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Driverless days ahead

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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.