Are Self-driving Trucks Really the Future of the Trucking Industry?

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These days, every major automaker is pursuing the tech behind autonomous driving. In fact, most of the technology already exists, concerns over safety and car insurance are the main things holding it back. In a few years time, whether you choose to drive a Tesla or a Toyota, a self-driving option will be available.
This might sound great if you use your vehicle for personal use. Imagine being able to catch up on emails or watch TV as you drive to the office. But what will happen to commercial drivers, including America’s 3.5 million truckers?
Driverless trucks pose a direct threat to their jobs, and while truck drivers won’t disappear overnight, the industry is already calculating the human cost of automation.
A truck driver standing in a parking lot with two rigs behind her
The future of the trucking industry could look a lot different | Twenty20

America needs truck drivers, for now

In the short term, the demand for truck drivers is higher than ever.
Online shopping has become the norm for millions of Americans, and it’s popularity is growing fast. In 2018, e-commerce accounted for less than 10% of total retail sales in the U.S. In 2020, this more than doubled to 21.3%. While much of this was fuelled by the pandemic, shipping needs continue to grow.
As reported by Redwood Logistics, trucks carry about 70% of all goods shipped in the U.S., and this is expected to grow by 3.4% annually until at least 2023. This heightened demand, coupled with fewer young people choosing truck driving as a career, has caused a shortage of 51,000 truck driving jobs across the country.
Unfortunately for America’s truck drivers, due to impending automation, this surge of work appears to be a final, valedictory tour, before most of them will be forced into different careers.

A fully automated trucking industry?

Redwood Logistics points out that truck driving jobs will not disappear overnight. The first generation of self-driving trucks will require a qualified driver to sit in the cab. They will act as a fail-safe, should the technology not work as intended.
The next step could have more impact. That is the mass automation of highway driving. Highways are straight and predictable. Self-driving trucks could drive across America with relative ease, and once they get the greenlight to do so, the industry expects long-haul driving jobs to take a hit.
Good news for cab drivers, urban environments are difficult for self-driving vehicles. Pedestrians, cyclists, all of the things you associate with busy metropolitan areas pose unpredictable risks that human drivers are better at dealing with. This could change though, with Tesla and Google both investing heavily in the emerging technology.
While a few lucky truckers may end up sitting in an air-conditioned office, controlling a fleet remotely from their desks, most drivers will be deemed surplus to requirements. Reported by Business Insider, Goldman Sachs predicts 300,000 truck driving jobs will be lost per year, starting in 2042 or sooner. Qualified drivers will eventually be replaced by computers (and a small number of human handlers).

A surprising supporter of self-driving trucks

With job losses projected to be in the hundreds of thousands, you might expect the American Trucking Association (ATA) to be fighting automation tooth and nail. However, in October 2020, The ATA endorsed the future of self-driving trucks.
The ATA board of directors released a statement indicating they are taking an active role in the development of automation, framing this technology as beneficial to truck drivers.
They write, “These technologies can bring benefits in the areas of safety, environment, productivity, efficiency, and driver health and wellness…Automated driving technology is the next step in the evolution of the safety technology currently available.”
While many of their members may be disgruntled, the ATA have little choice but to take an active role in the development of self-driving trucks, or be left out in the cold when the changes happen without them. And they are right that automation has many advantages over the current system. The big question is how many truck drivers will be around to enjoy them?

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