Now that Uber Freight has launched, what does this mean for truckers?

  (Photo: Shutterstock)

(Photo: Shutterstock)

Uber Freight has technically been playing the brokerage game since May 2017. Their app, which they still emphasize on their page, is a load-matching platform that pays drivers and carriers quickly. Across the industry that’s part of the new way of doing business that’s sure to improve at least one of the pain points for those on the front lines. Instead of getting paid 40-60 days later, you get paid within no more than a week—and transparently.

The “uberization of trucking” has been a catch-phrase within the industry for years, which says something about the influence of their market penetration as a ride-sharing platform. But Uber is taking their talents one step further than merely playing among the multitude of ride-sharing platform-brokerages sweeping the industry.

Having acquired Otto, the first company to successfully test self-driving trucks made their first commercial delivery in 2016—2,000 cases of Budweiser beer on a 120-mile hop in Colorado—and having cleared the legal hurdle of who owned the rights to some of the original concepts, the company has taken its Class 8 robot rigs to the highways of Arizona, and beyond.

Presumably in an effort to continue to lead the competitive autonomous startup space, Uber’s trucks have been transporting Level 2 autonomous cargo for commercial freight customers across Arizona’s highways for several months in “stealth.” Uber utilizes the Arizona Department of Transportation’s Topock port of entry to facilitate transfers, and they're ready for the public to know. Click here for a brief description of the “five levels of autonomous for dummies.”

How does it work? Human drivers bring freight to the terminals, where it is loaded aboard self-driving trucks for the portion of the route that involves highways. Then it is transferred back to trucks driven by human drivers to be delivered to local warehouses. This is one model of how the "human touch" for last mile delivery.

Daimler’s top self-driving engineer Derek Rotz told Financial Times last year that he doesn’t expect fully autonomous trucks—the kind with no driver at all [Level 5]—within his lifetime.

“That’s quite frankly something that we are not looking at,” he says. What he does see is an on-boarding progression. Rotz happens to be the engineer who helped develop the first self-driving truck to receive a testing license in the U.S. in 2015. Rotz expects systems like predictive cruise control, the use of maps and elevation data.

This might be one of the biggest issues we need to get clear on. Life in the 21st century is ushering in a time of technical prowess, and a higher level of data professionalization and assimilation. Whether it’s specifically a college education, or otherwise, employed people will have to actually know how to work with technology, and that’s where the jobs will ultimately go. But before anyone races off to Facebook to scream that the sky is falling and robots are going to be the death of all trucker jobs and possibly the human race, hold tight.

The Brookings Institution recently debunked the theory that autonomous trucks will lead to job losses, pointing out that positions with a higher degree of automation are more likely to experience job losses due to automation. This includes office clerks, cashiers and receptionists. Only on the surface does trucking fit into this national narrative of losing their jobs to bots.

No doubt, the United States has been particularly bad over the last few decades at helping people who’ve lost out during periods of technological change. However, between the emerging realities of how research and development is actually going for car and truck manufacturers, as well as general on-the-ground infrastructure realities, a new story is emerging. 

Uber ATG recently released a report on their Medium page that compiles months of research. In their baseline projections without self-driving trucks, the number of trucking jobs nationwide increased 766,000 over the next ten years. When you add self-driving trucks into the scenario above, truck-driving jobs increase even more, with many long haul jobs shifting to local haul to support growing freight volume moving in and out of transfer hubs. They write:

“The biggest technical hurdles for self-driving trucks are driving on tight and crowded city streets, backing into complex loading docks and navigating through busy facilities. . . . These maneuvers require skills that will be hard for self-driving trucks to match for a long time.”

Self-driving trucks will improve efficiency on long haul routes, lowering the overall cost of trucking, and thereby reducing the total cost of goods being shipped. When goods are cheaper, consumers buy more. When consumers buy more, more new goods need to be shipped, which drives truck freight volume up. In this scenario, when 1 million self-driving trucks are operating on highways, you would expect to see close to 1 million jobs shift from long haul to local haul, plus about 400,000 new truck driving jobs will be needed to keep up with the higher demand.

That's right, trucking will become more attractive because of the increased efficiencies.

No one knows exactly how fast self-driving trucks will become part of the industry, or how much impact they will have in the coming years, but signs are pointing to a new reality: they will help the industry. And the people who keep it running will continue to show us why they’re such an important part of the supply chain.

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