At left, moderator Tanya Snyder, transportation reporter at POLITICO, and panelists Jared Bernstein, senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities; Danielle Burr, head of federal affairs at Uber; and Bill Sullivan, executive vice president of advocacy at American Trucking Associations, discuss autonomous vehicles and the workforce during SAFE summit.

Automation, 'robot trucks,' and the next generation of workers

June 18, 2018
Securing America’s Future Energy summit panelists discuss using automation to recruit younger workers to join trucking's ranks.

WASHINGTON. The perception that trucking is composed of burly men manhandling big vehicles is on its way out. That’s at least part of the perception the industry is pushing forward to recruit more workers.

Right now the industry needs to fill 50,000 empty seats with drivers, and that number is only expected to grow. As the industry focuses on recruiting a younger pool of workers to fill those vacancies, it has placed a great deal of emphasis on advancements in technology – namely automation.

“But we frankly do not see robot trucks driving goods across the country anytime soon,” noted Bill Sullivan, executive vice president of advocacy at the American Trucking Associations.

Sullivan was a panelist during a recent Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE) summit. During that event, SAFE discussed the findings of its latest report America’s Workforce and the Self-Driving Future: Realizing Productivity Gains and Spurring Economic Growth

“As we talk about the more important today technologies building towards an automated truck or automated car, those technologies are being adapted into incremental benefits to safety and what we consider to be driver-assist technologies,” Sullivan explained. “We like how this can bring in younger drivers.”

The industry is currently trying to work with the Trump administration to bring more 18-year-olds who might not be interested in college into its ranks. It is also looking for innovative ways to bring in more diesel technicians.

“We are very focused on not just people who traditionally were diesel mechanics, but people who are more familiar with the technology today,” Sullivan said. “And through the footprint the federal government has and workforce development boards, we really want to bring people into these higher tech, better pay changing economy that we are going to see.”

Panelist Danielle Burr, head of federal affairs at Uber, noted that as Uber looks at autonomy for its ride-sharing platform, it has also been looking at freight. Although full automation isn’t necessarily feasible for first- and last-mile deliveries, Burr pointed out that it could help bridge some of the gaps between drivers and their companies.

“Some of the lifestyle choices that we’ve heard from some of our drivers are challenging – to be on the road maybe 200 nights a year away from home,” she said. “Autonomy perhaps allows them to take that less than desirable component for some off the table.”

As the administration gets into the policy-making process of autonomous vehicles (AV), Sullivan stressed that commercial vehicles must be part of the discussion. But as it stands now, commercial vehicles are not included in the Senate version of AV legislation.

“Having worked on and off the hill for years, if you get into a safety argument about highways, one of the first words out of people’s mouths is trucks,” Sullivan explained. “So, why aren’t we in the bill?”

“Our goal is to get into a policy-making space that moves this forward,” he added. “If we are going to be regulating or providing incentives toward automation and we’re talking about the roads, how absurd is it that you would do passenger cars only and not commercial vehicles that they share the road with?”

And as Sullivan pointed out, even though we’re all focused on this “robot truck” driving down the road, different levels of automation have already played a major role in truck safety efforts. All technology advancements in the commercial vehicle space will continue to be adopted as long as there is a cost-benefit ratio, he added.

“Safety is a good business for us based on drivers, lawsuits, insurance and all those other things,” Sullivan stressed. “So we see a much faster adoption in commercial fleets than we think is going to happen with say my family buying [an autonomous] Volvo and turning the buzzer off when we get tired of changing lanes every time.”

About the Author

Cristina Commendatore

Cristina Commendatore was previously the Editor-in-chief of FleetOwner magazine. She reported on the transportation industry since 2015, covering topics such as business operational challenges, driver and technician shortages, truck safety, and new vehicle technologies. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut.

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