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Autonomous Trucking And The Trucking Industry

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You truck drivers are the heart and soul of America. You are committed to making sure every corner of the U.S. map is stocked with the necessary resources and products you’re entrusted with hauling. Without you, we, the people of this country, would crumble. But recently, the news has been inundated with talk of autonomous trucks, from a successful Uber beer delivery last year to Elon Musk announcing Tesla is getting involved. So, what does all of this even mean? What will this change in the trucking industry? Are you going to lose your jobs? How fast is this new autonomous truck going to hit the road? The future is coming at us fast and furiously, but let’s slow it down for a reality check.    

What is Autonomous Trucking?

Self-driving trucks? This sounds absolutely like a thing right out of a science fiction movie. Or maybe a horror film? But it’s real, and it’s happening. With the punch of an “engage” button, the “driver” can sit back and write the next American novel while the truck does all the actual work. These technologically outfitted trucks, complete with Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) technology that includes self-driving software with updated radar, power steering, cruise control, automated gear changing, and a stereo camera, take control of the wheel. A specially trained driver, knowledgeable in all the new technology, will be required to stay in the cabin, just in case. While this is technology at one of the most advanced stages of our time, we still need to err on the side of caution when throwing a big self-driving truck out on an open road alongside other vehicles and their humans.

Autonomous trucks are being experimented with as we speak. In fact, this past October, an Uber-owned start-up company called Otto, partnering with Budweiser, drove an autonomous truck down Interstate 25 for 120 miles to deliver 2,000 cases of beer. The truck driver assigned to this route from Ft. Collins, Colorado to Colorado Springs was merely a passenger on this mission. It went flawlessly, and there was no need for the driver to override anything. Instead, he got to hang out and enjoy the passing scenery.

Why is the Industry Doing Autonomous Trucking?

The trucking industry is buzzing big time over the autonomous trucks. Why? It comes down to the simple fact that there is a tremendous shortage of qualified truck drivers. Driver’s seat vacancies are totaling 48,000 and rising, expected to reach a driver deficit of over 240,000 by 2022, meaning the truck driver shortage isn’t looking to get any better soon. As the baby boomer truckers retire, there are not a lot of able-bodied replacements jumping in behind the wheel to take over. Maybe this new era of trucking is what’s needed to put a little excitement back into trucking careers and entice more qualified truckers to join in. However, the Bureau of Labor Statistics states employment growth is expected to remain average, at 5% over the next ten years. Heaviest employment opportunities will remain in the oil and gas industries.

Another reason that may have prompted the industry to take a serious look into autonomous trucking is the trucking-related accidents and deaths, usually caused by fatigued drivers. The costs related to those accidents are astronomical, both financially and emotionally. Autonomous trucks will reduce the amount of driver fatigue by allowing the driver time to rest during those stretches of 11-hour drives.

The trucking industry brings in over 700 billion USD per year with one-third of that going into the truck drivers’ bank accounts. Eliminate the trucker, and that’s more bottom-line dollars going directly to the owner of the trucking companies. That doesn’t sound like such good news for those who have dedicated their lives to truck driving, does it? Well, for now, there is no need for concern. Those autonomous trucks may seem like they have it under control, but the reality is there will be a need for truckers trained to ride the autonomous vehicles. And it could remain that way for a very long time.  

Should You Be Worried about Autonomous Trucking Stealing Jobs?

“You are not going to see a truck without a driver in it for a long time,” Ted Scott, American Trucking Associations

There are a lot of people out there whose livelihood, in whatever capacity, rely on the trucking industry. There are over 3.5 million truckers in the United States alone. It’s the No.1 job in 29 states. Compound that number that with the fact there is an enormous amount of people relying on the business of truckers in some way, whether it’s a truck stop business or the trucker’s family.

In some respects, technology has already disrupted employment opportunities. Think about agriculture: 200 years ago, 90% of the U.S. population worked in agriculture. This number decreased to 38% in the 1900s, and now it hovers at around 2%. Does America need less production from agriculture? No. But technology slowly substituted most of the manual tasks involved in the agricultural sector through advancement in technology. The same thing will happen with trucking, but it also won’t be overnight. Trucks may, some day, completely drive themselves. But until then, the trucker shortage will only grow, and, if anything, there will be more and more jobs available for truckers.  

Examples such as Daimler and Peloton Technologies only confirm this diagnostic. These companies in California are entertaining the idea of manufacturing self-driving truck caravans with just one driver. Tesla, Apple, Intel, and Nvidia have also joined the in on the race for artificially intelligent autonomous trucks, with Apple and Tesla asking for California to allow heavier autonomous trucks on the road than the 10,000-pound limit already regulated. Their programs are probably still a decade away from happening. This means that while things will definitely change, but most likely gradually. Just like it did with agriculture. Keep in mind, the truck driver, in the traditional sense, may not have actually to drive the vehicle. Most likely instead, they will be behind the “wheel” maintaining paperwork and doing their scheduling. Human resources will still be a necessity in the industry for pick up, delivery, and managing the transaction of the load within the truck. 

How Will Autonomous Trucking Impact the Trucking Industry?

“We view self-driving trucks as the future, and we want to be a part of that,” James Sembrot, Anheuser-Busch senior director of logistics strategy

Whether we like it or not, evolution happens, and there’s no way to stop it. Trucking is no exception, and big brands are excited to get on board. The question remains, what type of impact will autonomous trucking have in the trucking industry? As with any drastic change, there are both the good and not so good effects.

Autonomous trucking fulfills a need. There will always be a demand for transporting goods from one area to another. And because there are massive amounts of job vacancies in the trucking industry and growing, something had to happen that would keep status quo. If people aren’t going to do the job, then the industry was forced to come up with an optimal solution to compensate for this—the show must go on! Artificial Intelligence can help do that without any complaint: It doesn’t need to eat, sleep, or spend time with family. But don’t worry. If you’ve been thinking about your career options and driving a truck was high up on your list, you’re still crucial and will be for the foreseeable future. The reality of driverless trucks is still decades away. There are still so many factors involved, such as the regulations and all the massive amounts of legalities, that it could take ages to see any truly noticeable impact to truck drivers.

Disadvantages of Autonomous Trucking

  • Slight chance of increased unemployment in the trucking sector should the trucks become completely self-driving.

  • Definite security risks, which may actually benefit trucking employment. There are concerns about the vulnerability of autonomous trucks and whether or not they would be targets for hackers or terrorism. Rightfully so, considering how easily hackers can shut down a bunch of the major online destinations at once. If something like hacking happens with these self-driving trucks, if a driver is on board, he can jump in and override the program to regain control of the vehicle.

  • Inclement weather: Autonomous trucking has only been tested during optimal weather and road conditions. Further testing will be necessary before autonomous trucking becomes a real thing. At this point, we have no idea how the autonomous trucks will perform during weather-related incidents.

  • More distracted “driving” because the drivers may not be paying as much attention to the road while the truck is on autopilot. Just because the truck can drive itself doesn’t mean the truck driver can take eyeballs off the road for extended periods of time. Attention will always be needed. Even though autonomous trucks are programmed to adjust for surprises, they still might not react correctly to, say, a kid jumping out into the street.

Advantages of Autonomous Trucking

  • Fewer driver-related crashes: 2012 saw over 300,000 truck-related crashes that led to almost 4,000 deaths. Driver error caused virtually all of these. Autonomous trucks drastically reduce the chances of operator error.

  • Solve the truck driver shortage issue: For every problem, a solution is created. Trucking’s largest problem is the driver shortage. To combat that, autonomous trucks will do the jobs that aren’t being filled by people. That’s not to say that human bodies won’t still be necessary for the industry.

  • Smaller ecological footprint by cutting down on carbon emissions due to optimized shifting of gears, less braking, and acceleration: This makes autonomous trucking a “green” industry. Eventually, zero emissions trucks will be produced, making it even safer for the environment. Also, with the average trucker driving over 100,000 miles every year, fuel efficient autonomous trucks can cut down on fuel consumption by 4-7%.

Autonomous trucks will simply prove the adage, “you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.” However, jobs aren’t about to disappear so soon. Just like everything else, they are in the process of evolving along with technology. Autonomous trucks are designed to help make the driver's life a bit easier. And if you think about it, this isn’t such a bad idea after all.

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