Report says self-driving tech could impact best-paying driver jobs

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Updated Sep 7, 2018
The Innovation Truck, unveiled by supplier ZF last year, was built as an example of the capabilities of combining technologies already in existence today. The truck can operate autonomously on a highway, automatically keeping its lane, steering, accelerating and braking. It also has an advanced automated backing system that allows drivers to exit the truck and back the vehicle remotely to the dock. The European DAX XF was on display last year at the IAA international trucking trade show in Hannover, Germany. “Our focus is 2025,” says Sefan Sommer, ZF’s CEO. “We have to rethink the architecture of automobiles to have new concepts and new technologies.”

Autonomous Truck Technology IllustrationA new study from the U.C. Berkley Center for Labor Research and Education says autonomous trucking technology could eliminate nearly 300,000 driving jobs, with the greatest impact landing across segments that historically have offered drivers the best wages.

The report did not offer a timeline for when those jobs could be lost, and notes that job losses would be accompanied with at least some job creation in other segments. The report’s expectation is that any labor upheaval would take place as self-driving tech comes to market. Industry analysts have been split on how quickly autonomous trucks will be deployed, with some pointing toward at least partial implementation in the coming decade and others saying the technology is decades away from real-world use.

The research, conducted by University of Pennsylvania Sociologist Steve Viscelli, forecasts “significant job loss” in less-than-truckload and parcel segments, where average driver pay rates range from about $60,000 to nearly $70,000 annually. Upwards of 50,000 less-than-truckload and 30,000 parcel driving jobs could be absorbed.

“Specifically, self-driving trucks will be best suited for use in industry segments with long stretches of highway driving, minimal need for drivers to perform other tasks, and large firms with the capital to buy (and expertise to integrate) new technologies,” the report says. “These are some of the best jobs in the industry, and drivers earn some of the highest incomes in trucking, in part because of high unionization rates.”

All hope for the industry isn’t bleak, however. Viscelli expects many other freight-moving jobs will be created in their place – perhaps even more than will be lost, he writes. However, those new jobs aren’t expected to offer the same salary and benefits.

“But these new jobs will be local driving and last-mile delivery jobs that—absent proactive public policy—will likely be misclassified independent contractors and have lower wages and poor working conditions,” according to the report. “However, without proactive public policy, these new driving jobs are likely to be far worse than the jobs that are lost.”

An estimated 211,000 long-haul jobs in the full truckload segment could be displaced from autonomous trucks.

“These drivers rarely perform work such as loading and unloading or caring for special kinds of freight. These characteristics make their jobs more likely to be automated,” Viscelli writes, “… working conditions in this segment are arduous, and turnover is high.”

Self-Driving Truck Technology's Impact on Trucking JobsThe report mostly predicts a future freight environment where humans supplement the then-automated functions of the job.

“Currently, long-distance trucking firms rely on complex systems to match drivers with a series of loads, seeking to minimize miles driven without freight, while complying with limits on how long drivers can be behind the wheel. Splitting trips between autonomous trucks that can almost constantly be on the highway and local human drivers who go home each night vastly simplifies this load-matching problem,” the report says.

The most likely scenario for widespread autonomous adoption involves removing human drivers almost entirely from the highway, according to the report. Under this scenario, Viscelli says, local human drivers would bringing trailers from factories or warehouses to “autonomous truck ports” located near cities adjacent to major interstate exits.

“Here, they will swap the trailers over to autonomous tractors for long stretches of highway driving,” he adds. “At the other end, the process will happen in reverse: a human driver will pick up the trailer at an ATP and take it to the final destination.”

The onus of ensuring these jobs aren’t wiped out, Viscelli writes, lies with policymakers, workers and industry leaders, a collaborative group he says has “an opportunity to tackle some of our biggest challenges: creating good, family-supporting jobs, improving road safety, and reducing traffic congestion and carbon emissions.”

Viscelli suggests the creation of a Trucking Innovation and Jobs Council, which would bring together workers, employers, technologists and policymakers in the segment. He urges policymakers to establish a framework of labor standards “that can shape the impact of autonomous trucks, ensuring high-quality trucking jobs now and into the future. In order to ensure the best social, economic, and environmental outcomes for drivers, local communities, and our transportation infrastructure, policymakers need to play an active role in regulating the industry and the development of new technology,” he continues. “Examples of specific policies include engaging stakeholders to develop a shared innovation agenda and leveraging public research funding to implement it; allowing state and local governments to experiment with new policy responses; and ensuring that public dollars and policies do not subsidize the displacement of workers.”