Robots vs. Truckers

driverless-truck

The concept of driverless trucks isn’t new, but it is much closer to reality than most people realise. Although, we are still a little way away from removing drivers completely from behind the wheel, one thing is clear – it is not technology that is stopping that from happening; the regulations just haven’t caught up yet. Not to mention the inevitable backlash from disrupting an industry that employs millions in the United States alone (American Trucking Association, 2016).

From an opportunities standpoint, driverless trucks promise safer, more efficient performance. Imagine a future where trucks can drive for 24 hours if they needed to, effectively doubling their utilization in some cases. No longer would they have to pull over because the driver needs to eat or take a fatigue break. The mining industry has been a great testing ground for autonomous automakers – there are wide open spaces, limited interactions with people and other vehicles, not to mention due to the inherent risky nature of mining, there is a great incentive for these companies to use technology instead of people. At this very moment, there are up to 45 driverless trucks transporting iron ore in two Australian mines owned by Rio Tinto (The Guardian, 2016).

Daimler, the German multinational automobile corporation, who owns Mercedes Benz, has been one of the leaders in driverless technology. Their focus on innovation has been unwavering over the years, placing them in a very strong position over their competitors. In September 2015, Daimler became the first automaker to receive official permission to test autonomously driving vehicles on public roads in California in the United States. And since October 2015, the first autonomously driving series-built truck, a Mercedes-Benz Actros with Highway Pilot, has been undergoing road tests in Germany (Daimler, 2016).

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Although the benefits of driverless technology are many, it is understood that driverless trucks will mean millions of jobs being displaced all over the world. The economic losses due to this disruption may not always clearly outweigh the benefits and steps will need to be taken to ensure acceptance. For one, there needs to be a clear dialogue between autonomous automakers and the trucking community. I believe the way to get their buy-in would be to frame this opportunity in a way that doesn’t make millions of jobs redundant, but to modify those roles to match what the technology needs at the time. For example, until regulations catch up, drivers will still be required to sit behind the wheel, and using them to fine tune the technology or training them to be the “optimizers” of the system would be a positive step. Companies will need to invest in training these low-skilled workers, who would otherwise find it hard to find jobs in an increasingly technology driven economy. Equipping trucks or other vehicles with tools or materials to upskill themselves would allow them to transition to other roles easier.

Companies like Daimler will also have to ensure that they have the right people to fill in any skills gaps within their own organizations as the driverless technology sector continues to grow (Harvard Business Review, 2016).

Lastly, technology such as this would require many legislative changes. The technology itself isn’t too far away but it would be a mistake to think that acceptance of driverless technology will be smooth. Steps will have to be taken now to think through some of the legislative and ethical questions that arise from giving full control to driverless technology (The Guardian, 2016). Insurance companies will have to rethink their strategies and numerous other second tier effects will be felt across industries. Companies like Daimler will be key players in these conversations and will have to be at the forefront in insuring that consumer interest and adoption don’t become the limiting factor in an otherwise amazing opportunity.

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References

American Truck Business Services, 2016. ATBS. [Online]
Available at: http://www.atbsshow.com/self-driving-trucks
[Accessed 18 11 2016].

American Trucking Association, 2016. American Trucking Association. [Online]
Available at: http://www.trucking.org/News_and_Information_Reports_Industry_Data.aspx
[Accessed 18 11 2016].

Daimler, 2016. Daimler. [Online]
Available at: https://www.daimler.com/documents/company/business-units/daimler-trucks-ataglance-2016-en.pdf
[Accessed 18 11 2016].

Harvard Business Review, 2016. HBR. [Online]
Available at: https://hbr.org/2016/03/the-industries-that-are-being-disrupted-the-most-by-digital
[Accessed 18 11 2016].

The Guardian, 2016. The Guardian. [Online]
Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/jun/17/self-driving-trucks-impact-on-drivers-jobs-us
[Accessed 18 11 2016].

The Guardian, 2016. The Guardian. [Online]
Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/may/26/self-driving-cars-whos-building-them-and-how-do-they-work
[Accessed 18 11 2016].

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8 thoughts on “Robots vs. Truckers

  1. This was an interesting read. From a regulations standpoint, what do steps do you think will be required for widespread adoption of this technology? The way I see it, innovators will need to successfully influence politicians while fighting off some very strong lobbies and unions (taxi drivers, commercial truck drivers, etc.). Additionally, someone will have to solve what you briefly touched on, what do you do with these people? Will we introduce a form of universal basic income as adoption increases? This technology will eventually put millions upon millions of people out of work, and the ones that will lose their jobs aren’t usually a highly educated populace. The “good thing” about this problem is that implementation will likely take an extended period of time as new vehicles are made, rather than retrofitting old vehicles, so there is a good deal of time to work through these issues.
    According to one study, over 85% of polled people have either a positive or neutral opinion on autonomous or self-driving vehicles though, so one would definitely expect to see a push for this in the coming years.

    Study:https://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/handle/2027.42/108384/103024.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

  2. What do you think of the idea of truck platooning, with one ‘smart’ truck in the front of a convoy of lemur-like trucks which follow it? I think this could be an even more efficient way for autonomous trucks to operate, only requiring advanced technology in one truck in a long convoy.

  3. The challenge with having drivers sit in self-driving trucks, helping fine-tune the software, is that it is a massively unproductive use of their time. Especially given how unhealthy sitting for long periods in trucks is (see article below), I would find it hard to believe truckers would want to sit around all day, unless they really had no economic choice.

    One related potential positive externality associated with self-driving trucks, on that point, is that freeing up truck drivers from actually having to drive could improve their health outcomes, and perhaps even health outcomes for society as a whole, if you can accept that healthcare costs across the system may decline as a result.

    http://io9.gizmodo.com/5933246/why-truck-driving-is-one-of-the-most-unhealthy-jobs-in-america

  4. KR – Thanks for this article. I agree there has been significant progress in autonomous trucks and that within our lifetime I easily believe driverless trucks will be commonplace. I appreciate your concern and acknowledgement of the impact to jobs from driverless trucks. However, according to the American Trucking Associations in 2015 alone there was a driver industry shortage of almost 50,000, which is actually expected to balloon to ~175,000 drivers by 2024 [1]. (see the chart in the link for source 1 which can’t be pasted in this comment). Given this shortage, even if driverless trucking becomes more prevalent over the next decade, how big of an impact do you actually believe there will be to jobs in the trucking industry since this technology will be filling a clear void in the system?

    [1] http://www.trucking.org/ATA%20Docs/News%20and%20Information/Reports%20Trends%20and%20Statistics/10%206%2015%20ATAs%20Driver%20Shortage%20Report%202015.pdf

  5. This was a very interesting article. I think another major hurdle to full implementation of driverless trucks centers on the “last mile.” I think that driverless trucks will be a massive boon for long-haul trucking and highway driving, however I think there will be some hurdles on the loading / unloading end. Moving goods onto and off trucks is highly variable and most warehouses and distribution centers have strict docking appointment systems. Ultimately these trucks will need a significant amount of flexibility built into their software to account for this variability. I am of the opinion that there will need to still be a lot of human oversight to manage this variability, however once better systems are in place and driverless integration is more widespread, these systems will be able to be automated and business operations will adjust accordingly.

  6. As I was reading this article, I couldn’t help but notice how much the development of driverless technology depends on market labour rates. For instance, in an emerging market like India where driver salaries are <5$/day, I can't fathom how any time soon such technology will create sufficient value for the economy. On the contrary, in most emerging markets, the negative impact of lost jobs would far outweigh any reasonable economic impact. It's high time this cost of lost jobs was also included in the cost benefit analysis of this technology.

    http://www.gadgetsnow.com/tech-news/Driverless-cars-Not-for-India-anytime-soon/articleshow/53842436.cms

  7. This articles summarizes one of the most cricial points of the TOM Challenge excercise: from a social standpoint, how will we have a more equal world when there will be less and less jobs available?
    The main point is that there probably won’t be enough jobs for everyone. If as a society we intend to improve equality, we will have to re-invent the labor structure. Regulations should keep in mind the effects that automation will have on our society. It’s difficult to think of companies as the drivers of change in society, so I think it’s the role of the government to shape the future ef employement.

  8. While an interesting prospect, I agree that the effect on employment (at least in the U.S.) will be severe. Previously, driving a truck has been immune to globalization and automation – two of the biggest trends affecting U.S. jobs. An NPR article highlights which suggest that midwest and southern states will be most affected by this trend, which have truck drivers as the most common job (see article here: http://www.npr.org/sections/money/2015/02/05/382664837/map-the-most-common-job-in-every-state).

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