Stop using term ‘autonomous vehicle,’ panel urges

by James Menzies

MISSISSAUGA, Ont. — If he had his way, Mike Millian would never hear the term “autonomous truck” again.

“The more we keep telling people autonomous trucks are going to hit the road in the next few years with no drivers in them – that’s hurting us,” said the head of the Private Motor Truck Council of Canada, when speaking at the Truck Training Schools Association of Ontario’s annual conference March 1.

He prefers the term “driver assistance vehicles.”

“New people that are coming up are used to technology and they want technology,” Millian said. “It can help us if we message it properly. If we advance these as ‘driver assistance vehicles’ which are more technologically advanced but still need a driver…it’s going to help us recruit the youth.”

Millian feels strongly drivers will still be required, even as trucks capable of operating themselves at times become available. He said the driver’s role, however, will evolve, and will include more planning and the management of tasks not traditionally assigned to the driver.

Geoff Topping, vice-president of human resources for Challenger Motor Freight, agreed.

“The trucking industry needs to talk more about technology in trucks, and stop saying autonomous vehicles,” he said. “We are scaring people away from our industry. I think the driver of the future is going to have a great career in the industry. They’re going to work with equipment and also technology, and still travel all over the place. We need to promote that there’s going to be employment out there, but it’s a new person.”

Kelly Henderson, representing the Trucking Human Resources Sector Council (THRSC) in Atlantic Canada, said millennials are excited about working with technology.

“They’re not afraid to embrace technology,” Henderson said of today’s youth. “They’re excited about the industry and can see the potential opportunities and values.”

Topping said trucking employers will need to accept that millennials have a different outlook, if they’re to be successful in hiring and retaining them.

“They’re not planning to stay at the same company for 30 years, and that’s okay,” Topping said. “That’s the reality of today. We need to accept that and not force our values onto millennials. They are not from another planet, they are people who grew up in a different time and experienced different things and we need to adapt to that – we can’t expect them to adapt to our way of thinking.”

In fact, of all the change the industry is experiencing, Topping said he’s most excited about the arrival of millennials in the workplace, “and the way they’ll help us embrace technology and make changes to the industry.”

Millian added that millennials will consider staying with the same employer – as long as they are moving up.

“They’ll stay in the same company, but they don’t want to stay in the same position,” he said. “They want to try different things, they want to move up and progress and that’s where we need to change. We can’t expect someone to sit there for 10 years – we have to move quicker ourselves then we’ll probably keep them longer.”

Drivers are also looking for a better work-life balance, noted Topping, and it will be incumbent on trucking employers to find a way to offer that.

“People don’t want to be on the road for three weeks anymore,” he said. “We as an industry need to start figuring out how we are going to handle that. People want to be home more, so we may have to set up more switches. That’s not going to happen overnight but we need to start thinking about how we’re going to handle that and we have to be ready to change.”

Millian acknowledged driver pay will also have to increase if the industry hopes to overcome the shortage of qualified drivers.

“Pay rates have been too low,” he admitted. “If we want to attract more drivers, pay has to be better. Pay rates have started going up and I think we’re going to continue to see that.”

He said lifestyle issues such as a lack of adequate truck parking may require government support to overcome. But Henderson warned attendees not to assume the trucking industry doesn’t appeal to millennials. She cited a survey that showed 65% of millennials considered the trucking industry to be an attractive place to work, compared to just 45% three years ago.

“What we see is, a lot of millennials now want to be a part of this industry,” Henderson said. “We make the assumption this is not an appealing industry…the barrier is often funding to access the training we all want them to have to be able to come into our companies.”

Topping also said the trucking industry needs to change the stigma around the driving occupation.

“Being a truck driver is not something to be ashamed of,” he stressed. “It used to be something people were proud of. When I started as a driver, I was proud to say I was a driver. We need to get that back…that’s our job to fix that.”

Gerald Carroll, operations and safety manager of Wesbell Logistics, said trucking industry leaders must be more supportive of drivers.

“Just because you have leadership in your title, doesn’t mean you’re a leader,” he said. “My motto is, don’t ask anyone to do anything you’re not prepared to do yourself. We’re a team. If you’re struggling one night, I’ll send someone with you. If you have an issue, let’s see if we can move your run around.”

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