How will Driverless Trucking Change the Industry?
This week, to much fanfare, Tesla announced it’s fully electric semi-truck with enhanced auto-pilot. This means the vehicle can begin to drive itself, at least on the highway. There has been a lot of discussion about the role of autonomous vehicles in cities, but the less discussed role of this technology in the trucking industry is just as important. When will driverless semi trucks hit the highways, and how long after that will they become the norm? How are driverless vehicles going to dramatically impact the trucking industry?
A recent CBC article discusses why the trucking industry is chasing this technology, which could see testing on the highways of Arizona as early as 2018. Financially, the trucking industry has an incredible incentive to be early adopters of AV technology:
“The financial incentives will be irresistible. Between running a vehicle without a human and running it more hours a day, going autonomous will double efficiency in the thin-margin trucking business.”
The trucking industry, which has recently seen a shortage of workers and difficulty turning a profit, could quickly become a much more profitable industry. But what will the economic impact on workers be? From the same CBC article, “according to Statistics Canada, truck driving provides nearly two per cent of all Canadian jobs, more than three per cent of jobs for men. … As autonomous trucks flood into the market, demand for those workers will plunge.” What will that mean for these workers? An article on Wired points out that trucking has traditionally been a solid, middle class job that was accessible to men regardless of race:
“Trucking jobs are, as a recent report from the Washington, DC, think tank Global Policy Solutions points out, solid, middle class jobs. The median annual wage for delivery and heavy truck drivers is $34,768, 11 percent higher than the country’s median wage.”
While truck driving is a psychologically exhausting job, what would the elimination of this work, similar to other industry jobs that have seen decline in North America, mean for the job market? Will these workers be able to find new, good jobs? Will their be new jobs created in the trucking industry by the introduction of this technology?
Not everyone sees the timeline on the introduction of this technology in the near future. According to Raj Rajkumar, a fellow at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, in an article on ZDnet, there are some industries who face huge challenges to the adoption of autonomous technology:
“The oil and gas industry is highly safety-conscious, for the obvious reason that they are dealing with highly flammable fluids, ” Rajkumar said. “In oil and gas processing plants, even the electronics that people use [such as smartphones] can cause a spark that in turn can ignite an explosion,” Rajkumar said. “The electronics that are used in these contexts must meet very stringent safety requirements.”
Whether it’s next or long into the future, it’s hard to deny that a major shift to the trucking industry is coming as autonomous vehicles are approved. With the huge financial incentive and lesser need for aesthetics and comfort, relative to a personal vehicle, driverless semi-trucks are likely to be some of the earliest adopters of AV technology, and the effects on the industry will be profound.