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Automation: The unstoppable force

But what will this mean for truck drivers?

For transportation economist Noël Perry, the debate over the future of autonomous truck technology has already ended.

“It is an unstoppable force, no less unstoppable than the car killing the trolley car,” said Perry, who heads up consulting firm Transport Futures. 

The reasoning behind his belief is simple: Automation will increase truck utilization to levels never before thought possible. 

While today’s trucks generally operate only up to eight or nine hours a day because drivers are required to rest, automation has the possibility to double or triple productivity by having the wheels rolling nearly around the clock without an active driver needed at all times, said Perry.  

During several phone interviews with Fleet Owner dating back to August, he outlined what he called the “strong economical rationale” for autonomous trucks.

Many of Perry’s beliefs were affirmed by a study issued in September from former truck driver Steve Viscelli, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania.

“Autonomous trucks will fundamentally change the capability of trucks and the economics surrounding their use” because they involve lots of uninterrupted highway driving, wrote Viscelli, who in 2016 authored The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream.

It is a main reason trucks are considered a leading sector for early adoption of self-driving technology, with total funding for new development estimated at $1 billion annually, up 1,000% in just a few years.

With these seismic technological shifts already beginning to take shape, Perry and Viscelli both warned of a looming downside—the impact on the labor pool. 

“The risk of autonomous trucks is not that there won’t be enough jobs for American truckers, it’s that there won’t be enough good jobs,” Viscelli wrote. 

In fact, his research and interviews with a wide range of stakeholders determined that autonomous trucks “could replace as many as 294,000 long-distance drivers, including some of the best jobs in the industry, over the next 25 years.”

Viscelli suggested that the most likely scenario for widespread adoption of automation involves local human drivers bringing trailers to autonomous truck ports (ATPs) from factories and warehouses. They are very likely to be located on the outskirts of cities next to major interstate exits. After swapping trailers to autonomous tractors for long highway stretches, a human driver will then pick up the trailer at the ATP near the final destination.

The study warned that without government and public policy intervention, these changes will likely eliminate high- and mid-wage trucking jobs while creating more low-quality driving positions. 

Perry shared a similar vision, saying that the steady progress in automation will “dumb the driver job down.” He compared the future trucker position to a parking lot attendant—in that it will not take as much skill as it does today. 

He suggested a scenario where a person will get paid $100 to sit in the truck for a shift as it autonomously travels from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. From there, another person will take over for the next stretch to Columbus, OH.

“The savings are so big that they are going to find ways to do this,” Perry said, adding that remote operation of vehicles in the future could further make the job easier and open it up to a wider pool of candidates. 
 
THE CASE FOR ADOPTION

Viscelli’s study found the strongest case for autonomous adoption is in the for-hire longhaul truckload sector, followed by linehaul service in less-than-truckload and parcel operations. Drayage haulers are likely to shift toward automation though other sectors are less likely to be easily transformed.

Truckload drivers are particular­ly vulnerable to job losses, he said, be­cause they usually drive long highway stretches and are generally not involved in loading and unloading. 

“An estimated 211,000 long-distance jobs in this segment are at risk of displacement from autonomous trucks,” the report said. 

LTL drivers are also generally used exclusively for driving, “which makes their jobs also vulnerable to automation.”  As a result, up to 51,000 less-than-truckload drivers, plus another 32,000 parcel drivers, are at risk of displacement by autonomous trucks. 

“These are some of the best jobs in the industry. Drivers earn some of the highest incomes in trucking, partly because of high unionization rates,” the report said. 

In comparison, today’s local driving jobs—delivering anything from packages to flowers—pay significantly less than their counterparts in other sectors. 

“Drivers bringing loads to ATPs are likely to face conditions similar to those currently experienced by port drivers, such as low pay, long periods of unpaid waiting, and independent contractor misclassification,” Viscelli said. 
 
EASIER TO FILL JOBS

Conversely, he pointed out that the creation of that new type of truck driving job could be easier to fill than many believe. 

“Several million workers who have been trained to drive tractor-trailers in recent years have left the industry but might return if they were not forced to be away from home, living out of a truck for weeks at a time,” Viscelli said. 

They will also still be needed for many non-driving tasks, such as communicating with customers and coupling tractors and trailers. 

Perry pointed to 2020 for when the first real prototypes will be operating on selected highways and some large ports. By 2025, some fleets will be operating a “hybrid” operation of traditional trucks and some autonomous trucks. 

“The handwriting will be on the wall” by 2030, and only a few outliers will not be using a predominantly automated fleet by 2040, Perry predicted.

Likewise, Viscelli said trucks with self-driving capabilities could be operating in the highway portion of the longhaul duty cycle in select highway stretches within three years. By the middle of the next decade, a “few advanced for-hire fleets” will begin ATP-to-ATP programs, likely along Interstate 10 in the southwestern United States.

As the decade draws to a close, there will be greater ATP utilization, including during congested times, with more ATPs spreading to more interstate highways. The autonomous fleet then will be in the thousands, helping prove the technology can be considered safe and reliable. 

That foundation sets the stage for 15 to 25 years from now, when “low-cost autonomous truck service largely re­places long-haul truckload in dry van and refrigerated segments with significantly cheaper, faster services.”

Besides economics, Perry said changes in public perception will further fuel this change.

Eventually, the public will come to realize that 40,000 automobile crashes a year should be considered unacceptable. From driver error to deaths from drunken driving crashes, the motoring public will realize this technology is reliable.  

Viscelli urged a collective effort to limit the potential damages facing the trucking workforce as the technology proves itself. 

“Rather than trying to predict the specific damage autonomous trucks might do to workers, we must figure out how this technology can help us achieve a safer, more efficient industry, with better pay and improved working conditions for truck drivers,” he said.   

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