By Finch Fulton, Vice President of Policy and Strategy at Locomation and
former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy at the US Department of Transportation
At an event last week, the Acting Administrator of the Federal Motor Carriers Safety Administration Meera Joshi discussed the impact of autonomous trucking to the future of trucking jobs. She stated “We can argue about scope and timeline, but what we can’t argue about is that this is a reality: There will be a major shift in workforce…if it’s your livelihood that seems like it’s being threatened, it is an immediate problem.”
Undoubtedly, Acting Administrator Joshi is referring to the recent USDOT report on the impacts of automation to the workforce. In it, the report estimated that 300,000-500,000 trucking jobs will be impacted over time by autonomous vehicle technology. However there are a few fundamental issues that can be lost in the headlines that amount to one key point: if you are a trucker today, you are unlikely to lose your job due to automation. Here is why:
- The transition isn’t starting today: Leaders of many of the leading autonomous trucking companies are cautioning against the hype around AV trucking (which is in part driving by the ever-present hype for AV light duty vehicles). Some are claiming that we may be closer to the end of the decade before the technology and regulations allow trucks to deploy. This doesn’t even take into account the cost of the autonomous trucks and the number buyers can afford in a given year! In fact, one USDOT study, in its “medium adoption rate” model, predicts that only 48% of trucking firms would buy the technology in the decade after the technology becomes available.
- There is already a shortage of truckers: There are nearly 2 million long-haul truck drivers in the US today, and the American Trucking Associations estimates that there is a shortage of over 60,000 truckers today. That number is expected to increase to over 160,000 by 2028. This analysis was done before the skyrocketing freight demand and new trends in e-commerce driven by COVID. So, even if the technology and regulations were ready today, AV operations would help address the shortfall, not push anyone out of a job.
- Human-centric autonomous trucking models may win out: There are many non-driving tasks that truckers do today that autonomous trucking companies don’t have a solution for. Human drivers are needed to be able to do inspection, maintenance and, especially, unexpected repairs on the road. Convoying models, like Locomation’s, incorporate humans into the mix as part of their operations as they progress towards full automation. This human-centric approach means there will be more opportunities for truck drivers to work with autonomous technologies as they develop, and be positioned to be managers of the developing autonomous freight network. We’ve seen plenty of examples of companies rushing to automate only to have to go back on their plans because they need the common sense only humans can bring (at least for now).
- The technology will create more and better jobs: A recent USDOT report noted that autonomous trucking will “Increase total U.S. employment by 26,400 to 35,100 jobs per year on average during the analysis period.” It also noted that the transition will raise annual earnings for all U.S. workers by $203 to $267 per worker per year due to economy-wide productivity gains.
- Age of the average trucker: today, the average truck driver is 48 years old. Every year, a little over 10% of truckers retire or leave the occupation. Many of today’s truckers won’t even have the chance to be impacted by self-driving trucks.
- The average trucker chooses trucking later in their career: 61% of new truck drivers are older than 40, and 33% are older than 50. More than 10% of truck drivers are veterans, far higher than the percentage in the general workforce. What does this mean? It means that in the future, a person interested in changing careers will be able to evaluate their options and choose to be trained for a premium AV Trucking Operations Manager position, a warehousing and logistics position, or an AV Hub operator.
- Who is going to be buying this technology anyway?: Even if the technology was ready, and operators were ready to turnover their entire fleet all at once, we are still only talking about major shippers companies that even have the money to invest in these technologies in the beginning. In the US, 97% of trucking companies operate 20 or fewer while 90% operate 6 or fewer trucks. Mom and Pop local operations are unlikely to spend millions to update their fleets towards autonomous trucking in the beginning, and are more likely to buy this technology once the major trucking companies have put some miles on them.
- Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke (fleet turnover rate): trucking companies want to get as much value out of the fleet of 39 million trucks operating in the US today before they retire or have to sell their trucks. They hold on to these trucks for as long as possible, before maintenance costs get too expensive. Even if the technology was ready today, companies wouldn’t be ready to replace their entire fleet immediately.
Combined, these factors mean that if you are a trucker today, you will probably be able to retire as a trucker. If you are a younger-than-average trucker today, you can choose to work for a company with a human-centric approach or use autonomous truckers to help augment your own operations. If you are the trucker of tomorrow, you will likely be able to make informed decisions and to choose to be trained for the jobs of tomorrow.
By understanding the foundations of the future, we can work to shape the industry to reflect the future that truckers, owner operators and industry partners want. Let’s make sure we are making these machines work for us, not instead of us.