Driverless? The uncertain future of the American trucker

A new study claims autonomous trucks could eliminate as many as 294,000 driving positions over the next 25 years.

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The trucking industry may be primed for a major labor crisis. According to a new study, autonomous trucks could eliminate as many as 294,000 driving positions over the next 25 years, including the highest-paying jobs held by senior operators.

The numbers, though staggering for employees in the sector, aren't substantial enough to have a significant impact on the national labor market writ large, but the industry is being watched closely as a bellwether for the kind of disruption and realignment that will soon take place in many industries as a result of automation.

Within the trucking sector, it's unclear how many news jobs will be created as technology continues to streamline operations. The coffee shop wisdom is that automating core jobs in a given sector reduces workforce across that sector. But the reality is usually more nuanced.

I reached out to Steve Mitgang, CEO, SmartDrive Systems, a company that provides data-driven intelligence and analytics to commercial transportation clients, for his read. According to Mitgang, the reality of coming automation in the trucking industry is much more textured than the easy headlines suggest.

GN: Give me a sense of timeline. When does it look like autonomous trucks will viably be on highways? Why?

STEVE MITGANG: There is no doubt that we will see an expansion of point to point proof of concepts, as well as more fixed local route experimentation. It's certainly plausible that we could see a small scale enterprise (a few thousand vehicles) on the roads in the next 24 months, but for the larger fleets with more complex operations, we're still a decade shy of full autonomy and full operation.

GN: That seems to conflict with the perception that autonomy is right around the corner.

STEVE MITGANG: When thinking about timeline, it's important not to lose context. There are a number of factors to consider when anticipating fully viable autonomous vehicles taking up space on the highways. Beyond policy and regulation, we have to consider how an autonomous vehicle will adapt to dangerous weather conditions or road blockages, the distinctions between driving on an open road in Des Moines in comparison to the same truck navigating the tricky conditions of Los Angeles rush hour traffic, and even the role of the vehicle.

Take weather as an example. If the vehicle is hitting the highway in a mild, controlled climate, within the borders of one state, the timeline is going to be shorter. A scenario of inclement weather conditions, coupled with wet or icy roads, would likely extend the timeline. It's important that vehicles go through as much repetition of different scenarios that occur in various environments/conditions as possible before someone can trust a vehicle to deliver their precious cargo without incident across the country.

The operational profile of the fleet and vehicle is another consideration that will affect the timeframe. Sending an autonomous vehicle down a stretch of straight highway is simpler than having the vehicle replicate driver behavior when arriving at its destination--such as a residence or loading dock. When we think about timeline, we have to assess what operation is being performed, i.e. is it pick up and drop off from loading bay to loading bay, or is it loading bay to bank or convenience store or does the operation even go to the home?

Finally, it will take time for fleets to transition from existing vehicle inventory, with specific operating and maintenance requirements to fleets where the majority of the vehicles are autonomous. Many local carriers have average truck lifespans of 12-15 years.

GN: There's currently a truck driver shortage, correct? Is that accelerating the pace of innovation and adoption around autonomous trucks?

STEVE MITGANG: The driver shortage is certainly a factor influencing the accelerated march toward autonomous trucks. Of note, concerns have also been raised in the industry about the possibility of autonomous vehicles displacing drivers and limiting their employment prospects. The advent and adoption of autonomous trucks will assuredly lessen the strain on fleet owners who have difficulty hiring and retaining qualified drivers, but there is still a lot of work to be done around autonomous trucks in order to get them to a level where they can be trusted to safely transport cargo to and from destinations. For example, it is likely that we will see autonomous vehicles operating in the early morning hours (1am-5am) when traffic is lightest. This routing will require new employees to man both nodes at those hours and new jobs related to monitoring the vehicles during these operating hours.

The pace of autonomous driving innovation and rate of adoption will vary across locations, type of operation and by level of autonomy. The six distinct levels of autonomy--no automation, driver assistance, partial automation, conditional automation, high automation and full automation--all have different requirements in order to be safe. The lower levels of autonomy with automated braking or advanced driver assistance systems are widely available today. Levels three and four, which would allow drivers to do other tasks inside the vehicle while it travels down the road are beginning to gain traction in some sectors. Driverless vehicles are likely further off.

There are also operational considerations to factor in. For instance, if the roadways see platoons of driverless trucks, existing infrastructure like weigh stations and distribution centers will need to be altered so that what happens at each node will complement full autonomy.

Another decisive factor is the separation between interstate and intrastate commerce. For example, advanced levels of autonomy are likely more achievable in Texas than in California, as California has stricter regulations. States and localities that have tighter rules and regulations will be less likely to reach the commercial stages quickly, while in other states, where tech providers face less friction and obstacles around testing vehicles, a much quicker path to implementing autonomous vehicles is to be expected.

GN: I know you're optimistic about what will happen to workers in the industry? Typically automation does create new jobs, but it's tough to envision enough opportunity to forestall significant losses in the industry, isn' it?

With the shift towards autonomous trucks, today's current workers, whether they are operators or drivers, will see dramatic shifts in their jobs.

Current truck drivers will soon become the system operators in autonomous vehicles--though they'll no longer be driving, these workers will be paramount in the logistical operations of successfully transporting and delivering freight. This could mean drivers are along for the ride, or perhaps operating/monitoring the vehicle from afar. Furthermore, the long highway stretch between delivery points is only part of the operation; with so many factors to consider when a truck approaches its final destination (such as congested city streets, navigating a busy yard, accessing a loading dock or getting close enough to a residence), today's drivers are likely to transition into rolls involving scheduling, communications, overall freight assessment or even the set-up of goods or delivering an actual service within a home.

Additionally, the driver's role shifts across the six levels of autonomy. Level 1, driver assistance, means the driver is still responsible for steering and monitoring his/her surroundings while the vehicle assists with adaptive features like cruise control. At level 2, the driver still needs to step in when the vehicle capabilities fail by responding to traffic signals, managing lane changes and preparing to maneuver for potential hazards. Once in level 3, the vehicle can monitor surroundings using multiple advanced sensors. The role of the driver is to intervene, should a system fail to respond appropriately. Between levels 3 and 5, autonomous vehicles increasingly handle lane changes, turn signals, traffic signals, and most driving functions. However, the driver's role is critical in responding to any change in circumstances that may require immediate action--such as a pedestrian darting into traffic.

This isn't to say that the truck drivers will replace the current operational staff; with autonomous trucks, there will be a bourgeoning need for more and more technical positions. The complex infrastructure will require more service representatives, data scientists and technicians to handle the full gamut of operational needs within the vehicle.

GN: How can drivers begin taking steps now to be in a position to remain in the industry?

The biggest thing drivers of today can do is gain awareness and insight of the impending changes in the industry and be adept at using the technology afforded to them today, i.e. mobile workflow applications and driving analytics. The material impact for today's drivers is well down the road, and there will be hundreds of thousands of jobs for the next few years, that are well paying which need to be filled.

Additionally, the management of the fleet companies needs to be transparent with the drivers about the forthcoming changes to their driver programs and the realistic phasing timeline. Fleets should be prepared to work with their drivers on transitioning from strictly driving to the more technological-oriented positions that autonomous vehicles will bring. New technologically-oriented positions or "new collar" jobs can include guiding the truck to its final delivery destination from a computer, overall operational and maintenance upkeep, scheduling, communications, and overall freight assessment.