Professional Driving’s Coming Automation Crisis

As of today, the trucking industry is facing a severe shortage of workers. The digital economy has created a boom in the shipping industry, and it is having a hard time keeping up with the heavy demand for qualified personnel.

And it’s not just 18-wheelers that are lacking for drivers. Uber, Lyft, cab companies and delivery companies are all reporting trouble keeping their staffing rolls sufficiently stocked to handle the sudden upswing in demand to keep people and things on the road and on the go.

That is today. A decade from now?

Well, things are a bit more murky.

Because shortages drive innovation, according to David Cole, director-emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research (CAR) in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and in the case of driver shortage, the innovation that is being spurred on is “the development of autonomous and fully driverless trucks (and other vehicles).”

“It isn’t going to happen overnight,” he noted, “but robotic vehicles will soon begin to displace professional drivers in numbers that will be certainly in the millions.”


The Progress

Self-driving cars are unlikely to put the approximately 3.5 million professional drivers currently working in the U.S. out of business overnight — or even within the next 24 months. But the progress on the project has been impressive, considering that as recently as five years ago, driverless cars sounded a whole lot more like science fiction than they did a serious transportation option for the future.

But as of last fall, Budweiser was delivering 45,000 cans of beer from a Colorado brewing plant to a warehouse 120 miles away. It was an early morning run, and a driver was on board in the truck’s sleeper berth to make sure the drive went according to plan. But no one was in the driver’s seat, and the beer made its destination without incident.

OTTO, the firm that built the Bud truck, is now owned by Uber.

The goal, according to experts, is to eventually replace long-haul truckers with automated trucks, which proponents argue would lower traffic congestion and increase highway safety.

It could also potentially save a lot of money for trucking company operators, since robotic drivers don’t need to be paid, receive health benefits, eat, take days off or sleep.

“A long-haul driver is limited in the number of hours they can drive before taking a break,” CAR’s Cole noted — while a robotic truck can operate pretty much 24/7.

But the ATA (American Truckers Association) stated that they are at this point not actually looking to replace their drivers so much as supplement them.

Spokesman Sean McNally told NBC News that the group expects to see drivers remain onboard most trucks “as a failsafe” for the foreseeable future. Airplanes, he said, are more or less automated enough to fly, launch and land themselves — but we keep pilots on board as a failsafe.

For its part, Daimler AG’s Freightliner brand’s autonomous prototype, the 18-wheel Inspiration model, is designed to have a backup “operator” behind the wheel.

However, officials at Freightliner and other manufacturers — along with several trucking companies — have stated that their hope is to go fully driverless as soon as possible. The worry is not that the technology isn’t up to it so much as it is trying to convince the public they want to be sharing the road with 70,000 semi-trucks that are without a human pilot.


Supply and Demand Woes

The number of truckers in the U.S. has been sharply on the rise in recent years as the explosion in digital commerce has pushed many more trucks onto the roads. Trucks are expected to handle 10.73 billion tons of goods this year, according to the ATA — or two-thirds of the nation’s total.

And that number is expected to grow at a compounded 3 percent annually for at least the next five years. To fill all those drivers’ seats, trucking companies would need to add about 90,000 drivers per year to their rolls. As of 2017, they are 50,000 short.

“Fleets are … suffering from a lack of qualified drivers,” said Bob Costello, the chief economist of the ATA. “It remains a serious concern for our industry, for the supply chain and for the economy at large.”

And trucking has not been alone in suffering for the lack of professional drivers. Lyft and Uber have been squabbling pretty hard of late over alleged dirty tricks each accuses the other of using to steal their customers.

As of today, according to a Harvard University estimate, there are 5 million Americans who earn their living by driving in one capacity or another. Which means what happens when machines are actually capable of doing those jobs at scale is becoming an increasingly pressing question.


What’s Next

The experts seem to believe self-driving cars are a fait accompli, and it is only a matter of time before driverless trucks take to the road. With Congress considering new rules that could allow more testing on public roads, the timeline may, in fact, be shorter than anyone is imagining.

The auto industry is heading the call. Ford plans to release its fully autonomous vehicle by 2021, and while GM has not put a hard date on it, there are rumors they just might sneak past Ford in getting such a car to market.

“Our focus is on moving as quickly as possible and having a first-mover advantage,” GM CEO Mary Barra said last week.

What exactly that will mean for jobs is still up in the air.

Experts believe the tech will be years in integrating into the general marketplace, meaning it could be a decade or more before the biggest impacts are really seen. When they come, most analysts believe they will be first visible in long-haul trucking, as it is easier to build both hardware and software for the relatively predictable conditions trucks face on limited-access freeways.

Uber and Lyft are both also looking to an automated vehicle future such that hailing rides becomes cheaper for customers than owning a car. The Boston Consulting Group estimates that perhaps one-quarter of the miles Americans travel by 2030 will be in driverless vehicles operated by ridesharing services.

And while it remains unknown just how many driving jobs will be autonomous, the reality is that as many as 5 million part- and full-time jobs could vanish over the next decade or two.

“If we don’t prepare for this, we’re going to have a very serious problem.” CAR’s David Cole warned.


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