When most people think of self-driving vehicles and automation technology, personal consumer vehicles usually come to mind — such as those popularized by Tesla. However, the trucking industry is forging ahead with various types of automation technology, some of which may be seeing widespread use as early as this year.
With 1.9 million heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers in the U.S. alone as of 2017, what will be in store for the industry’s massive workforce over the coming decade? How will this impact local economies across the country? When and how do governments expect to step in?
How Is the Trucking Industry Using Automation Technology?
The trucking industry is experimenting with much of the same technology currently being testing in self-driving cars for personal use. This includes GPS, cameras, accelerometers and gyroscopes, and radar. Among the most valuable and promising automation tools for truckers are Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) sensors, which use lasers to map a truck’s surroundings quickly and accurately.
Some truck models already utilize automated features, such as adaptive cruise control, a technology that automatically adjusts a vehicle’s speed based on the objects around it. We may soon see this put to use in commercial applications via a concept called platooning.
Platooning involves linking two or more trucks in a highway setting via a short-range wireless connection. This connection allows the speed and breaking of non-leader trucks to be controlled automatically — and much more quickly and safely than humans would be capable of managing. This means trucks are able to follow one another at very close range, utilizing the aerodynamic benefits of the truck ahead. This substantially reduces the need for fuel while enhancing safety by reducing the risk of rear-end collisions and other accidents.
How and When Will Automation Impact the Trucking Workforce?
As mentioned, some forms of trucking automation are already being put to use, and others are likely to be deployed in the coming months and years. However, we are unlikely to see any major effects on the trucking workforce over the next five to ten years. The timeline, however, will depend on how technology progresses and whether public perception of automated vehicles shifts, according to GAO.
When determining what kind of impact automated trucking will have on the workforce, two key factors will be analyzed: the level of automation achieved and government regulatory decisions. Although it’s easy to envision a sci-fi future, in which trucks transport themselves completely unassisted across the country, it is an unlikely scenario for the near future.
None of the respondents surveyed by GAO were working on full automation technology, but nearly all were working on partial automation, which will still require the use of truck drivers in some capacity.
The forms of automation most companies are currently working on will require drivers to navigate complex urban environments, handle the actual delivery processes, and at least remain present on even highly automated stints of the trip, such as those involving highway driving.
However, because automation may make trucking less stressful and less physically intensive, GAO states that it may also make the profession more enticing to young workers and women. It could also decrease turnover rates, which are currently very high in the trucking industry, with some reports citing rates close to 100%. Plus, because trucking may require less specialized training in the future, the pool of people able to complete the job will grow, and wages may decrease as a result.
However, automation is also likely to increase the number of specialized jobs within the trucking industry, such as tech-savvy mechanical and engineering roles. However, higher automation may reduce the number of drivers needed to staff trucks, but this will largely be dependent on changes to government regulations over the next several years.
How Are Governments Preparing for the Impact of Trucking Automation?
Government feedback will play a key role in how and when partial automation will impact the workforce, in part due to the need for regulatory clarity for testing purposes. As mentioned above, whether or not drivers will need to be present in vehicles during automated periods will be a major factor. If drivers must remain present at all times, of course, more driving jobs will be available.
Other issues concerning the stakeholders interviewed by GAO include all-encompassing federal regulations vs. “patchwork” state regulations, which could make interstate travel inordinately difficult. Similarly, there are currently laws in place that limit the number of hours truckers can drive within a certain time period — right now, that is 11 out of 14 consecutive hours. If drivers are simply present in an automated vehicle, do they still have to abide by this law? Is that time still considered “driving?” Are automated systems confined by the same laws that regulate human drivers?
The Department of Transportation (DOT) oversees all federal transportation safety concerns, including those that apply to commercial trucking and automation. The DOT has hosted listening sessions in both 2017 and 2018 in order to gather feedback for this ongoing rulemaking process. The department has also stated its commitment to updating its reports yearly, in order to provide the most relevant, up-to-date information.
DOT, the Department of Labor (DOL), and local agencies are all working together to prepare for the changes that may result from trucking automation over the next five to ten years, and this includes preparing for potential pockets of mass layoffs in areas where trucking jobs are prevalent. To address this, and help mitigate localize economic effects, educational programs may begin to focus on the specialized skills needed for the trucking industry of tomorrow.
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