On a Thursday morning in late October 2016, an 18-wheel freight delivery truck made the 120-mile journey along I-25 from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs, hauling over 50,000 cans of Budweiser beer with it. This routine delivery would be an uninspiring story except for one omitted detail: for the entire highway journey, there was no one in the driver’s seat. In a landmark road test, Otto, an automated trucking technology firm owned by Uber, had successfully demonstrated the safety and reliability of its driverless trucking technology.1
Otto’s nascent demonstration signaled a drastic paradigm shift for the future of trucking in America – automated trucking technology is real, and it will disrupt the industry much sooner than many expect. Speculation of driverless cars for passenger transportation has grown popular in recent years, but many signs point to driverless technology making landfall in commercial trucking first. “Platooning,” a caravan-type version of automated trucking, is already being widely tested in Europe.2
The American trucking industry, and in particular, the American Trucking Associations (ATA), the largest trade association representing the industry in the U.S., should take note and prepare for the inevitable transition now. Failure to do so risks backing them into a corner of reactionary policy-making when the full potential of driverless disruption is realized. Leading analysis suggests that disruption will bring massive benefits to the industry, along with equally relevant costs.
It is estimated that the proliferation of automated trucking technology could yield cost savings to the freight industry of $168B annually, generated from reductions in labor, fuel, and accident costs combined with increased asset utilization and productivity.3 However, these benefits will not be achieved without commensurate societal costs, which will manifest primarily in the form of job displacement. One of the most popular occupations in the country, the freight industry employs over 3.5M truck drivers and over 7.8M people in trucking-related jobs across America.4 The rapidity of driverless technology development has led to estimates of up to a 70% labor force reduction – 2.4M jobs – by the year 2030.5 These figures must not be ignored, and will certainly require close collaboration between industry heads and regulatory bodies in order to smoothly usher in a new era of transportation.
To address the growing trend towards automation, the board of the ATA approved and released its first “comprehensive” Automated Truck Policy in October 2017. The plan details the ATA’s priorities and goals regarding collaboration with federal, state, and local governments in making the transition to an automated trucking landscape.6 Highlights of the plan include:
- Examination and restructuring of safety laws to accommodate advancements in driverless safety technology
- Cooperation amongst government agencies to standardize and promote the smooth flow of interstate commerce in an automated trucking environment
- Removal of legislative barriers that inhibit driverless technology advancement
- Public education programs to promote the widespread acceptance of driverless technology on America’s roads
While these issues are undoubtedly relevant and should be proactively addressed, the ATA’s plan is specifically designed for a scenario in which truck drivers will not be eliminated from the transportation equation. This view is short sighted, as it currently fails to consider how industry and government should manage the transition for drivers who will eventually become economically displaced due to automated trucking.
The ATA should use its lobbying power and collaboration with regulatory bodies and firms across the industry to develop concrete transition plans to avoid mass unemployment and economic instability due to automation technology. This can be done in several ways. At a minimum, trucking firms should proactively educate their employees on the real and near-term possibility of job loss. False assurances of long-term job stability in today’s technological environment would be irresponsible. While ultimate responsibility rests on individuals to continually develop skills to remain marketable, an industrial shift of this magnitude warrants action at the firm level.
Second, the ATA and its governmental partners should work together to control the speed of a transition to fully automated trucking. This will help ensure that economic instability due to job displacement will not become uncontrollable. This approach will also give policy makers and industry leaders enough time to make prudent decisions for their industry and communities so as not to have a detrimental effect on the national supply chain, and will allow a gradual maturation of public acceptance to a completely new technology.
Finally, trucking firms should offer transitional training programs to employees at risk for job loss to move into roles that are likely to survive after the transition to automation (dispatchers, logistical planners, etc).
Still, questions remain. What should be done to address trucking-adjacent jobs that also face obsolescence along America’s arteries such as rest stops, motels, and restaurants? More broadly, how should society prepare for further technologically-bred job displacement beyond transportation? Should a universal basic income play a role in future stability?
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1 M. McFarland, “A self-driving truck just hauled 51,744 cans of Budweiser on a Colorado highway,” October 25, 2016, accessed at:
http://money.cnn.com/2016/10/25/technology/otto-budweiser-self-driving-truck/index.html – on November 13, 2017.
2 L. Hook, “Out of road: driverless vehicles and the end of the trucker,” Financial Times, accessed at:
https://www.ft.com/content/2d70469c-140a-11e7-b0c1-37e417ee6c76 – on November 13, 2017.
3 “Autonomous Cars: Self-Driving the New Auto Industry Paradigm,” as published by Morgan Stanley, November 6, 2013, accessed at:
4 Reports, Trends, & Statistics – as reported by the American Trucking Associations at:
http://www.trucking.org/News_and_Information_Reports_Industry_Data.aspx – accessed November 13, 2017.
5 “Managing the Transition to Driverless Road Freight Transport,” as published by the International Transport Forum, May 31, 2017, accessed at:
6 “Automated Truck Policy,” as approved and released by the Board of the American Trucking Associations, October 24, 2017, accessed at:
*Cover image taken from: