• ehackstadt

Combating Driver Shortages with Autonomous Vehicle Technology

Over the past two months, multiple news outlets and industry publications have released these shocking headlines:

“Push to Let Teens Drive Trucks Divides the Industry” (Wall Street Journal)

Currently, no one under the age of 21 can obtain a commercial vehicle license - and while the possibility of teen truck drivers has been in discussion for years, proposed legislation in a recent Senate Infrastructure bill has made the likelihood that we will begin seeing younger drivers on the road higher than ever. The main reason behind this drastic push? Driver shortages.

Recent driver shortages have had far-reaching implications. In many ways, the trucking industry forms the very backbone of commerce; an interruption in the supply of truck drivers is an interruption in the supply chains of practically every industry. The current driver shortage is driven by a few main forces:

  1. COVID-19: While truck driver shortages pre-date the pandemic, already existing shortages have only been exacerbated by COVID. Demand for truck drivers has become greater than supply can handle as consumers turn to e-commerce in larger numbers. Simultaneously, as businesses return to full operations following COVID-related disruptions, business supply shipments have nearly returned to pre-COVID levels. Toward the beginning of the pandemic, the trucking workforce decreased significantly. In April 2020 alone, the industry lost 80,000 jobs, representing 5.8% of the prior month’s total workforce. With demand returning to normal, we are now witnessing the devastating impacts of these lost jobs.

  2. Truckers Retiring or Opting for Other Employment: The median age for truckers is significantly greater than that of the overall workforce, and many older drivers have understandably made the decision to retire rather than face the health risks associated with COVID-19. Furthermore, a large number of truckers who were laid off in the early stages of the pandemic sought work elsewhere.

  3. Difficulty Recruiting New Drivers: Just as the trucking workforce skews older, so does the age of new driver trainees. While older drivers are retiring, younger drivers are not entering the workforce at a rate sufficient to compensate for retirements. In addition to safety concerns, this demographic issue raises questions about the efficacy of hiring teenage truck drivers. If young drivers aren’t entering the workforce now, why should we assume that this change in legislation would motivate them to do so?

There is a much simpler answer to driver shortage concerns: the widespread implementation of autonomous vehicle fleets. In one of our earlier blogs, “Trucking Automation and the Job Market”, we discussed the implications of autonomous vehicle technology on existing trucking jobs. As mentioned in that post, vehicle automation is a slow-moving process. Fully autonomous, level 5 technology is still, for the most part, in its early stages, unready to reach our roads just yet. However, the lower levels of vehicle automation that do exist and have already been implemented still provide many benefits that could offer a valid solution to driver shortages.

Firstly, AV technology practically never exists alone: the vast majority of autonomous vehicles, be they commercial trucks or passenger cars, also come equipped with Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems (ADAS), telematics platforms that collect constant, real-time data on truck systems and driver performance, and a number of other high-tech features that streamline and simplify the trucking and fleet management experiences. Most autonomous vehicle packages are comprehensive, automating not only a truck’s driving functions but also key logistical aspects of fleet management. These advancements can ease an entire fleet’s workload, automating functions that would traditionally require manual effort. This is essential when working from a place of labor shortage.

Secondly, although autonomous vehicles currently on the market require a driver presence if not geofenced, drivers of AVs have their workload significantly reduced by already-existing AV capabilities. In these cases, drivers essentially become monitors. Autonomous vehicle technology makes commercial drivers’ jobs much easier, which may automatically attract younger drivers to the workforce without having to lower the age to obtain a CDL. This makes sense: younger workers are more technologically advanced, and they expect their workplaces to be, as well. The trucking industry cannot lag behind if it is to attract new talent.

Furthermore, fully autonomous, level 5 vehicles are not far off the horizon. The development of such technologies require enormous capital investments, which has been a major roadblock to autonomous vehicle advancement. Fortunately, just as with zero-emissions vehicles (whether hybrid, battery electric, or fuel cell electric), there is plenty of funding available for suppliers, OEMs, and fleets looking to develop and implement advanced autonomous vehicle solutions. Autonomous vehicle technology is becoming less of a dream and more of a necessity needed to compete on the market, whether you’re a manufacturer or a fleet owner.

For AVs to gain adoption on public roads, we may need to see many more regulatory reviews and fail-safes. For now, the deployment of AVs is more likely to gain traction in geofenced applications such as ports, distribution centers, yards, etc. Eventually there will be no drivers and possibly no cab at all required.

The trucking industry is currently at a crucial crossroads. The current supply of drivers cannot keep up with the current demand, and evidence suggests that this is not likely to reverse any time soon. It is time for commercial fleets to begin implementing autonomous vehicle technology on a broader scale.

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