In some dystopian future, the truck drivers are rioting. Or, should we say, the former truck drivers — because in this vision of America, truck drivers have been replaced by self-driving trucks.
“Those that have other options will flee the field,” goes a scenario sketched out by one particularly grim writer. “But for many, their opportunities outside of truck driving will be minimal, and they know it. Many are ex-military — about 5% of Gulf War veterans — 80,000 — worked in transportation in 2012. They will be proud and desperate. What might happen when the 350,000 American truckers who bought or leased their own trucks are unemployed and angry? All it takes is one out of 350,000 to lead the others. It doesn’t take a big leap of the imagination to imagine mass protests that could block highways, seize up the economy and wreak havoc.”
What science fiction writer has conjured up this dark vision? None, actually. It comes from technology entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who also happens to be one of the Democrats’ many presidential candidates. He qualified for the party’s third round of debates last week — something that some senators and governors have yet to do. In any case, the point here today is not to look at whether Yang should be the Democratic nominee or the next president, but to look at the very non-partisan issue he’s raising: Will self-driving trucks put a lot of truck drivers out of work?
Lots of people think so. The Wall Street Journal ran a story headlined “Daddy, What’s a Truck Driver?” That was in 2013, so we’re now six years closer to that future of self-driving trucks.
Will it really happen?
Umm, it already is.
The Japanese company Komatsu started testing self-driving trucks at a copper mine in Chile in 2005. Other companies followed suit at remote mine operations in Australia and Canada.
In April 2016, more than a dozen self-driving trucks completed a weeklong trip across Europe in what appears to have been the first live test of an entire convoy of autonomous trucks on the road. The trucks set off from four different locations — two in Sweden, one in Germany, one in Belgium —and all safely arrived at the port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands. For some, that was a trip of more than 1,200 miles and was intended to showcase the technology of European companies, most notably Daimler and Volvo. Those two names should ring local bells with you. Hold that thought.
October 2016 saw what might be the first American test of a self-driving truck on the road. It delivered a tractor-trailer load of Anheuser-Busch beer in Colorado from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs, a distance of about 120 miles. Testing has only accelerated since then. Earlier this year, the U.S. Postal Service experimented with using self-driving trucks to deliver the mail between its distribution centers in Dallas and Phoenix. And since May, UPS has had autonomous trucks on the road between Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona. The company is high enough on the technology that it’s taken a minority stake in the autonomous trucking start-up TuSimple.
Make no mistake: Self-driving trucks are already here. They may not be in widespread use, but they’re here. And more are coming. We said hold that thought about Daimler and Volvo? No need to hold it any longer. Earlier this year, Daimler’s trucking division recently acquired Torc Robotics, a Blacksburg company that specializes in autonomous vehicles. In August, Torc broke ground on a new headquarters and our coverage at the time included this sentence about the company’s goals that will only become more important as the years go on: “The mission would be to put highly automated trucks on U.S. roads within a decade.”
Within a decade.
Indeed, Daimler announced last week that it’s already begun testing autonomous trucks on public highways in Southwest Virginia. Between Torc in Blacksburg, Volvo Trucks in Dublin, and the autonomous vehicle research going on at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, it’s clear that a big part of that self-driving future is going to play out right here.
What kind of future will it be?
Some truck drivers are starting to get worried. Last month, about a dozen truckers rallied at the state capitol in Jefferson City, Missouri, in support of a bill that would ban autonomous trucks from that state. “We are facing annihilation,” organizer Bill Bogar warned. “Autonomous trucks are right on top of us right now . . . “This is going to be the devastation of millions of jobs across the country.” He’s already seeing some of that in some aspects of the freight business: “I’ve got robots loading my trucks once a month.” And it won’t just be trucking jobs. The waitress at the truck stop might find herself out of work, too. Robots don’t tip well, we hear.
It’s hard to hold back technology, of course. The Luddites who smashed textile machinery in Great Britain in the early 1800s learned that. Still, it’s impossible to ignore the economic —and social — consequences. Yang isn’t the first politician to sound the alarm, just the most colorful when he starts warning about trucker riots and civil unrest. U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., has been warning about this for some time: “The biggest job in America for males is driving. Artificial intelligence could put all of them out of jobs in 20 years.” We’ve seen many other male-dominated occupations — such as factory jobs — go away. What happened when there are no more trucking jobs available? Yang’s solution is to tax self-driving companies to provide severance packages to out-of-work truckers, although that doesn’t change that fact that a lot of people — primarily men — are going to face very different employment options than what their fathers did. There’s a reason why there’s such a push to get more students into community college — because a lot of jobs that don’t require a college education are going to get automated away.
Or will they? The trucking industry website ATBS points out that in the experiments so far, there’s still a driver in the cab; he’s just not doing as much as he once did: “Think of the job of a truck driver slowly looking more and more similar to the job of an airplane pilot. The truck will be able to drive on its own, but the population will feel a lot safer knowing somebody is behind the wheel just in case.” Yang isn’t so sanguine. He foresees convoys with a driver in the lead truck and others following remotely. The bottom line: A lot fewer truck drivers and a very different economic future. Are we ready for that? If not, perhaps we need to be.