Entrepreneur and 2020 presidential candidate Andrew Yang focused his campaign on the looming threat of automation. While his candidacy ultimately failed, he did succeed in shining a spotlight on an issue causing concern for a growing number of Americans. One industry Yang described as being at especially high risk is trucking. Around 3.5 million people in the US make a living driving a truck, making it the most common job in 29 states. That means autonomous driving technologies have massive potential to disrupt the job market and the wider economy.
Earlier this month, Tesla CEO Elon Musk made headlines by claiming his company will have fully autonomous trucks on the road by the end of 2020. And he made it clear he was talking about Level 5 autonomy, which means the trucks would be able to travel anywhere and not require a human driver to be onboard. This is surprising because most analysts believe autonomous vehicles will have to achieve reliable Level 4 functionality—meaning the trucks will have to remain on predetermined routes—before full autonomy could even be within reach.
Tesla is far from alone in this race toward self-driving trucks. Last October, for instance, the company Otto, which was started by former Google employees and later bought by Uber, successfully conducted a test of Level 4 trucks in Colorado, safely delivering 50,000 cans of Budweiser. Otto’s self-driving systems only work on highways, away from heavy traffic and congestion, and they require drivers to be in the vehicle to take over in some conditions. But early pilot hauls like this are taking place all over the country.
Should today’s truck drivers be worried for their jobs?
One scenario for how the transition to autonomous vehicles will take place is that Tesla succeeds in developing a working model this year, followed quickly by other manufacturers. After these first self-driving trucks are on the road, it will only take other industry players a short while to work out the kinks in their own models. Within a few years, the machines will have taken over, and those 3.5 million truck drivers will be on unemployment.
Scary as this scenario sounds, most experts believe events will unfold quite differently. Musk’s dramatic claims notwithstanding, as things currently stand, the best evidence points to a much lengthier, much more gradual transition. And this bigger window allows for much greater space for people in the transportation to adapt to the emerging employment reality.
Here are some of the biggest reasons for hope:
The Last Stretch Is the Longest
When people hear about trucks driving themselves long distances to make deliveries, the implication seems to be that the technology is close to being fully mature. But traveling long distances under clear skies on predetermined stretches of smooth road is the easy part (comparatively speaking). Getting over the hurdles posed by variable weather, poor road conditions, and rare circumstances involving other drivers turns out to be, not a simple stepwise process of refining existing systems, but a major challenge demanding significant innovation.
Despite this substantial progress, considerable technological challenges remain before we will see the disruptive rollout of fully automated Level 4 driving across wide geographical regions. Removing onboard vehicle operators from large vehicle fleets poses tremendous technical difficulties, especially when considered at scale in a wide diversity of operational domains. Today, even the most optimistic timelines put widespread Level 4 over a decade away. Most predictions agree Level 5 is even farther off than that (beyond 2040, or even entirely impossible).
While it’s possible Tesla has some trick up its sleeve these researchers don’t know about, the difficulty of keeping such a momentous breakthrough a secret for any length of time suggests Musk is being more aspirational than realistic. Even if Tesla trucks can cover longer distances more safely than others in the industry, there’s little chance they’ll be able to do completely without drivers anytime soon.
Truck Drivers Do More than Drive
Another important point when it comes to quelling fears of an automation apocalypse is that getting a truck from point A to point B is only one of the driver’s responsibilities. For the foreseeable future, someone is going to need to be in the vehicle even if it’s on autopilot. And there are still all those tasks truckers perform before departing the warehouse and after arriving at their delivery destination. From the report:
Overall, as with taxi and bus fleets, humans will not so much disappear from truck fleets as change roles to incorporate supervision of automation as part of the job. These and related shifts will require new skill sets for drivers. Truck drivers do more than just drive, and so human presence within even highly automated trucks would remain valuable for other reasons such as loading, unloading, and maintenance.
Yang expressed some impatience at the notion that truckers could be “retrained” to take on other jobs, like coding for driving software. Teaching masses of middle-aged adults to develop software would be a heavy lift. But plenty of drivers are already doing all kinds of work on or near their trucks that have nothing to do with coding.
Possible Doesn’t Mean Profitable
As self-driving technologies advance, it’s also important to note that trucking companies won’t simply adopt whatever systems are available. Instead, at every step, they’ll weigh the cost of these technologies against the cost of hiring humans to do the job. So, the autopilot won’t just have to work effectively and safely; it’ll have to work for less than human drivers. This consideration pushes the forecasted date for widespread adoption still farther over the horizon. Again, from the MIT report:
…automated driving will need to become economically viable in competition with human drivers and augmenting technologies such as active safety systems. They will still face cost challenges for sensors, vehicle systems, and infrastructure. These costs, though decreasing, are still high; moreover, research papers that model the market uptake of AV technology sometimes underestimate current costs for high levels of automation by almost an order of magnitude.
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the American Trucking Association estimated the industry was short about 60,000 drivers. Now that demand has fallen, the recruiting for more drivers has been put on hold. But it’s a good bet that when demand ticks up again, fleets are going to focus much more on getting new drivers behind the wheel than on investing in untested and exorbitantly expensive technologies.
None of this is to say that the transition to automated driving is a bad idea or that it’ll never happen the way we’ve all been imagining. The industry transformation will instead happen in stages, with remote driving, platooning, and backup drivers playing some unknown role. There’s an outside chance that Musk will be proved right and Tesla will usher in a new age of self-driving trucks over the next few years. But with the transportation industry already short tens of thousands of drivers, today’s truckers can probably rest assured they’ll have jobs until they’re ready to retire.
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