America needs tens of thousands of new truck drivers. But for how long?
At the same time industry leaders estimate at least 50,000 more truckers are needed to curb labor shortages and currently keep freight moving across the country, there are growing worries that automated vehicles could displace millions of driving-related jobs. Those concerns surfaced in Congress during a House subcommittee hearing on emerging transportation technology earlier this month and are echoed in a study released today by the International Transportation Forum.
Noting that more than 4.4 million American jobs are related to driving, of which trucking jobs comprise about 2.5 million, Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) warned about the potential for autonomous advances to sucker-punch employment. She said the potential job losses are 36 times greater than the 121,000 jobs shed by the coal industry over the past three decades.
The International Transport Forum, a global think tank with 57 member countries, underscores the potential disruption. Researchers found automated trucks could reduce the demand for drivers as much as 50 to 70 percent in the U.S. and Europe by 2030, with 4.4 million of the 6.4 million professional drivers on both continents rendered redundant. In short, the ramifications could be devastating.
Without entirely dismissing those concerns, others temper the alarm. David Strickland, former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and current chief counsel for the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, foresees a less ominous future. Asked by Clark if he sees automation displacing those jobs over the next five to 10 years, he said the time frame is considerably longer.
David Strickland, chief counsel for the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, addressed fears that autonomous trucks could cause a massive disruption in employment.
“Much longer in terms of job impact,” he said. “I would say in terms of wide-scale deployment that would cause displacement, it’s not a five-to-10-year period. I think you’ll see smaller deployments in specific areas . . . but it will take a long time to have a one-to-one replacement.”
Even then, Strickland suggests there’s likely a need for both humans and automated systems on the road.
“One of the issues in the truck-driving industry is that younger people aren’t interested, and current drivers are getting older,” Strickland said. “Frankly, some level of automation will help the industry maintain its productivity.”
That jibes with the industry forecast outlined by the American Trucking Associations (ATA), which has been sounding a clarion call for the past two years on the need for 50,000 more truckers. Even with the dramatic advances in automated tech since that forecast was first issued in 2015, the ATA isn’t budging from that projection. Bob Costello, chief economist for the organization, said automated technology will complement human drivers far more than it competes with them.
“In terms of driverless, we think this is a very, very long time before that happens,” Costello told Car and Driver. “We think automation will continue, but you’ll still have drivers in the cab. Think about airlines. You still always have a pilot in an airplane, even though it’s highly automated, and in an airplane, you have a long time to deal with a problem. On a highway, you don’t.”
“[Long-haul truck driving] sucks. It’s unpleasant and unsafe, and you sacrifice time with your family and friends.”
– Stefan Seltz-Axmacher, Starsky Robotics
While it’d be easy to assume that Costello’s projection stands in contrast to views of a nascent autonomous industry developing new technology at breakneck speed, that’s not necessarily the case. Stefan Seltz-Axmacher, founder of Starsky Robotics, a Silicon Valley-based self-driving-truck startup that began testing earlier this year, believes automation will bring benefits to commercial operators and to human drivers. As the technology matures, Seltz-Axmacher envisions a scenario in which automated trucks could carry freight on interstates and highways while humans handle driving duties in more complex environments.
While that shifts human employment, he argues it also improves the job. While working at automotive supplier Southco shortly after graduating from Drexel University, Seltz-Axmacher visited a Mack Truck facility in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and saw firsthand the toll the job extracts from drivers. Those memories remained fresh in his mind when he decided to start a company pursuing self-driving-truck technology.
“If you are willing to spend a month of your time in a truck, you can make really good money without a high-school diploma,” he said. “On the other hand, it sucks, it’s unpleasant and unsafe, and you sacrifice time with your family and friends.” Later, he said he believes there’s a “moral need” for the automated technology on the road, considering that there are more than 4000 trucking-involved deaths on America’s roadways each year.
“We think we can realize the safety benefits and bring them to market now, and the drivers we work with can have safer lives, meaningful work, and a greater opportunity to be members of their communities,” he said.
The House hearing provided merely a snapshot glance at the role self-driving vehicles will play in transportation employment, but it’s not the first time politicians have expressed some trepidation for the autonomous future. In March, two Republican governors used their first meeting with Elaine Chao, the new Secretary of Transportation, to ask about the impact of self-driving systems on human jobs, and in December 2016, the White House delivered a mixed report on the issue, saying autonomy could boost the productivity of some workers but that others would face job losses or declining wages.
If there’s any consensus on how to mitigate fears of mass unemployment, it’s that government and industry need to work together to formulate transition and training plans for workers who’ll be affected. If Strickland is right, they should have plenty of time.