In the future, the world’s highways will be full of autonomous cars and trucks, vehicles that drive themselves from place to place. Various companies are working on this technology.
Google has been creating and testing self-driving cars for years. Its vehicles have traveled more than 1.7 million miles, and they’ve only seen about 11 minor accidents, all caused by human error. May 2015, a self-driving Daimler truck hit the road in Nevada.
These vehicles are about to change our daily lives, but they could also usher in problems for society. In fact, some economic experts predict that self-driving trucks will mean financial catastrophe for large numbers of people — and perhaps for whole communities.
The American Trucking Associations says that 3.5 million people in the U.S. are employed as truck drivers. Given that autonomous trucks don’t need paychecks, health insurance, or other benefits, these machines could replace human drivers entirely. And it’s not only the drivers who might be adversely affected. Many businesses are heavily dependent on the trucking industry. Roadside diners and truck stops stand to be hit big time: Self-driving trucks won’t be stopping in for sandwiches and coffee.
What’s especially frustrating for truck drivers, both present and future, is that if not for self-driving trucks, their job security would be strong. By 2020, the U.S. government projects that 330,000 new truckers will be needed. Factoring in expected retirements during the next several years, about 100,000 jobs would be opening up. There would almost certainly be more slots than people to fill them as there is currently a shortage of 35,000 to 40,000 drivers, according to Bob Costello, chief economist at American Trucking Associations. Of course, whenever there’s a worker shortage, salaries go up. As it now stands, truck drivers can earn middle-class salaries, and they don’t need college degrees for their positions. Such occupations are becoming increasingly rare, and someday soon, they might be almost extinct.
On the other hand, autonomous trucks certainly have advantages. In 2012, almost 4,000 people died in accidents that involved large trucks, and the majority of those victims were inside cars. Driver mistakes led to approximately 90 percent of those crashes. Autonomous trucks will compile a much better safety record; the computer systems that control those vehicles won’t drink alcohol, feel tired, or get distracted by text messages while they’re driving.
Finally, there’s another possibility here: Autonomous trucks won’t replace human drivers at all. Instead, those smart machines will just make life easier for them. Trucking companies might always want to have people aboard their trucks, ready to take over whenever systems fail or hackers attack. In fact, the Daimler truck that’s currently driving around is a Level 3 model, which means the driver must remain at the wheel while the vehicle is in motion, in case conditions require that the driver take control. In such a vehicle, a truck driver’s daily experiences could be much more pleasant. At times, the driver could fill out logs, use a cell phone, or read a book. As such, this career might become more attractive to young people, and that situation would help the industry to avoid an even bigger driver shortage than it’s currently experiencing.