“Robots Could Replace 1.7 Million Truckers in the Next Decade.” That is a headline from the Los Angeles Times on Sept. 25 of this year. The article stated that trucking will likely be the first type of driving to be fully automated because long-haul trucks spend most of their time on highways, which are the easiest roads to navigate without human intervention.
As drivers we have heard it all before. It is all just talk, isn’t it? Or is it?
Earlier this year I listened to Tom Wheeler, chairman of the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC), speaking to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The topic was 5G wireless networks and making the expansion of 5G a national priority in order to compete in our increasingly interconnected world. 5G is fibre fast without the cable connection. Think of a surgeon in a virtual reality setting performing surgery on a patient on the other side of the globe in real time.
Response times on this network are only one millisecond, or 1/1,000th of a second. Wheeler outlined how this wirelessly connected powerful processing network, centralized in the cloud, is fully capable of controling autonomous vehicles, energy grids, utilities, etc.
Wheeler also stated that we have always underestimated the innovation that results from new generation networks, citing the example of the first wireless voice networks (Web 1.0) that were estimated to end up with 100,000 users in the US by the year 2000 and the actual number ended up to be more than 100 million. But it’s all still just talk, right? If it is, you have to ask yourself why 45% of the jobs in the workforce are now automated, according to Andy Stern, author of Raising the Floor: How a Universal Basic Income Can Renew Our Economy and Rebuild the American Dream.
Stern brings together a host of business experts and futurists who support his position that a massive disruption in the economy is pending as a result of automation and it is not being adequately addressed. A tsunami of job losses on the horizon is how Stern describes the near future.
Think of what you have seen in just the past few months even if you follow news in the trucking industry half-heartedly.
Uber partnered with Ford to start providing driverless cars to customers in Philadelphia to test its driverless systems. This starts to normalize the public acceptance of autonomous vehicles. Volvo has fully operational autonomous vehicles in European mining operations. Truck News reported last month on the platooning technology that is being put into use in Europe and in September of this year the Michigan State Senate approved a law allowing trucks to drive autonomously in platoons. Several other states have this legislation in place, also.
Those examples are but a small taste of how automation, which has been met with scorn in many driver circles, is on the brink of exponential growth. So the claim of replacing 1.7 million drivers in the next decade is not a pipe dream. It’s a reality we need to face as professional drivers, or at least the 50% of us who won’t be retired by 2025.
Do not forget that driver wages represent approximately one third of the costs companies pay to move freight down the road. Reducing that cost is one of the primary goals of business.
Drivers need to stop thinking that there are only two options on the table, those being a fully automated world with no drivers or the world as it is with a driver in every vehicle.
The simple answer is we don’t know exactly how things will play out, but the fact that fewer human beings will be required to move freight down the road in the near future is obvious.
Absent from this is how the trucking industry is going to act as millions of middle income jobs come under threat. As a driver, you should be thinking deeply about this and developing a contingency plan of your own.
Al Goodhall has been a professional long-haul driver since 1998. He shares his experiences via his ‘Over the Road’ blog at http://truckingacrosscanada.blogspot.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @Al_Goodhall.