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Will automated trucks be a job killer? – No, they will not.

The trucking industry is at the dawn of a new era. (Photo: iStock / Apriori1)

“Automated trucking will assist drivers – not replace them." The driver's role might even expand, argues Chris Spear, President and CEO of the American Trucking Associations.

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“Automated trucking will assist drivers – not replace them." The driver's role might even expand, argues Chris Spear, President and CEO of the American Trucking Associations.

Futurists have been predicting for years a world where goods move from place to place with little or no human interaction.  But more recently, we’ve seen a growing number of predictions of the elimination of the truck driver as increased automation and technology will replace the millions of men and women in the United States and around the world that deliver the vast majority of our goods.

News stories hype up a future – perhaps even a near future – of “driverless trucks” rolling from port to store, farm to factory, their trailers full and their cabs empty.  This view of the future is nothing shy of unrealistic and misleading.

Automated driving technology is already in many passenger vehicles driven on our roads today.  Automatic emergency braking, lane keep assist and warning, blind spot detection, and adaptive cruise control are all contributing “Level 2” technologies that will someday support “Level 4” fully autonomous vehicles.  Connected cars and vehicle to infrastructure communication is key to making that happen. 

To achieve autonomy, current technologies require dedicated spectrum.  And if the Federal Communications Commission allocates such spectrum to safety, vehicles can then talk to one another.  It is this connected technology that is considered by engineers as the catalyst for improving safety, as well as reducing congestion and emissions. 

Automated trucks will tackle driver shortage

Eventually, it’s this same connected technology for passenger vehicles that could help ease the chronic shortage of truck drivers.  There are more than 3.5 million truck drivers in the United States.  All of them are trained and licensed professionals.  The types of automation being discussed and tested now won’t replace them, but assist them in their task of delivering more than 10 billion tons of freight annually.  The leading benefit of automation is to further improve safety on our nation’s highways.  Since 1980, truck-involved fatal crashes have fallen 32%, and the fatal crash rate – which accounts for increases in driving and miles traveled – has plummeted 74%.  This is due in part to technological improvements in both large trucks and passenger vehicles. 

Advanced automation could help reduce truck crashes. (Photo: iStock / DarthArt)

But that’s not good enough.  Driver behaviors such as speeding and texting continue to challenge efforts to reduce accidents further.  Advances in automated and connected driving technology could be the solution for bringing the number of highway fatalities where it should be – zero.

As a safety-first industry and an industry that invests in proven technology, many questions remain to be answered about automated and connected driving technology. New automated technologies, like the ones previously adopted by the trucking industry, will go through extensive testing in controlled environments before being implemented by fleets. 

Automation will assist drivers – not replace them

These new technologies all assist drivers in being safer, correcting for bad decisions or bad circumstances and reducing crashes.  The key word being “assist,” because it is a long time off before large trucks would ever head out from distribution centers without a human being in the cab.  Automation and technology can, and already do, make trucks safer, but all pieces of technology are subject to glitches – to false sensor readings, to errors or worse, to malfunctions intentionally caused by others – in other words, being hacked.  That’s why the driver will continue to play a pivotal role, and potentially an expanded role, bringing opportunities for further career training to address newly in-demand skills.

Trucking - the backbone of the U.S. economy. (Photo: Fotolia / javarman)

U.S. Carriers currently spend roughly $9.5 billion annually on safety.  While some of that is for new technology, $3.5 billion of that figure is for driver training.  Emerging technologies can assist these well-trained drivers, improving their skills and relieving some of the stresses of the job, but it cannot replace them in the near future.  There will continue to be a place for a trained professional in the cab for the foreseeable future when it comes to moving freight.  Even with such concepts like platooning, the automated technologies that could benefit trucking are unlikely to reduce the size of trucking’s workforce, but rather increase freight capacity and the number of maintenance technicians needed as fleets will depend on developers and IT professionals to maintain and service these new advanced systems.

Trucking will continue to carry a growing volume of freight in the U.S. as our economy grows and the demand for increased commerce and efficiencies loom.  The trucks that move America’s goods will continue to have hard-working, well-trained, professional men and women in them.  They may be assisted by technology, but they will still be at the wheel… delivering our freight safely and efficiently every day.

In summary:

  • Automated Trucks could help ease the chronic shortage of truck drivers
  • Automation will assist and support, not replace truck drivers
  • Automation will assist drivers in being safer and further reducing crashes, bringing the no. of highway fatalities to zero.
  • Automated Trucks could relieve some of the stresses of the truck driver’s job and will bring opportunities for further career training to address newly in-demand skills.
  • New technological concepts will generate additional potential, such as freight capacity and jobs for maintenance technicians.

About our author:

Chris Spear is president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations, the nation’s leading organization representing the interests of the trucking industry.

As president and CEO, Chris leads ATA’s efforts to advocate and educate on behalf of the trucking industry. Employing more than 7 million people and moving more than 10 billion tons of freight annually, trucking is the industry most responsible for moving America’s economy.

Prior to his time ATA, Chris has deep background and experience in the transportation, energy, labor and technology sectors over five different continents.

Who has the better arguments? What do you think? Will truck automation be a job killer? Share your thoughts with the community!

Comments (2)

Dummy User
BerndKorte
at 12.08.2016 15:56:38

Long term they will, but short term...

Nobody will rely on an automated truck the very first time. So I would expect that for a longer time the driver will suppert as security factor. Mid [Show more...]term their job environment will change, for sure. But we can't sacrifice traffic security for job security. This is change! [Show less...]
Dummy User
JimVance
at 15.08.2016 05:24:03

Automated trucks

If the automation systems only "assist" with driving, I do not understand how this will relieve the driver shortage; that could be accurate if the automation replaces the [Show more...]driver, which is the author is arguing it will not do.

Electronic assists are certainly useful and can help with improving safety but I really do not follow the argument that automation will not be a job killer.
[Show less...]

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