3.5 Million Truck Drivers Out of a Job? Self-Driving Trucks and What it Means to Trucking and Cargo Control

Self-Driving trucks are not a futuristic, far-away dream. They are already a reality, and this new reality could drastically affect the trucking industry and cargo control itself.

Recently, Budweiser made headlines for the "first delivery" using Otto's self-driving truck technology on a Volvo VNL. The truck drove on a 120-mile stretch of interstate, needing a real-life driver to enter the interstate and finish the delivery to the final destination. But this marks a huge leap in a technology that is only going to improve.

And expectations are that this technology will expand at a faster rate than the similar equipment being used for cars. According to NPR:

"Self-driving cars have been getting a lot of attention lately: Uber's self-driving taxis in Pittsburgh, Tesla's semi-autonomous Model S and the driverless Google rides that look like a cross between a Cozy Coupe and a golf cart. But quietly and without much fanfare, researchers and entrepreneurs are working on self-driving trucks — big rigs, tractor trailers."

Who Needs a Job?

The biggest concern in the trucking industry is the potential loss of jobs. If this technology really advances to make drivers obsolete or at the least, secondary, many people will be without a job. Even those who keep working in the trucking industry will find their job requirements greatly altered. For starters, a reduction in wages would be expected as less skill would be required for someone to sit in the cab to "monitor" the truck, instead of actually driving it.

However, many sources are indicating that the trucking industry will be facing a shortage of drivers in the not-so-distant future. This is a highly debated topic, and the shortage may be grossly overstated. It may even be a case of hyping up the problem in an attempt to keep wages low by hiring new drivers.

Read more about The Driver Shortage Alarm.

Would Truckers Really Lose Their Jobs?

It seems impractical to pay a "driver" to sit in the cab of a self-driving truck; there only if something in the system malfunctions. But it is possible that a trucker's job could be adjusted where they ride along and still perform loading and unloading duties. This is especially critical when dealing with cargo control. A trained person will be needed to ensure the cargo is properly secured, and do realize if something in this securement has gone awry.

As the technology gets more and more advanced, the expectation would be that truckers could be tasked with other jobs while riding along in the truck. Think of it as an office job with an ever-changing view of the country.

In the infancy of this technology, a driver is still necessary to maneuver on city streets and at loading and unloading docks.

Cargo Control With Self-Driving Trucks

With the reduction of skilled, veteran drivers tasked with operating big rigs with oversized loads, cargo control could take a significant hit as well. Trucks hauling oversized loads, odd-shaped cargo, auto-haulers, and more would be faced with a difficult situation not only when loading and unloading the cargo.

Would an automated truck be aware of a shift in the cargo or a winch strap that has come loose? If the task of securing cargo shifted to an employee at the dock, would these people be trained to ensure the load is properly tied down?

These questions have gone largely unanswered and mostly unasked. But a truck with an unsecure load will never be safe, even in the robotic “hands” of a driverless truck.

Technology Is Not Without Faults

While it is nice to have automatic braking, traction control, etc., advanced systems can still malfunction. This technology would need numerous checks and balances to ensure it is operating correctly. This also opens the door for the possibility of hackers to get inside the system and cause havoc.

Legality and Public Perception

Not if, but when a self-driving truck is involved in an accident, to whom will the blame fall? New laws will surely be needed to determine the issue of blame as well as other legalities.

Even once legal issues are mostly squared away, self-driving trucks would face an uphill climb in terms of public opinion. A large population of people are not ready to put trust in computerized trucking or faith in a 40-ton 18-wheeler that makes "decisions" for itself.

Improved Safety

Safety is one of the most praised aspects of driverless trucks. The NHTSA defines 4 levels of automated driving, where level 3 requires a driver ready to take over. A level 4 truck would be truly automated and able to tackle any driving situation and condition without the aid of a human driver.

These level 4 trucks, with on-board cameras and sensors, would not be suspect to driver fatigue, error, or distraction. Issues from speeding to driving under the influence would become a thing of the past.

In 2015 there were 4,067 fatalities in crashes involving large trucks. Of this total, 667 (16.4%) were occupants of the large trucks, 10.1 percent were non-occupants, and 73.5 percent were occupants of other vehicles [ NHTSA]. Self-driving trucks could reduce the number of fatalities and injuries involving large trucks significantly.

Improved Fuel Efficiency & Lower Maintenance Costs

Self-driving trucks would most definitely improve fuel efficiency by monitoring speed and braking. This in turn would reduce maintenance costs.

According to Forbes, fuel bills could be reduced by 4-7%. Long-haul trucks "run anywhere between 80,000-100,000 miles on average, which translates to thousands of dollars in fuel savings per truck per year...".

It is a bit unclear how exactly a semi without a driver would manage to refuel, but that is another of the logistical hurdles involved with this technology.

Longer Hours of Operation and Greater Profits

With the refueling issue under control, driverless trucks could essentially drive at any hour of the day or night without ever having to stop. This could be a great benefit in moving more trucks off the road during times of heavy congestion.

Large, and small companies alike, would see potential profit increases once the technology pays for itself. Along with fuel and maintenance savings, hiring less drivers or at the very least, less-qualified personnel would result in considerable savings on wages.

What About the Roads?

Automated trucks will become a reality, but what good is this technology with infrastructure that is in dire need of major repairs? The interstate system is aging and 1 in 9 of the nation’s bridges "are rated as structurally deficient, while the average age of the nation's 607,380 bridges is currently 42 years."

Bridge disrepair makes for a better headline, but the roads are even worse. The 2013 Report Card for America's Infrastructure graded the roads a 'D'.

"Forty-two percent of America’s major urban highways remain congested, costing the economy an estimated $101 billion in wasted time and fuel annually." - ASCE

The full deployment of self-driving trucks may be decades away. But the impact on the trucking industry-which includes cargo control-and the economy as a whole will be huge.

To put it in perspective, Google began less than 20 years ago and now is ingrained in our every-day life. Technology advances quickly; time will tell how all parties involved adapt and evolve to this rapidly-advancing technology.

The number of American truck drivers, 3.5 million, is according to estimates from the American Trucking Association