Is There a Future For OTR Truck Drivers?
Trucking – one of the largest industries in the United States – is poised for major changes which will affect millions of jobs. Driverless trucks, or “driver out” trucking as some call it, are forcing a redefinition of the long-haul trucking industry. This technological unemployment will affect many trucking households.
Driving a truck is the largest source of employment in 29 states. There are some 7.7 million people employed in the trucking industry, including 3.5 million drivers. Heavy and tractor-trailer drivers number around 1.7 million, according to ThomasNet.com.
The University of California Press writes, “One of the most pertinent potentialities before us lies at the intersection of AI and labor. The automation of physical labor has the power to bring about unimaginable increases in productivity, but at the cost of employment – employment that has long existed at the heart of American labor.”
Andy Stern, the former president of the Service Employees International Union says, “It’s going to be a huge problem.”
One of the leading experts about trucking and its future in the United States is Steve Viscelli, Ph.D. He is not your usual University of Pennsylvania sociology professor with a doctorate degree. A few years ago he went to truck-driving school undercover and drove an over-the-road truck for six months as research. The result was the definitive trucking book “The Big Rig, Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream”.
“Now they may be able to increase the market share in the movement of freight, but there are some pretty big public concerns we have to resolve before that’s really going to happen, like what kind of impact these things (automated trucks) will have on public roadways,” says Dr. Viscelli.
Despite public wariness about driverless trucks – polls show a majority are fearful – they not only are coming, but they are already here. More than a dozen companies in the United States are either developing autonomous tractor-trailers or are already road-testing them on an Interstate highway near you.
According to Dr. Viscelli:
- “On October 25th, 2016, American news media heralded the first delivery made by an autonomous truck. That truck … hauled a trailer full of Budweiser along I-25 in Colorado from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs. An 80,000-pound truck drove 120 miles without a driver behind the wheel. It certainly captured the imagination.”
- In 2019 Texas-based tech company started operating as a regular freight carrier – with a safety driver behind the wheel – on the 240-mile route between Houston and Dallas on I-45.
- In June 2021 a self-driving truck drove a load of watermelons from Tucson, Arizona to Dallas, Texas – a distance of 950 miles – with a safety driver on board. Reports say 42% in travel time was saved.
The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) concludes that “long-haul (driverless) tractor-trailers—generally (will) follow fixed routes and spend most of their time on highways that are more predictable and easier to navigate than surface streets.”
What Is To Become of The American Trucker?
Where does this leave over-the-road truckers? Will they become in the near-term mere driving babysitters – so-called “safety drivers” – sitting at the wheel but really just monitoring a computer program? In the long term, truck drivers seem to be an endangered species, or are they really? According to experts U.S. truck driving jobs aren’t going anywhere for a while, though, despite fears among drivers that driverless trucks will soon take away their employment. In fact, there is a driver shortage in the USA.
A report from consulting firm Deloitte reveals that: “Absent significant changes to its business model and talent pool, the trucking industry will be challenged to address the growing shortage of drivers, estimated to hit 160,000 drivers by 2028, and still meet rising demand, a trend that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The Journal of Commerce reports that “The US trucking industry in June (2021) saw the highest one-month gain in employment in seven years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), with the overall number of drivers returning to a level seen prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Nevertheless, Dr. Viscelli says, “We shouldn’t have any illusions about this … this is a technology meant to reduce labor, as so many technologies are. That’s where the capital is going to be invested, it’s in reducing the number of workers that are needed and increase the profit. “There definitely are a core of companies, a lot of the leading companies … who can’t wait to get rid of their drivers. They’re their biggest headache.”
Raj Venkatesan, a professor of business administration from the University of Virginia Darden School of Business predicts that truck drivers will be needed for at least 5-10 more years, “For the foreseeable future even autonomous trucks will still have drivers in the cab as a safety measure.” Over that time drivers will be able to gradually finish their careers, allowing younger drivers to transition to the new trucking environment created by driverless transportation.
According to Viscelli: “This general timeframe fits the prediction of experts surveyed on the subject, who estimate a high likelihood of Level 4 operation on highways beginning between 2018 and 2024. In the opinion of the vast majority of those I talked to, reliable and safe local driving is still decades away.”
The Fleet Driver Job Situation Looks Bright
Dr. Viscelli sees new job opportunities appearing with the coming of driverless trucks. “Probably (you’re) going to have to go and scout that (hub) location, make sure the geometry of the lots and all those sorts of things that are good for the truck and that. The employees are going to be interacting with the vehicle or understand what it’s going to be like, and just handle that operations side of it, oversee it. So we might see things that look like a driver manager, today night be managing a fleet of 25 or 30 trucks, but they’re instead just truck managers. They’re going to have problems. They’re going to have a tire air pressure sensor that goes out of whack and tells the truck it cannot move you know and make sure that tire is not actually blown, or fix the tire, whatever it is.”
According to a Deloitte analysis there will be a continuing need for drivers for local and regional deliveries because truck automation just isn’t ready to navigate the complexity of off-highway roads and streets and local traffic. “The transfer hub model would let drivers focus on the more-involved first and last legs of a haul, in which drivers today perform many non-driving tasks.”
What can trucking companies do to counter the fears that drivers have of being replaced?
“Companies are urged to keep the lines of communication open with their drivers, and help ease the transition to more tech-heavy processes if and when it occurs,” concludes ThomasNet. Deloitte advises companies to remind drivers now working that there will be many jobs available in the future that don’t involve driving such as truck mechanics, fleet monitors at the central hub who understand automation technology, and tech-savvy technicians who “would need to understand how to use tracking systems, dynamic routing, and AV technologies to ensure that vehicles on the road are operating smoothly.” Similar advice comes from Deloitte: “… companies have an opportunity to manage this transition with humanity, justice, and forethought.”
Won’t there be opportunities for drivers to re-train in manufacturing, software programming and similar technical jobs?
According to Dr. Viscelli, not many. “You’re not going to see widespread testing, absorbing of lots of workers. I think a lot of its going to be pick up and delivery, local delivery, and then probably some new jobs that we haven’t really (thought of yet).” “If you’re an existing driver now I wouldn’t freak out”, Viscelli continues. “I would just continue on the normal career trajectory which is to go into a private carrier, spend a few years in for-hire over-the-road then move into a specialized carrier, a private carrier.”
What Should Fleet Truckers Do to Secure Their Future?
First, relax. There are plenty of jobs available. A 2021 report says that, “There is an ever-growing demand for truck drivers, and experts believe that the trucking industry needs to hire at least 900,000 more people to meet the growing demand for truck drivers.” Truckers are aging. The average age of a truck driver today is 42. This means there will be an increased need for new drivers in the future. According to Easy Haul, “America may lack 160,000 truck drivers by 2026-2028.”
The future appears bright for truck drivers willing to get re-educated in other areas of the new futuristic trucking business. A Deloitte report says “These higher-skilled jobs could offer an opportunity for increased wages. Workforce education and training, as part of a holistic response, would be key.”
According to Dr. Viscelli, “In some cases on the smaller scale we’re going to actually increase that kind of work where you’re maybe upselling stuff, you’re doing sales, you’re orienting a customer to a product in some way.”
U.S. Truck magazine observes that “By keeping up with the changes in the industry—including those technological changes—they would be securing their futures, and keeping themselves relevant in the industry.”
If you’d like to learn more about how GPS Trackit can help to improve safety, increase productivity and reduce costs for your business, speak with one of our knowledgeable Fleet Advisors at 866-320-5810 or get a quick Custom Quote.
Viscelli, Steve. Driverless Autonomous Trucks and the Future of the American Trucker. Center for Labor Research and Education, University of California, Berkeley, and Working Partnerships USA. September 2018. laborcenter.berkeley.edu/driverless/
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