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Beyond the headlines: Drivers and the economics of autonomous trucks

 Despite predictions of massive job losses, autonomous trucks will likely still require a driver to be in the cab. 
Despite predictions of massive job losses, autonomous trucks will likely still require a driver to be in the cab. 

Significant job losses may be decades away, if at all, but cost savings are plentiful

Autonomous trucks are taking drivers’ jobs. An attention-grabbing headline, for sure, but not one grounded in reality, it appears.

While the promise of autonomous vehicle (AV) technology is tantalizing, two new reports have suggested significant job losses in the years ahead thanks to autonomous trucks.

A report from the International Transport Forum says that 70% of truck driving jobs could be eliminated by 2030 because of self-driving trucks.

“Driverless trucks could be a regular presence on many roads within the next ten years,” José Viegas, Secretary-General of the ITF, said in a statement. “Manufacturers are investing heavily into automation, and many governments are actively reviewing their regulations. Preparing now for potential negative social impact of job losses will mitigate the risks in case a rapid transition occurs.”

Goldman Sachs looked at the job market for several industries and found that AV adoption will be slow for several decades and any significant driver job losses due to the technology are perhaps 25 years away at this point.

“First, the driver job losses occur mostly several decades out, reflecting a slow AV penetration in the stock of cars. Second, the estimated peak effect on trend drivers’ employment of about 25k per month or about 300k per year about 25 years from now is definitely substantial,” the report notes. “The aggregate employment effects could be less negative, for instance because travel time could be reallocated to producing and consuming other goods and services.”

The report begins to hint at the current problem with autonomous trucks – they sound really sexy, and are adding a lot of anxiety for both current and future truck drivers, without adding any real definition about how the job will change.

And the headlines are certainly not adding any context about the economics of autonomous trucks, and how they may impact industries beyond trucking.

“Autonomous and connected vehicles are obviously issues the industry is dealing with right now,” Don Lefeve, president of the Commercial Vehicle Training Association (CVTA) tells FreightWaves. “It is becoming increasingly important for our member [to be informed] about what these technologies will do and what’s the timeline.

“The nature of the job will change, but I don’t think truck drivers will become obsolete anytime in the near future,” he adds.

The Goldman Sachs’ report considers truck drivers, bus drivers and taxi drivers as potential drivers impacted by autonomous vehicles. All told, Goldman Sachs pegs that number at roughly 4 million driver jobs (3.1 million truck drivers, 1.7 million of those are long-haul truckers) at risk. Even that report, though, is predicting 300,000 job losses per year – 25 years in the future.

The ITF report notes the problem that Lefeve points to: that the idea of autonomous vehicles could slow new recruits to the industry. Lefeve, whose organization works with trucking companies and driver training schools, says there is no hard evidence at this point to suggest that, though.

What Goldman Sachs concludes is that technological change in the past few decades does not appear to have “resulted in faster productivity growth or more intense disruption across occupations and industries, much less mass unemployment. But changes to technology and trade have produced important shifts in the structure of the economy which have hit some groups of workers much harder than others,” it said. “The analysis of e-commerce and driverless cars highlights that new advances could add to existing challenges of labor market polarization and labor force drop-out.”

Chris Spear, president & CEO of American Trucking Associations, told the Washington Post that driverless trucks are still decades away.

“We fully believe drivers have a long-term place in our industry,” Spear said. “You’re still going to need them in the cab to do the pickups, to do the deliveries, to navigate the cityscapes. As long as you have other drivers driving cars, you’re going to need drivers in trucks.”

Economist Steven Banks also notes that the job of truck driver is not likely to disappear anytime soon.

“While those opposed to autonomous trucks fear driver job losses, the fact of the matter is that, in the short run, there remains a shortage of qualified drivers, and driver turnover rates are still close to 100%,” he says. “In addition, the fear of widespread job losses may be overstated, as drivers will still be needed for taking the truck to its final destination, loading and unloading shipments and refueling.

Among the companies working to build advanced autonomous trucks, several believe there will still be driver jobs, they just may look a little different.

Starsky Robotics is taking a different approach to autonomous trucks. The company does not plan to eliminate drivers, just change where they go to work.

Co-founder Stefan Seltz-Axmacher told FreightWaves his company’s plan is to provide a remote controlled system where a driver would operate the truck – or a group of trucks – from a control center.

“Which means we can provide a better lifestyle for the driver,” Seltz-Axmacher explains. “They could service different vehicles as those vehicles are getting on and off the highway.”

The trucks themselves would operate in autonomous mode while on highways, but the driver in the control room could take control of the vehicle as needed, or when operating on local streets, by using a display combined with cameras and sensors onboard the truck to see the vehicle’s surroundings.

Uber’s Otto is also developing a driverless truck and several of the truck manufacturers are working on the topic, including Daimler with its Freightliner Inspiration model and Volvo, which recently began testing an autonomous refuse vehicle.

Truck platoons are another use of autonomous technology that still requires a driver. Peloton is expected to launch a system commercially later this year that allows a platoon of 2 or more trucks to run down the highway spaced closely together. In a platoon, only the lead truck is operated by a driver, although all following trucks will have drivers in them ready to take control as needed. Those vehicles can also enter and exit the platoon as they choose.

Fuel savings of up to 10% for following trucks are possible through aerodynamic efficiencies.

In addition to the scenario that Goldman Sachs lays out, it does not take into account regulatory challenges to autonomous vehicles. Google has run into issues in several states with its self-driving car testing and Seltz-Axmacher says there are only two states currently that allow testing of its technology.

What do drivers think?

While many companies are working to develop autonomous trucking technology, for the drivers on the road today, there is a certain level of concern. The Washington Post recently interviewed drivers on the subject, and they were less than enthused.

“I been listening to a lot of crap on the truckers’ channel,” Danny Spell told the paper. “I think that if the government approves it, they’re going to get a lot of people killed.”

But Lefeve thinks that the hype and potential disruption autonomous trucks are capable of is actually obscuring the value they provide.

Brian Straight

Brian Straight leads FreightWaves' Modern Shipper brand as Managing Editor. A journalism graduate of the University of Rhode Island, he has covered everything from a presidential election, to professional sports and Little League baseball, and for more than 10 years has covered trucking and logistics. Before joining FreightWaves, he was previously responsible for the editorial quality and production of Fleet Owner magazine and Brian lives in Connecticut with his wife and two kids and spends his time coaching his son’s baseball team, golfing with his daughter, and pursuing his never-ending quest to become a professional bowler. You can reach him at [email protected]