tusimple-autonomous-truck.jpg Photo: Neil Abt/Fleet Owner
TuSimple's autonomous Class 8 truck on display at CES 2019.

Taking a college course for trucking job that doesn't yet exist

"Autonomous Vehicle Driver & Operations Specialist" is a 12-credit course and is open only to Class A CDL holders at an Arizona college.

Responding to the future needs of the trucking industry, Pima County Community College in Tucson, AZ, has established what may be the first college-certified program in driving autonomous vehicles, according to school officials.

"We want to keep commercial truck drivers relevant as emerging technology happens," said Missy Blair, program manager/certified MSF rider-coach and traffic survival school instructor at the Center for Transportation Training. "There's some fear that jobs will be lost with autonomous vehicles coming into play. We want to make sure that we respond to that. No matter what side of the argument you're on, we think it’s our role in higher education to be able to facilitate upscaling commercial drivers and also helping employers find a workforce."

"Autonomous Vehicle Driver & Operations Specialist" is a 12-credit course and is open only to Class A CDL holders. "We ask that students have at least three years in the industry," Blair adds. The course consists of five classes, one of which can be waived ("Industrial Safety") if the student has an OSHA10 card. Some of the classes can be done online but those with lab components must be done on campus. The entire course could be done in one year. "It depends where the driver is located. Most will be on the road so it may not be realistic to get it done in one semester, but it's possible because it’s only twelve credits total."

Classes will begin this September with about 20 students. The cost has not yet been announced.

Once a student earns their certificate of training, they will receive priority hiring from TuSimple, an autonomous vehicle company that just completed a trial for the US Postal Service. Company officials approached Pima Community College about setting up the program but no money changed hands, according to Robert Brown, head of government relations and public affairs. "We have about 20 drivers (at TuSimple), some of whom are 20- and 30-year veteran drivers that are interested in the autonomous space. We’re not asking them to code, but we do want our drivers to have a basic understanding of the technology, nomenclature, and how the system works before we send someone into a highly-automated vehicle."

He says that the idea of approaching the college was not to make it into a TuSimple-centric program. "There’s a baseline where someone could take this certification program and go work for one of our direct competitors," says Brown. "Obviously, we're going to have a preferred hiring program for folks with this certification." 

He added: "If someone is willing to spend their own money to get the certification program you know that this person is interested in the future. They’re going to come with a baseline of knowledge that we don’t have to teach."

Said Brown: "I’m excited to hopefully grow the program and also grow it outside of Tucson and across the industry because I’m excited about this space. The last few months has experienced an explosion of autonomous trucking."

"We completely understand skepticism about the program, but we want to be on the forefront. We can't ignore it, because if we do, we become irrelevant," Blair concluded. "It’s very different for academia to be doing this. We’re basically offering a certificate program for a job that doesn’t yet exist."

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