In less than a decade, transportation companies could be running full fleets of self-driving trucks. The motivation behind self-driving technology is to replace humans with computers that can work longer hours and with a far lower likelihood for accidents. Self-driving trucks can also optimize fuel efficiency better than humans. Another reason to embrace autonomous driving is shortage of drivers, which is a common theme in transportation industry woes.
The impact of autonomous vehicles on trucking jobs is one of the contentious issues that is yet to be fully understood — and probably won’t be in the near future. The core rationale behind having autonomous trucks is to replace human drivers with more accurate computers. However, the technology has yet to evolve to a level that allows trucks to go a full trip without a backup driver. This is because the current self-driving technology cannot handle challenging road conditions such as heavy snow, freezing rain, etc. Moreover, current technologies cannot navigate small city roads because of the vast amount of changing variables in such roads. These shortcomings have many believing that trucking jobs are not going to be replaced with computers anytime soon. Some companies behind the autonomous technology don’t even pitch their product as a complete substitute for truck drivers, but rather as a complementary addition that will improve trucking.
Other issues that rise from the emergence of self-driving technology include compensation for drivers. If drivers will spend most of the time in the sleeper cab instead of steering, should they get compensated for the idle time? If yes, will their hourly pay decrease since they share duties with a computer? Or, since self-driving technology is an investment to improve driving without replacing the driver, the return on investment of a self-driving system could come from gains in fuel efficiency, accident reductions, and increased hours of operation, perhaps not drivers’ salaries. These are some of the challenges that logistics companies will have to deal with as self-driving trucks slowly start to become a reality.
Even if our approach to self-driving trucks is that the technology is meant to complement the driver and not to replace him/her, there will come a time in which drivers will be completely replaced by autonomous technology. It is just matter of time before the roads and vehicles have sensors that allow autonomous vehicles to navigate difficult conditions such as snow and busy city streets. These leaps forward in technology will allow trucking companies to operate without drivers.
As competition in the industry intensifies, trucking companies will be forced to continue to cut costs, and eliminating drivers’ salaries could be one way for trucking companies to reduce their operating expenses. It is unlikely the industry will go through this transformation in the near future, but a decade from now, things could be drastically different.
Because highway driving is easier to automate than intricate city streets, long-haul drivers will likely be the first to face automation. Eventually, the development of technology and computing power could allow the trucking industry to operate entirely without drivers.
Although it sounds like a gloomy prospect, it’s crucial to stay abreast of industry trends and market outlooks. For freight, this means that we could now be witnessing the last generation of truck drivers.