Truckers will be first casualty of self-driving technology

  1. "Exit-to-exit" autonomous trucking may come in as soon as three years
  2. Trucking industry recorded more workplace deaths in 2016 than any other industry

While ride-sharing apps are investing in self-driving cars, your Uber will likely require a human driver for at least a decade even by the most conservative estimates (McKinsey). Autonomous technology is simply not yet ready to handle the unpredictable pedestrians and stop-and-go traffic that comes with urban settings.

Rural highways, on the other hand, are predictable enough for self-driving vehicles to be implemented in the near future. So while taxi services are still experimenting, long-haul trucking jobs could be automated relatively soon. 

Steve Viscelli, a sociologist from the University of Pennsylvania who studies automation of trucking, says that self-driving trucks will soon be able to perform what’s known as “exit-to-exit” driving. 

“You’ll see [automated trucks] on interstates first, and probably on routes that aren’t snowy … any areas that are identified as less complicated … this is where the technology will be adopted first,” Viscelli told WikiTribune

He said industry experts believe that exit-to-exit trucking can be automated and made safe within three years. The prediction may be realistic, considering self-driving trucks are already operating on open roads in the American Southwest. Wired reported on a fleet of autonomous trucks that hauls refrigerators on the largely monotonous and straight (and thus ideal) roads between Texas and California. 

Safety becomes more of a concern for self-driving trucks once they reach a highway exit. In a near-future scenario, this is where a human driver might step in. Truckers would finish a self-driving truck’s delivery once the straight-line portion of the route is over and technical maneuvering is needed.

So autonomous trucks safely navigating through American cities, or even towns, is a vision for the distant future. 

Benefits of self-driving trucks

Demand is high for all self-driving vehicles, particularly for large trucks, and the base of supporters is diverse.

Economists point to how much the U.S. economy relies on trucks, and the economic losses accrued due to human error. Seventy percent of all goods in the United States rely on human truckers for delivery (CBS News). The job’s long and inconvenient hours have led to notoriously high turnover. The American Trucking Association recorded a labor shortage of 50,000 long-haul truckers in October 2017.

Public safety advocates point to the frequent accidents associated with truck driving. Large trucks are involved in 5,000 road fatalities each year in the United States, according to the American Public Health Association.

Truckers had the most workplace deaths in 2016 compared to every other industry, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Of these, 88 percent were the result of human error.

Sleep-deprivation commonly plays a role in trucking accidents. The federal government passed rules in 2013 that mandate rest time for drivers. However, a 2016 fatal accident blamed on a trucker who had taken methamphetamines to combat fatigue demonstrates that the problem still exists.

Reducing accidents will also reduce traffic slowdowns, say experts.

Threat to labor

The Teamsters Union, which represents roughly 600,000 professional drivers, has lobbied against automation of trucking jobs. One of the largest labor unions in the United States, its focus has been on opposing legislation that fast-tracks driverless technology on public roads.

“We’ve been very blunt about our position, we believe there is a role for drivers … And we don’t want to see an overnight throwing away of rules on the road that have been made over years,” Teamsters Union spokesperson Kara Deniz told WikiTribune.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates 1.7 million people in the United States drive a truck for a living, earning an average annual income of $37,930 (CNN). That salary is $4,000 above the national median. 

When Congress began drafting legislation on the testing of self-driving technology in 2017, Teamsters representatives countered by campaigning for trucking jobs. The union played a key role in having large-rig trucks excluded from a House bill addressing self-driving vehicles, according to Reuters. The omission of vehicles weighing more than 10,000 pounds ultimately prevented the bill from coming up for vote in the Senate (Recode).

Absent federal legislation, state governments have filled the legislative void. Five states have passed regulations on self-driving vehicles, including trucks, according to Stanford University. California is leading the driverless movement, tripling the number of autonomous vehicles on public roads, from 33 to 103, between 2016 and 2017 (Financial Times).

With more than $80 billion invested in self-driving technology, according to the Brookings Institute, the financial incentive to remove human drivers from vehicles is high.

“I just don’t see a scenario where this human-truck partnership makes economic sense,” says Viscelli. 

How to deal with automation

The labor effects of self-driving cars raise a broader conversation around automation in general, and social issues connected to mass worker displacement.

Jason Hong, computer scientist from Carnegie Mellon University, says the long-term investment should be in jobs that are immune to automation. He describes these positions as anything involving creative problem solving. Professional fields such as social work and communications are obvious candidates. The key will be identifying which human-only jobs don’t require a high level of education. Hong uses the example of a plumber.

“Every plumbing problem is slightly different and requires problem-solving skills to figure out the root cause, making it harder to fully automate,” Hong told WikiTribune.

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