds indeed autonomous trucks will lead to major losses of driver jobs – but not in the millions, of some have predicted.

Viscelli says autonomous driving technology could replace some 294,000 long-distance truck drivers over the next 25 years. While that is indeed a smaller impact than some have predicted, it could still significantly reshape freight-industry employment.

Using autonomous vehicles for long-haul cargo runs, the most likely near-term scenario as described above, would in fact likely spur increased demand for delivery and local trucking jobs, which, Viscelli's report says - tend to be lower-paid and often have poor working conditions than long haul drivers.

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Viscelli, who worked as a truck driver for several months while researching his book, interviewed computer scientists, startups, carriers, equipment manufacturers and other experts as he studied how self-driving technology might be used in the trucking industry. He calculated the likely job impacts based on industry-reported data on driver headcount and revenue for various trucking segments.

The jobs facing the greatest risk, Viscelli says, are those where drivers move cargo over hundreds of miles but perform few specialized non-driving tasks, such as unloading freight, coupling trailers, inspection and maintenance, executing multiple stops, working off of major highways, etc.

SCDigest's View: The loss of some 300,000 jobs is not insignificant, it seems a relatively small number over 25 years, especially in the face of a driver shortage expected to exceed 100,000 over the next few years. While it will lead to changes in the industry and the make-up of driver jobs, if accurate it would hardly be the bloodbath some have suggested – and maybe Uber's research is right and total driver jobs will grow.

What's your view - will autonomous trucks kill huge numbers of driving jobs or not? Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback section below.


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