Thousands of words have been written about autonomous trucks since Daimler showed off its first semi-autonomous Actros tractor in 2014. The press almost universally called it a truck that drives itself. They were wrong.
That Future Truck 2025 had fascinating capabilities but it also had limitations, and there was lots it couldn’t do. Still, it was labelled a driverless truck and the folks who earn their living hauling stuff down the highway immediately cried en masse, “There goes our livelihood.”
They were wrong, too, I wrote at the time, saying that such a huge transformation wouldn’t happen any time soon. But the popular press hasn’t stopped writing that millions of truck-driving jobs are soon to be toast, and even some misguided government reports have said more or less the same thing. What’s been lacking is a real understanding of the trucking industry. The thing is, it’s a complex game.
Finally, a new report out of the University of California, Berkeley, offers an in-depth look at the potential impact of autonomous trucks. Jointly commissioned by the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education and Working Partnerships USA, its title is Driverless? Autonomous Trucks and the Future of the American Trucker. It’s demonstrably pro-labor, but it’s the most cogent look at trucking that I’ve seen in a long time, maybe ever. It’s also very American, but it’s most definitely worth your reading time.
Written by Dr. Steve Viscelli, a sociologist and “trucking expert” at the University of Pennsylvania, it suggests that driverless trucks could replace many of the best long-distance trucking jobs, while shifting the industry toward more low-wage “gig” jobs. Viscelli says that without the right public policy decisions, eroding job quality should be as serious a concern as job loss.
“The most likely scenario for widespread adoption involves local human drivers bringing trailers from factories or warehouses to ‘autonomous truck ports’ [ATPs] located on the outskirts of cities next to major interstate exits,” writes Viscelli. “Here, they will swap the trailers over to autonomous tractors for long stretches of highway driving. At the other end, the process will happen in reverse: a human driver will pick up the trailer at an ATP and take it to the final destination.”
Autonomous trucks could replace as many as 294,000 American long-distance driving jobs, Viscelli suggests, but that’s a small fraction of the 2.1 million total.
While new local driving and delivery jobs (with humans at the wheel) would be created, data suggests these jobs could pay about half as much as those lost through automation.
And how soon will any of this happen?
“Even the most optimistic developers believe we are still at least several years away from autonomous trucks operating even in limited highway operations in anything other than testing programs with drivers still behind the wheel,” writes Viscelli.
“The cost of components, including some very expensive sensors, must drop significantly before autonomous trucks will be economical. Some potential self-driving technology may require improved infrastructure maintenance or new infrastructure, ranging from better lane markings to more robust wireless communications networks. Once autonomous trucks are demonstrably safe, there may also be important regulatory debates to ensure safety.”
Those debates will likely take years, too, he says.
“Then, before autonomous trucks can be adopted on a widespread basis, they will need to demonstrate reliability and feasibility within the operations of actual trucking firms… Trucking equipment, both tractors and trailers, are used in harsh conditions for hundreds of thousands, even millions of miles. Equipment critical to the safety and reliability of these systems, such as computers, sensors, wiring, etc., will need to withstand cold temperatures, near constant vibration, ice, salt, and more, over long periods.”
So, like I’ve always said, think decades before jobs are at risk.
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