Truck drivers will be some of the first people to lose jobs as automation technology spreads.
A push by companies like Uber to automate heavy trucks through a combination of artificial intelligence and robotics raises questions for millions of drivers brought into the profession by the promise of a steady job. Will they be employed behind the wheel five years from now? Or will robots be doing it instead?
And if you think this is a niche problem, think again. The impact of self-driving trucks would be felt in communities around the country — especially Trump country.
How it could play out:
- It could start with 'platooning:' One entry point to significant truck automation could be to have a second, autonomous truck travel behind a lead truck driven by a human — a concept known as platooning.
- Long-haul goes first: Drivers who only cover short distances might be safe for now. "You're not going to have a robot that can sort of get out of the back of the truck and unload things and all that stuff, or back the truck up into a little zone," said Information Technology and Innovation Foundation President Rob Atkinson, "That's just really, really hard to do." But it's easier for automated trucks to drive along highways for hours.
- The change starts with an individual company or technology: It could be that the first round of major automation is prompted by a single company — think Walmart — adopting the tech en masse, according to Kristin Sharp, the executive director of the New America Foundation and Bloomberg's Shift Commission on the Future of Work, Workers and Technology. Or certain types of trucks could be automated first to test the waters. Sharp described this as a "key question" on the issue.
Why truck drivers may not need to panic just yet:
- The shift won't happen overnight: "Issues around regulation and the business model" will delay full automation even after the technology is ready, said Princeton professor Ed Felten, who worked on this issue while serving as Deputy U.S. Chief Technology Officer in the Obama White House. Automaker Daimler, for example, estimated in 2015 that it could take 10 years to bring truck automation technology to market.
- The technology could make jobs easier, rather than kill them: "I think technology will assist in our jobs; I don't think technology will take over our jobs," said a driver named Brian during a focus group conducted by the Shift Commission, according to a transcript.
- Automation could create new opportunities: For example, mechanics may find jobs servicing trucks that run for longer periods of time and over longer distances when the vehicles are no longer limited by the range of a human driver.
- The developers: Uber-owned Otto is creating kits to retrofit trucks for automation. It recently made its first shipment, over 120 miles. Peloton Technologies is a startup working on platooning technology. And it's not just upstart companies. Volvo showed a concept truck last year that could be used in mines, while Daimler has tested self-driving trucks in both the United States and Europe.
- The carriers: The industry generated more than $700 billion in freight revenue in 2015, according to the American Trucking Association. The trade association has said it doesn't expect drivers to be entirely replaced by automation. "What we're really talking about is not displacing drivers: I think you're always going to need drivers in trucks in the cityscapes to do the pickups and deliveries," said its president, Chris Spears.
- The drivers: The Teamsters, the labor union that represents almost 100,000 people in the trucking sector, has pushed the importance of human drivers for safety reasons. Sam Loesche, a government affairs representative for the union, said the organization thinks policymakers "need to understand that this is a monster industry and the livelihoods of millions of workers need to be taken into account at all times."
What the industry can do about it: Companies that know they will play a role in automation could identify cities that will experience significant displacement and focus a response there, such as programs to retrain workers, said Sharp.
What government could do about it: Government could help fund training programs to help drivers transition to other jobs or take on new roles in a more-automated trucking industry. The issue is on the radar of federal lawmakers. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune told Axios last week that policymakers "ought to take into consideration, figure out and plan in advance knowing full well that there are going to be some potential impacts on the labor market if this technology becomes fully operational and fielded."
The bottom line: Automation is a fact of life across the economy: ATMs replaced bank tellers, switchboards replaced telephone operators and industrial robots have become fixtures in factories. The trucking industry's transformation is coming, and drivers around the country will have to grapple with what it means for their futures.