Updated Apr 3, 2022 - Economy

Automation could send long-haul truckers driving into the sunset

Image of an Aurora self-driving truck on the highway

Aurora-powered PACCAR trucks are autonomously hauling freight for FedEx in pilot testing in Texas. Photo: Aurora

Autonomous trucks could one day replace more than 90% of all highway trucking, which could have a profound impact on as many as 500,000 long-haul truckers, a new study found.

Why it matters: Automation, and its potential impact on human labor, is a widespread concern for workers in many industries. While labor markets continually evolve, it often takes time for displaced workers to adapt to new jobs requiring different skills.

The big picture: Long-haul trucking is a grueling job, with a high turnover rate. Last year, the industry faced a record shortage of 80,000 drivers.

Driving the news: The study by researchers at the University of Michigan and Carnegie Mellon University assessed the impact of autonomous trucking on operator-hours, depending on how the technology — now being tested in Sun Belt states — is deployed.

  • They looked at operator-hours, not jobs, because many truckers are independently employed.
  • Using federal data about trucking shipments, and the operator-hours used to fulfill those shipments, they explored various deployment scenarios and how those might evolve over time.

What they found: The impacts of automation might not happen all at once.

  • “If automation is restricted to Sun Belt states (including Florida, Texas and Arizona) — because the technology may not initially work well in rough weather — about 10% of the operator hours will be affected,” said study co-author Parth Vaishnav, assistant professor of sustainable systems at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability.
  • If automated trucks were deployed across the U.S., in all types of weather, then up to 94% of operator hours would be affected — the equivalent of 500,000 truck driver jobs, their research found.
  • The findings are consistent with a sprawling 2020 MIT study, which concluded that technological advances in AI and automation will have an enormous impact on the workforce, but it may take decades for those effects to be fully felt.

How it would work: Many automated trucking developers envision the use of transfer hubs, where cargo trailers would be handed off between humans and robots.

  • Autonomous trucks would carry freight on the highway, between the hubs.
  • Human drivers in conventional trucks would then take over on local streets to the final destination.

What they're saying: Drivers displaced by autonomous trucks could find work closer to home on short-haul routes, or even in newly created logistics jobs at transfer hubs, AT developers say.

  • But the U-M study found that those jobs would not be sufficient to fully replace long-haul truckers' earnings.
  • Short-haul jobs typically pay less than long-haul jobs, the study noted.

Editor's note: This story originally published on March 28.

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