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Can Self-Driving Semi Trucks Be the Answer to Growing Truck Driver Shortages?

What can be done to address truck driver shortages and ever-growing demand for moving goods across America? The answer may be autonomous, self-driving semi-trucks.

By Ryan Hutson


June 15, 2018

According to the American Trucking Associations, truck driver shortages across America have risen from 36,500 drivers to 51,000 drivers over the last two years. It is anticipated that the shortage will increase to nearly 100,000 drivers by 2021. The rise of the on-demand economy has reciprocally put great strains on the trucking industry and has contributed to delayed deliveries and higher prices for goods. This has become a nationwide issue and isn’t getting better. Being a truck driver is a challenging lifestyle for most, especially for long-haul drivers- you barely see your family, you rarely shower, and you get little respect from car drivers, police or major retailers. States such as Minnesota have tried to counterbalance these pressures through high paying salaries and additional incentives and bonuses yet employers can’t find enough people for the job.

To make matters worse, the average age of a truck driver is 55 years old which is 10 years older than the average age across other comparable industries like manufacturing and construction. The driving shortage has been going on for nearly a decade, with Baby Boomers retiring and few Millennials willing to endure hardships of driving a truck across the country for a living. Less and less qualified drivers are available as younger workers are finding jobs elsewhere. There simply aren’t enough workers to fill the demand in the industry.

What can be done to address the driver shortages and ever-growing demand for moving goods across America? The answer may be autonomous, self-driving semi-trucks.

Interest for autonomous vehicles has grown tremendously over the past few years, both publicly and privately. Self-driving and autonomously-equipped vehicles are increasingly integrating into the public roadway system. Today vehicles can be purchased with factory technology and equipment that allows the driver to get across town with very minimal, if any, guidance from the human driver.  It’s quickly becoming more affordable to purchase self-driving vehicles as well. This trend will continue as popularity grows and advancements are made in manufacturing and technology.

Large companies such as Tesla, Daimler, Nikola, Volkswagen, Einride, Embark, Cummins, Waymo, Uber, PACCAR are all currently developing autonomous semi-trucks. Public agencies are also actively participating in the advancement of these technologies. State DOT’s and municipalities across the county are spearheading testing efforts of driverless and connected vehicular systems, and preparing infrastructure for this new wave of the transportation industry.  Continuous advancements in the self-driving vehicle industry over the coming years, paired with a need for shipping goods across the country, could be the solution for meeting the industry’s demands.

In addition to filling voids in the underemployed trucking industry, self-driving trucks come with added benefits. According to a September 2015 article by ATBS, self-driving trucks can reduce fuel bills by 4-7% which translates to thousands of dollars in savings per truck each year. The same article states that in 2012 over 330,000 large trucks were involved in crashes that killed about 4,000 people in the US. Nearly 90% were caused by driver error. Technology advancements are anticipated to significantly reduce these errors. Other potential benefits could include: reducing the size and quantity of truck stops on the interstate system, and scheduling the travel of automated truck fleets during the off-peak hours of the day to reduce congestion at peak hours in metropolitan areas.

What will happen to the jobs of truck drivers and those interested in driving trucks for a living? They will evolve. Let’s face facts too, truck drivers are retiring and younger generations aren’t interested in becoming truck drivers. Self-driving trucks will take time to become fully operational and it will take years before the supply of self-driving trucks could keep up with the trend of truck driver shortages. Those interested in driving trucks will still be needed, especially those willing to embrace customer service-oriented jobs. Other opportunities in the industry will also arise out of the advancement of technology attracting younger generations and eventually changing what it means to drive a truck.

Uber is already using this technology in Arizona, and it won’t be long before all of us are accustomed to seeing autonomous, self-driving semi-trucks on our interstates and local roadway networks. Major companies from Anheuser-Busch to UPS have placed orders with truck manufacturers. If they truly are safer, environmental friendly, and fulfill a job shortage then they may be the only logical solution for the trucking industry.

Ryan is an Associate-Manager with IBI Group and has worked here for 9 years of his 14-year career.  He is a participant of IBI’s first LEAD training program and he currently oversees IBI’s Ohio Transportation practice.  This was also his first blog post!

IBI Group’s LEAD program is designed to support employees who have the potential and desire to be future leaders within IBI Group; with the goal of assisting participants to learn about themselves, enhance new skills, and develop leadership competencies.


Image by chapay from Pixabay

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