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Autonomous Trucking And The Trucking Industry

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Truck drivers are the heart and soul of America. They are committed to making sure every corner of the U.S. map is stocked with the necessary resources and products they’re entrusted with hauling. Without them, we, the people of this country, would crumble. Recently, the news has been inundated with the discussion of autonomous trucks, from a successful Uber beer delivery in previous years, to Elon Musk announcing Tesla's involvement. So, what does all of this mean? What will this change in the trucking industry? How fast is this new autonomous truck going to hit the road? The future is coming at us fast and furiously, but let’s slow down to answer these questions realistically. 

What is Autonomous Trucking?

Self-driving trucks? Decades ago, that would have sounded like a thing right out of a science fiction movie. Or maybe a horror film? But it’s real, and it’s happening. With the punch of an “engage” button, the “driver” can sit back and write the next American novel while the truck does all the actual work. These technologically outfitted trucks, complete with Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) technology that includes self-driving software with updated radar, power steering, cruise control, automated gear changing, and a stereo camera, take control of the wheel. A specially trained driver, knowledgeable in all the new technology, will be required to stay in the cabin, just in case. While this is technology at one of the most advanced stages of our time, we still need to err on the side of caution when allowing a self-driving truck to share the open road alongside other vehicles and their drivers. 

In October 2017, an Uber-owned start-up company called Otto, partnering with Budweiser, drove an autonomous truck down Interstate 25 for 120 miles to deliver 2,000 cases of beer. The truck driver assigned to this route from Ft. Collins, Colorado to Colorado Springs was merely a passenger on this mission. It went flawlessly, and there was no need for the driver to override anything. Instead, he got to hang out and enjoy the passing scenery.

Why is the Industry Trying Autonomous Trucking?

The trucking industry is buzzing big time over the autonomous trucks. Why? It comes down to the simple fact that there is a tremendous shortage of qualified truck drivers. Maybe this new era of trucking is what’s needed to put a little excitement back into trucking careers and entice more qualified truckers to join. However, the Bureau of Labor Statistics states employment growth is projected to remain about the national average, at 6% by 2030. Heaviest employment opportunities will remain in the oil and gas industries.

Another reason that may have prompted the industry to take a serious look into autonomous trucking is the trucking-related accidents and deaths, usually caused by mentally and physically fatigued drivers. The costs related to those accidents are astronomical, both financially and emotionally. Autonomous trucks could reduce the amount of driver fatigue by allowing drivers a slight break while the vehicle drives itself. 

The trucking industry brings in over 700 billion USD per year with one-third of that going into the truck drivers’ bank accounts. Eliminate the trucker, and that’s more bottom-line dollars going directly to the owner of the trucking companies. That doesn’t sound like such good news for those who have dedicated their lives to truck driving, does it? Well, for now, there is no need for concern. Those autonomous trucks may seem like they have it under control, but the reality is there will long be a need for truckers trained to ride the autonomous vehicles. And it could remain that way for a very long time.  

Should You be Worried About Autonomous Trucking Stealing Jobs?

“You are not going to see a truck without a driver in it for a long time,” Ted Scott, American Trucking Associations

There are a lot of people out there whose livelihood, in whatever capacity, rely on the trucking industry. There are over 3.5 million truckers in the United States alone. It’s the Number 1 job in 29 states. Compound that with the fact the demand for drivers has only increased over the years, and we have yet to worry about any immediate job shortages.

In some respects, technology has already disrupted employment opportunities. Think about agriculture: 200 years ago, 90% of the U.S. population worked in agriculture. This number decreased to 38% in the 1900s, and now it hovers at around 2%. Does America need less production from agriculture? No. But technology slowly substituted most of the manual tasks involved in the agricultural sector through advancements in technology.

The same trend may happen with trucking, but it also won’t be overnight. Trucks may, some day, completely drive themselves. Until then, the trucker shortage will only grow, and, if anything, there will be more and more jobs available for truckers.  

Examples such as Daimler and Peloton Technologies only confirm this diagnostic. These companies in California are entertaining the idea of manufacturing self-driving truck caravans with just one driver. Tesla, Apple, Intel, and Nvidia have also joined the race for artificially intelligent autonomous trucks; with Apple and Tesla asking for California to allow autonomous trucks heavier than the 10,000-pound weight limit that is already regulated. 

Their programs are expected to be about a decade away from happening. This means that while things will change, it will most likely be a gradual one. Also keep in mind, the truck driver, in the traditional sense, may not have actually to drive the vehicle. Most likely instead, they will be behind the “wheel” maintaining paperwork and doing their scheduling. Human resources will still be a necessity in the industry for pick up, delivery, and managing the transaction of the load within the truck. 

How will Autonomous Trucking Impact the Trucking Industry?

“We view self-driving trucks as the future, and we want to be a part of that,” James Sembrot, Anheuser-Busch senior director of logistics strategy

Whether we like it or not, change happens. Trucking is no exception, and big brands are excited to get on board. The question remains, what type of impact will autonomous trucking have in the trucking industry? As with any drastic change, there are benefits and drawbacks. 

Autonomous trucking fulfills a need. There will always be a demand for transporting goods from one area to another. And because there are massive amounts of job vacancies in the trucking industry, something had to happen that would keep status quo.

If people aren't able to do the job, then the industry was forced to compensate somehow — the show must go on. Artificial intelligence was seen as a solution, especially without the need to eat, sleep, or spend time off. Yet, the reality of driverless trucks is still decades away. There are still so many factors involved, such as the regulations and the massive amounts of legalities, that it could take ages to see any truly noticeable impact to truck drivers.

Disadvantages of Autonomous Trucking

  • Slight chance of increased unemployment in the trucking sector should the trucks become completely self-driving.

  • Definite security risks, which may actually benefit trucking employment. There are concerns about the vulnerability of autonomous trucks and whether or not they would be targets for hackers or terrorism. Rightfully so, considering how easily hackers can impact various online destinations at once. If something like hacking occurs and a driver is on board, he or she can jump in and override the program to regain control of the vehicle.

  • Inclement weather: Autonomous trucking has only been tested during optimal weather and road conditions. Further testing will be necessary. At this point, we have no idea how the autonomous trucks will perform during extreme weather conditions. 

  • More distracted “driving” because the drivers may not be paying as much attention to the road while the truck is on autopilot. Just because the truck can drive itself doesn’t mean the truck driver can take their eyeballs off the road for extended periods of time. Attention will always be needed. Even though autonomous trucks are programmed to adjust for surprises, they still might not react correctly to, say, a kid jumping out into the street.

Advantages of Autonomous Trucking

  • Fewer driver-related crashes: 2012 saw over 300,000 truck-related crashes that led to almost 4,000 deaths. Driver error caused virtually all of these. Autonomous trucks drastically reduce these chances of operator error.

  • Solve the truck driver shortage: For every problem, a solution is created. Trucking’s largest problem is the driver shortage. To combat that, autonomous trucks will do the jobs that aren’t being filled by people. That’s not to say that human bodies won’t still be necessary for the industry.

  • Smaller ecological footprint by cutting down on carbon emissions due to optimized shifting of gears, less braking, and acceleration: This makes autonomous trucking a “green” industry. Eventually, zero emissions trucks will be produced, making it even safer for the environment. Also, with the average trucker driving over 100,000 miles every year, fuel efficient autonomous trucks can cut down on fuel consumption by 4-7%.

Autonomous trucks don't mean trucking jobs are going to disappear in the near future. As is the case with all advancements in technology, they are simply a part of the process of an ever-evolving industry. 

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