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Autonomous VehiclesNews

Driverless days ahead

(Image: Shutterstock)

With automation on the horizon, how should the industry brace for its impact? Economic and political sociologist Steve Viscelli believes that 297,000 long-haul trucking jobs”including some of the best jobs in the industry”are at risk of being lost to the rise of autonomous vehicles. FreightWaves had a chance to speak with Viscelli, a fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Robert A. Fox Leadership Program and a senior fellow at its Kleinman Center for Energy.

Viscelli’s published research is the result of years spent studying the industry, particularly focusing on long-haul trucking and the changes that have taken place in the field in the last four decades. He’s especially interested in the day-to-day details of these jobsessentially “trying to understand why it is that jobs look the way that they do, what they’re like, and how automation fits into the equation.

Gaining a thorough understanding of the industry was difficult, simply due to the variation that exists within the field: “In trucking, we have a wide variety of labor market conditions. We have drivers home every night with high job tenure and on the other end of the spectrum, we have companies with incredibly high driver turnover,” Viscelli explained in a phone interview.

“Prior studies and news stories have suggested that nearly all of the roughly 2.1 million heavy-duty truck drivers in the United States could lose their jobs to automation. However, that number includes many industry segments that are unlikely to be automated in the near future, such as local pickup and delivery and carriers using specialized equipment,” Viscelli’s report notes. “This report finds that the jobs most at risk of displacement are long-distance driving jobs with few specialized tasks, representing about 294,000 drivers,” Viscelli concludes.

Throughout the research process, Viscelli learned that “when workers are unprotected by policy in labor markets, they’re much more likely to be hurt by automation.”

Autonomous vehicles are certainly in the not-so-distant future, and Viscelli believes the best industry-wide response is “proactive industry and public policy action [which] will be needed if automation is to deliver broad economic, environmental, and social benefits,” according to Viscelli.

“The risk of autonomous trucks is not that there won’t be enough jobs for American truckers, it’s that there won’t be enough good jobs,” Viscelli wrote. The goal, then, looking ahead, is to “create these scenarios where we can really see the full range of things that will impact automation. We’re still in the early stages of understanding what that is going to look like,” said Viscelli.

One of Viscelli’s recommendations is a formal process for involving the voices of drivers, carriers, and communities. “There are a number of stakeholders, yet we’ve managed to have a fairly sustained conversation about potential job losses without involving the people it will impact,” Viscelli pointed out.

“We’re at a revolutionary period in trucking. We haven’t seen this much change this fast since deregulation,” Viscelli stated.

Looking forward, Viscelli added that “it’s never one advancement in technology that transforms an industry, it’s a constellation and combination of fundamental change.”

“I’m obviously interested in how is this going to play out, but more importantly, what are we going to do about it? How do we ensure we have good jobs? That should be the conversation. We need to start a public conversation about what we want this industry to look like,” he concluded.


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Maria Baker, Staff Writer

Maria is a staff writer who has covered everything from the environment to sign-on bonuses and women in the industry. She is a recent graduate of Sewanee: The University of the South, where she majored in English literature and minored in environmental studies. Maria loves writing about freight almost as much as she loves Emily Dickinson and the self-imposed challenge of finding the best iced mocha in Chattanooga.

One Comment

  1. Maybe what we need is robot lawmakers to make laws, so no preconceived notions or personal opinion could interfere with decisions.

  2. DON’T BLAME US WHEN YOUR FAMILY GETS RUN OVER BY A MACHINE THAT JUST DRIVES AWAY. THEN YOU WILL SEE JUST HOW PEOPLE WILL FEEL ABOUT AUTOMATION.

  3. You won’t need very many driverless trucks because when people don’t earn a living they don’t need stuff delivered by those trucks.

  4. as I have been on the road 31 years how can this be more dangerous than these modern day steering wheel holders on their phones or tablets with their feet on the dash

  5. What happens when there is road closures, detours or sudden changes in situations that are outside of what that computer is programmed to do. Or how’s is that automated truck going to function in the case of computer malfunction. There is a lot of factors that I don’t foresee the industry being able to come up with solutions for. I believe the truck might be automated but a operator would still need to be present in the event of unforeseen situations and in that case we would be nothing more then seat warmers 90% of the time

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