Robots will put millions of American truck drivers out of a job. Sort of soon.

Freightliner self-driving prototype

So far, discussion of self-driving cars has mostly confined itself to tech geeks and urbanists. But if they live up to their promise, autonomous vehicles could have seismic effects on America’s economy and culture. It’s probably time for a wider circle of participants, including economists, politicians, and social scientists, to start grappling seriously with what’s coming.

Let’s take just one example: long-haul trucking.

Millions of Americans drive trucks for a living

Freight trucks (semis, 18-wheelers, tractor trailers, what have you) are so ubiquitous on US highways that we scarcely give them any thought. But they are a big piece of the US economy. According to the American Trucking Association, these vehicles carry 67 percent of the freight that moves within the US — some 9.2 billion tons a year…

All that driving employs lots of people. In 2014, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were about 1.8 million people driving heavy trucks. It is one of the last jobs available in the US that pays something close to middle-class wages…without requiring a college education…

When it comes to self-driving cars, the hardest problems are in urban environments…Freeways and interstates are much easier…Many cars already have the capacity to automatically stay within a lane, sustain cruising speed, and maintain a safe distance from other cars — they are becoming self-driving on highways first. For trucks, that’s most driving.

Also, trucks are big, so they can carry more sensors and cameras, enabling them to achieve better situational awareness. So self-driving trucks are likely to arrive sooner than self-driving urban vehicles…

How soon? Well, it’s already underway. Trucks have reached level 3 on NHTSA’s scale of autonomy…

Maybe it’s two years, maybe five, maybe 10, but either way, the trajectory is toward drivers being put out of business, and 1.8 million truck driving jobs…is a lot to lose in that short a period of time.

Consider: Coal mining has lost around 150 thousand jobs over 30 years or so, around 50,000 in the last five years. And that is considered a social and political crisis worthy of presidential attention.

Truck drivers are a lot more spread out, and 1.8 million, or even half that, is a lot more than 50,000. These will be people…losing well-paying jobs, with few alternatives, and they probably won’t be happy about it.

In a great post about autonomous trucks, blogger and independent researcher Scott Santens advocates for a universal basic income to protect truck drivers and the many others who will lose jobs to automation and robotics in coming decades.

That’s an interesting idea…but it seems unlikely to manifest in the US in the next decade.

Until then, what’s the solution to hundreds of thousands of unemployed truck drivers?

The one-percenters running American freight aren’t dumber than our coal barons. Even if they can afford to – and actual competition forced their hand – they aren’t about to make changes this dramatic overnight. Coal took 30 years to automate. Freight companies will do more or less the same. If our nation ever modernizes rail lines, that will change part of the syle of the equation, but not the result or pace.

The solutions part – is an easy answer as long as our politicians don’t really have to do anything constructive. Education is always the automatic call. Trouble is how much education is required to be a truck driver in the first place? How far out of the way from, say, joining the Army, did the average truck driver have to go to get the gig?

I’ve done everything in modern logistics from loading trailers and running a lift truck – to basic traffic management, scheduling, dispatching, plugging-in materials acquisition – through to choosing markets. Machine operators need more skills than truck drivers and they have been automated out of existence already. Without the two old political parties doing squat.

Yes, education is always the answer. Giving folks the qualifications to move on to more demanding, more complex employment. New acquired skills. But, our politicians and the economic system they represent don’t really care to do anything transformative unless they’re scared crapless.

Populist movements swelled by unemployed truck drivers aren’t likely to embrace political action more demanding than racist rallies led by demagogues like Trump or his Republican peers. They certainly won’t encourage modernization of an education system that’s been cratering since Baby Boomers discovered Freud. So, what I think we will get — at a minimum – is something ranging from today’s basic Democrat reforms extending up through LBJ’s Great Society. If the Democrats have the backbone to join Bernie’s fight to end gerrymandering, that should peak in the next three or four years. Then, Liberals and Progressives can fight it out to see whether American education will be run as a human right in a modern society — or continue as a social bandaid run by a 19th Century guild of teachers and administrators.

Truck drivers have about as much chance of continuing in their set ways as elevator operators.

6 thoughts on “Robots will put millions of American truck drivers out of a job. Sort of soon.

  1. Cassandra says:

    “We’re getting closer to clothing made entirely by robots” “In 2012, the Pentagon awarded a $1.2 million grant to Softwear Automation, a Georgia Tech spinoff, to create computer-controlled sewing machines that could compete with cheap labor in China. This year, Softwear Automation used a custom-built robot to sew together two pattern pieces of a pair of blue jeans—a naturally stiffer fabric—but it has yet to automate the complete production of the denim trousers.
    This type of technology will have huge implications for millions of people in Asia and southeast Asia, especially women. Nearly 90% of garment and footwear workers in Cambodia and Vietnam are at risk of losing their jobs to automated assembly lines, according to a July 2016 report from the International Labour Organisation. “…Adidas announced a factory in Germany that will begin manufacturing shoes using robots in 2017. The “Speedfactory” will employ just 160 people: one robotic production line will make soles, the other production line the upper part of shoes. With an additional factory planned for the US, it is a scheme Adidas describe as a “gamechanger”. Currently an Adidas shoe takes 18 months to produce from idea to shelf. The aim is to reduce this to five hours, with customers able to customise their order in stores.”

  2. Rossum says:

    “Since early October, autonomous trucks built and operated by the startup Embark have been hauling Frigidaire refrigerators 650 miles along the I-10 freeway, from a warehouse in El Paso, Texas, to a distribution center in Palm Springs, California.” “Trucks carry 70 percent of goods shipped around the US, but truckers are scarce. According to the American Trucking Associations, the industry is now short 50,000 drivers. As current drivers retire or quit, that number could hit 175,000 by 2024. Cut down the need for the human, and that shortage stops being a problem. And a self-driving truck isn’t subject to rules that ban humans from spending more than 11 hours at a time behind the wheel.”
    Meanwhile: “Ford Brazil’s Heavy Truck division has come up with a very novel solution to keeping long-haul drivers awake and aware of when their attention is waning – the Safe cap.”
    “Driving a truck can be a monotonous and stressful occupation and one where you’re stuck behind the wheel of a vehicle, without physically moving for hour upon hour.”

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