Driverless Vehicles Hit the Road and the Job Market for Truckers

Autonomous vehicles are poised to hit the trucking industry like, well, a Mack truck. Truck drivers won’t feel much impact initially as the technology rolls out slowly at first, but when driverless trucks become the norm in the coming years, many trucking careers will be affected if not eliminated outright.

How soon will this technology arrive?

Autonomous vehicle technology is already here. The use of drones in military applications has become commonplace. Google’s Self-Driving Car project has logged more than a million miles, with relatively few mishaps. What’s more, although driverless cars are in our near future, autonomous vehicles (AV or driverless vehicles) are more likely to be launched in the commercial vehicle sector (including trucks) before the private vehicle sector. There are several reasons for this.

The first is economic. The technology behind autonomous vehicles is currently expensive, possibly doubling or tripling the price of a moderately priced car. With tractor-trailer rigs costing more than $150,000, the additional cost of the technology is a much smaller piece of the overall price. And the price of that technology is coming down. In addition, driverless trucks offer economic benefits, allowing a truck to stay on the road even when its driver is catching up on sleep. That saves money and time.

Safety is another consideration. Nationally, trucks account for 5.6 percent of miles driven and 9.5 percent of highway fatalities. Eliminating driver error, fatigue, limitations and just plain boredom could be literally lifesaving.

Finally, many of the truck miles happen on major highways, which tend to be better ordered than chaotic city streets. If the trucking industry (initially at least) uses driverless technology on the open highway or in platoons (groups of autonomous trucks traveling together), the logistical challenges decrease. And combining driverless capabilities with a driver offers the best of both worlds—engaging the driver for the complicated parts of the drive and the technology for the boring parts.

So when will driverless technology begin to hit our roads? Some estimates are for as early as 2020.

Will driverless technology reduce trucking jobs?

Estimates for the number of truck drivers (with earnings typically ranging from $32,000 to $53,000 per year) in the U.S. range from 1.6 million to 3 million. Many of these jobs are currently filled with owner-operators, who can make higher wages. Job losses will likely begin slowly and then accelerate. Those loses won’t be felt immediately because there is currently a shortage of drivers in many parts of the nation.

Autonomous vehicles will also take time to gain widespread acceptance. There are technological issues that remain to be addressed: the experimental cars and trucks are still uncovering glitches. There are also legal and insurance issues of liability that must be resolved. The public must also become comfortable with the idea of sharing the road with driverless vehicles.

The exact nature of driverless vehicles will also affect jobs. For example, autonomous vehicle technology may initially be used like autopilot on airplanes—to assist drivers rather than replace them. In this scenario, there would still be a need for drivers to handle the more complex parts of the journey. But in the new decade, the economic benefits of automation will prove as irresistible in transportation as it has in manufacturing.

Other transportation jobs will start to disappear too, for that matter, including taxi drivers (already under pressure from crowd-sourced driving services like Lyft and Uber), parcel delivery drivers and bus drivers.

Will driverless technology create jobs?

Driverless technology will also create jobs, but they will be very different than many of the existing jobs in the trucking industry. Controller and drone operator positions will move from the military sector into transportation sector. These controllers will likely monitor the movement of driverless trucks or fleets and remotely operate trucks when they join or leave a platoon, develop mechanical problems or engage in complex maneuvers (for example, navigating heavy traffic or backing up to loading docks).

There may be more demands on manned service trucks for autonomous vehicles, without drivers to do initial troubleshooting and with more complex technology in the autonomous vehicle that can go wrong.

Certainly, increased reliance on technology will expand the need for technical positions such as programmers, hardware installers, network engineers and sensor manufacturers. These jobs typically pay well but require a very different set of skills than those that most truck drivers currently possess. (See related article in the sidebar.)

There may be opportunities for owner/operators to run their own autonomous trucks. Independent operators might simply connect to their current employer’s network from within their truck. These operators could manage their operations from their truck, driving when necessary and performing management functions when the technology has the wheel. Eventually, the owner/operator may work out of an office, operating and monitoring completely autonomous vehicles remotely—perhaps several at a time. In this way, smaller operators might be able to achieve economies of scale that would help them remain competitive with the larger logistics companies.

What are the broader implications for society?

For many people, quality of life will improve. Autonomous technology will help turn boring and tiring commutes into times of relaxation or productivity. Drunk driving may disappear, and we may learn that computers are much better drivers than human beings—saving lives, reducing injuries and cutting the number of wrecked vehicles.

Falling logistics costs will reduce the price of many products, and deliveries via drone could take place 24/7, reaching destinations currently inaccessible or at least economically unfeasible with human drivers. Falling costs stimulate demand, boosting revenue (and possibly employment opportunities) in any industry that depends on physical delivery of its products.

Greater efficiency through network-connected vehicles may make automobile ownership optional, potentially reducing the number of vehicles on the road and benefiting the environment in a multitude of ways.

Moving away from the traditional model of car ownership to a pay-per-use offers a number of economic advantages too: There is no large capital outlay for the purchase (for example, down payments and monthly payments) and rapidly depreciating car sitting in your driveway. Large users (company fleets, rental agencies and ride sharing services) will likely gain volume discounts from manufacturers, making their services even more inviting. It’s even possible that auto manufacturers will sell access to cars on a subscription basis (like music and software today) as an alternative to traditional ownership.

Of course, all of these developments will affect employment. Ideally, business and government leaders will work to ensure that the pain of transition brought about by this technology doesn’t fall entirely on a few workers. But don’t just wait for that to happen. Take the initiative to position yourself for employment in the new economy. If you can do that, you may look back on the advent of autonomous vehicles and wonder how we ever survived without it.