Trucking Automation and the Job Market
Since the early 1900s, the trucking industry has employed a significant portion of the United States population. Trucking as an occupation took off even further in the late 1950s and early 1960s with the creation of the Interstate Highway System. Well-paved, fast-paced highways facilitated a rise in interstate commerce, and the trucking workforce boomed as more and more freight and delivery drivers were needed to keep up with industry demands. By 2014, trucking-related occupations were the most common job in 29 out of 50 US states.
Commercial trucking jobs have remained a top employment source for several reasons. First, the trucking industry is a large umbrella spanning a variety of different niches. Tractor drivers, freight truckers, refuse truckers, and many more all fit under the same employment category. All these industries also stand to be affected by fleet automation – so where does that leave drivers?
Another reason for the continued prevalence of trucking jobs in the United States and internationally is the fact that, as of yet, truckers have not been significantly impacted by automation. While the introduction of automated processes into other industries, such as manufacturing, has lessened demand for jobs in those fields, trucking automation has not become widespread enough to significantly impact truckers’ livelihoods. As we discussed in “The Levels of Automation”, most vehicles that are considered autonomous still require operators at this point. However, the 3.6 million Americans currently employed as truckers worry that the mass adoption of Level 5 autonomous technology by fleet managers could pose a problem for them.
The automation of tasks traditionally performed by workers can be understandably concerning to those employed in newly automated occupations, but despite these fears, fleet automation will not eliminate the need for such workers.
How is this possible?
First, people employed in trucking positions often carry out many more tasks than simply operating a vehicle – many of which are unlikely to be automated anytime soon. Drivers check and log inventory, load and unload cargo, and provide personal customer service. Even with the advent of advanced telematics platforms which continuously collect vehicle data, these tasks still require workers to be carried out. After all, even if a telematics sensor detects an issue with a vehicle, maintenance will still have to be conducted manually.
Another fact that can help drivers rest easy is that vehicle automation is still a slow and often complicated process. While the goal may be full vehicle automation – and this is certainly the direction in which we are heading – there is not a definite timeline for the mass introduction of autonomous technology into vehicle fleets. True Level 5 autonomous vehicles still have not been introduced in their final form, and automating an entire fleet (not to mention multiple fleets) can take years, giving drivers plenty of time to adjust to new job requirements.
Furthermore, the mass adoption of AV technology will create many more jobs than it will threaten. Already, advances in vehicle technology have created countless new openings in STEM fields, especially jobs in software development. Not only does this advancement create new employment opportunities, but it also pushes more and more people to consider careers in technology, creating a greater possibility for innovation.
The number of available jobs in software development and related fields has increased tremendously in recent years, with tech-related occupations growing by 391,000 positions in December 2020 alone. Further development of autonomous vehicle technology will only accelerate the growth of an already rapidly-expanding field, opening jobs for thousands of new workers.
Like all forms of Artificial Intelligence, vehicle automation may be an uneasy subject for many people, especially for those who worry that automation will put their jobs at risk. Drivers’ apprehension to vehicle automation is fully understandable. The solution, however, is not to stall AV progress, but rather to ensure that autonomous vehicles can work with existing fleet employees, facilitating better and more efficient operations. AV technology can make life easier for all involved, drivers, fleet managers, and customers alike - all while creating new jobs and without having to sacrifice such a significant portion of the existing workforce.