February 01, 2018 by Michelle Rafter

Feds Say Truckers Over-Counted, Autonomous Tech Threat Overstated

A widely accepted industry estimate of U. S. heavy and tractor-trailer truck driver jobs could be over-stated by as much as 40 percent, according to an upcoming report from the federal government’s largest employment data agency.

The number of long-haul truckers is somewhere between 1.87 million and 2.125 million, according to estimates in the Bureau of Labor Statistics report.

That count is well below the estimate of 3.5 million truckers from the industry’s largest lobbying group, the American Trucking Associations.

Trucking transportation company representatives and industry economists who reviewed the report supported the findings and the methodology used to reach them.

“Three and a half million over-the-road [drivers] is B.S. and always has been,” said Craig Fuller, founder and managing director of startup TransRisk and a long-time trucking executive. “Anybody who understands the industry knows the number doesn’t represent the true for-hire market.”

BLS researchers parsed agency data on U.S. occupation classifications as well as statistics from other government databases to calculate trucker employment. They conducted the research to support the paper’s main theory, that autonomous vehicle technology could displace approximately a quarter of all long-haul truck drivers, which is far fewer than has been speculated.

The researchers argue that while driving constitutes a large portion of what truckers do, it’s not the only aspect of the job or skill required, and tasks such as freight handling, customer service and safety can’t easily be replaced by the mid-level autonomous technology that will appear first in the industry.

The report, “Truck Driving Jobs: Are They Headed for Rapid Elimination?” from researchers Maury Gittleman and Kristen Monaco, is based on their May 2017 presentation at a conference sponsored by the Industry Studies Association. As of mid-January, it was being peer-reviewed for consideration for publication for consideration for publication in an industrial relations academic journal, according to Monaco, a long-time labor economist who was director of California State University Long Beach’s global logistics master’s program before joining the BLS.

ATA generates “great” data, but it’s not widely available to research or updated frequently, both reasons for additional research, Monaco told Trucks.com. “They do what they can,” she said.

Official Counts Erroneously Include Trucker Jobs Where Driving in Incidental

Monaco’s research found that driver counts are inflated because federal occupational classifications include administrative and other jobs at trucking carriers that don’t involve driving trucks.

Federal statistics also are off because they include occupations in which driving a truck is incidental to a job’s main function, such as sales workers who drive a truck or “light truck or delivery service drivers” who deliver or pick up merchandise, according to the paper.

Those assumptions led the BLS researchers to conclude that approximately 1.7 million heavy and tractor-trailer truckers are employed by U.S. carriers. They also posited that an additional 10 percent to 25 percent of that number work as self-employed or contractor drivers, or 170,000 to 425,000.

driver jobs graphic

(Graphic: Alana Goldenberg/Trucks.com)

That truckers have been over-counted is “no surprise to me whatsoever,” said Joe Rajkovacz, director of governmental affairs and communications for the Western States Trucking Association.

“Think about someone who operates a crane, or any type of vocational truck. They are not a truck driver even though they have a commercial driver’s license,” said Rajkovacz, who previously ran regulatory affairs for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association and before that owned a trucking company for 20 years.

“Monaco did a great job of using [BLS] data to get us a lot closer to an accurate number than we’ve seen in the past,” said Steve Viscelli, author of “The Big Rig”and a political sociologist and lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania.

“The numbers she is suggesting are probably right on for owner-operators as a fraction of employee drivers,” said Michael H. Belzer, associate economics professor at Wayne State University and long-time chronicler of transportation industry labor issues. “Her numbers are probably as good as anybody’s out there.”

If fewer long-haul drivers work in the United States than the industry’s generally accepted estimate, it also calls into question the long-held stance that there aren’t enough drivers to go around, causing a widespread shortage. The shortage exists only because long-haul truckers who get paid by the mile don’t make enough to stay in jobs that put them on the road for weeks at a time and they quit the business, creating enormous turnover, economists and industry insiders who reviewed the paper said.

“It’s an economic problem” not a labor one, said Fuller, part of the family that co-founded and still runs U.S. Xpress Inc.

Tallying long-haul drivers is further complicated by lack of current data on the number of trucks operating in the country, Monaco said.

The U.S. Census and Bureau of Transportation Statistics ran the Federal Vehicle Inventory and Use Survey to count trucks and other vehicles for 40 years but dropped It in 2002 for budget reasons.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration maintains a truck registry through the Motor Carrier Management Information System.

“But the database is kind of a mess because establishments go out of business” and don’t remove their listings, Monaco said. “There’s a big over count.”

Trucking Automation Won’t Impact Jobs As Soon As Expected

The ATA declined to comment on the BLS report’s trucker jobs number.

However, the trade group agrees with the assessment that the pace of potential displacement of drivers due to technology will not be quick, if at all, ATA Chief Economist Bob Costello said.

“ATA has long said that there will be a place for truck drivers in the cabs of trucks for the foreseeable future and beyond, and we have yet to see compelling data or evidence to change that opinion,” Costello said.

Automated trucks that fall below the Level 4 autonomous vehicle technology threshold will still need an operator and won’t result in a loss of driver jobs, according to the BLS report.

The Society of Automotive Engineers uses a classification system of 5 levels of vehicle autonomy based on the amount of necessary driver intervention. Level 1, for example, requires a driver to be in control at all times but allows for automated acceleration and braking. Level 5 requires no human intervention.

The long-haul segment that truck automation is targeting, hauls of 201 miles or more, represents a quarter of heavy trucker jobs, so they’re the most likely to be affected, according to the report.

“We estimate there are roughly 419,000 truck drivers whose primary range of operation is 201 miles or more, 310,000 of whom drive tractor-trailers in the for-hire transportation and warehousing sector.  These are the drivers who are likely to be most immediately affected by the implementation of level 4 automation,” according to the paper.

Viscelli did a similar analysis of the labor impact of self-driving trucks for an academic paper he expects will be published as soon as February. In it, he concluded 500,000 to 600,000 long-haul trucker jobs might be at risk. “As far as I’m concerned, we ended up in the same place,” he said of Monaco’s work.

“This paper is going to be an important contribution,” Viscelli said. “We need to start thinking about this in a more detailed way that looks at the segments that are potentially affected by automation.”

Read Next: Truck Driver Crunch Could Send Wages Skyward

12 Responses

  1. Jim Bardsley

    The push to be automated is risky at best. There is much more to consider than just going down the highway. My field, as a commercial driver is open deck equipment, flatbed, stepdecks, ect. These loads often require specialized handling, and focus, not just during the load/unload process, but in transit as well. Sharp maneuvers of any kind, can cause the cargo to shift, resulting in wrecks, injuries, or worse. Load securments require constant attention, as well as tarps, ect. These situations are not compatible with automated transport. The truck itself is somehow going to correct any glitches with the freight? Tighten chains and straps? Resecure flapping loose tarps or covers, ect? I think not.
    Technology is a wonderful thing, but till GPS and systems like that work flawlessly, 100% of the time, this is not a viable entity to be set out on our public roads, amid the chaos that defines our traffic situation.
    Thank you.

    Reply
    • Michelle Rafter

      Jim: Observations from your on-the-job experience support the BLS researchers’ conclusions that truck drivers’ jobs entail a lot more than driving a truck, making it more difficult to replace them than some have suggested. Thanks for sharing.

      Reply
  2. Rabble rouser

    If there is a driver shortage it can be explained this way.
    I have driven for 32 years. I would rather see one of my sons selling dope than driving truck these days. The fed has turned a job which never did pay anything into a miserable job which will never pay anything. Does that about cover it?

    Reply
    • Michelle Rafter

      Hey Rabble Rouser:
      With marijuana now legal in multiple states, including the one I live in, it would be an interesting exercise to put Bureau of Labor Statistics data on annual incomes for truckers and employees at commercial cannabis retailers or medical dispensary side by side to see how they compare. Thanks for the suggestion.

      Reply
  3. Bob Pollock, CEO

    Michelle: A story for you ahead of our Public Announcements on March 21; Safety by US Highest Levels 6&6+ NIST & NIPA Standards! Two new products: Trusted semiconductors for communicating bi-directionally on Mobility Voice & Data Networks. Also, Autonomous Controls Meeting these same Standards!

    Reply
  4. Bob Pollock, CEO

    Addition: Past 25 years meeting Levels 2-4 Stds US NIST & NIPA today, the highest! Autnomous Vehicles today are just not safe as Software and AI meet Zero Standard and Zero Mathematicl Proofs.

    Reply
  5. M. Jones

    Thanks for the article, Michelle.

    Ha. Barney and Fred can no longer stick their feet out and stop with their own feet on the pedals! One example, is, ok there is an accident ahead. CB Radio is necessary to navigate an alternate route. Now there is a law officer at the intersection saying pull over, wait 30 minutes for the alternate route to clear. who is the officer going to communicate with? who is using the CB radio to find out whats up? Officer gonna go chase a ghost?

    Another anomaly, is what if the truck has just been through a big mud puddle coming on the highway and now all its traffic sensors are blocked? wreck about to happen.

    What if a sun ray or solar disturbance and all satellite communication stopped? truck just gonna stop in the road?

    Is the automated T-ruck-fake driver gonna be forced to have 10 hour and 34 hour breaks as well? maybe apply that to the union! Its only fair isn’t it?

    No one is mentioning the extreme cost of the technology to put all these computerized toys together. Sure its driving up taxes and eating up trucking profits already.. its a pretty big basket to put all your marbles in. The back up industry supporting Automation, and Electronics employees , not to mention a new super industry of surveillance employees..

    One of the things this article doesn’t mention is the behinds of thousands of truckers who recently got off the road due to ELD enforcement. ELD is a desperate government takeover of the entire trucking enterprise and don’t care who they force out of the trade. Some drivers who are excellent at their job, now lose their job because they are computer illiterate or keep pushing the wrong button, and can’t get the knack of it, and just give up. don’t tell me it ain’t happening! that’s where you lost a bunch of us. Some aren’t willing to become enslaved under this government fiasco. You get stuck somewhere, without a shower and a hot meal or place to go dookee a few times and you won’t do it either. Government is too big, too willing to be bought out by big rollers, and too set on making us all either slaves, or has-beens, while they collect our taxes and revenues and take us all over, and happy partners with the big industry that’s paying them.

    All the dirty down facts aren’t posted. all the families wrecked by automation isn’t posted. the only option is to get a new job IF you qualify running the new monster machine that we let be created. A lot of misery is what it all is, sucking the life outa our industry. I pray for our nation, and for our truckers, even the decieved!

    Until I saw the determination of this idiotic space age movement, I thought, if I see a truck running down the road with no driver, I will bound and determined to push it off in the ditch.

    Reply
    • Michelle Rafter

      M. Jones:

      I and other Trucks.com writers are closely following the effects of the ELD mandate, which is one of the biggest issues in the industry. We have heard about truckers leaving the business rather than hooking up the devices to their trucks. However, the mandate is so new, it’s been difficult to collect the amount of data we would need to get a statistically accurate read on what’s happening. We continue to look for ways to do that. If you or other Trucks.com readers know people who’ve quit because of ELDs, I’d appreciate hearing from or about them. Likewise, I’m interested in suggestions for how to track overall truckers quick rates directly linked to the ELD mandate.

      Reply
      • M. Jones

        I don’t know how you will count all the lost OTR drivers, because like the Indians of yesteryear. so independent that the government takes away, one at a time we lose our jobs. The upside for the Indians, they have lands and casinos and sovereignty again, while the truck drivers have no rights left at all. The bum side of it, this was a career by nature of the job, that many gave all, even sometimes their homes and families, to live a life on the road. The better ones were able to keep things alive at home and even be home enough to make a difference. What will their sons and daughters do, unless they become a government slave? Its like the demise of a nation, over and over again: The paupers and poor of England, living on what is left after paying the kings ransom, and the working family in rags and tatters. It makes you wonder, why did we leave there for a fresh start in the new land, only to be facing the same fate now?

  6. Randy

    Gee I wonder what the micro managing idiots who make rules to profit would do if there were less people to scam. The number of drivers will still decrease further once the ELD mandate takes full effect. Drivers on the fence will find jobs elsewhere once they start being fined for faulty ELD systems. And let the companies pay a fortune for unmanned trucks. Then who will the government’s fine, or find reasons to fine? This is what happens when people let idiots make decisions for them..

    Reply
  7. Brien Corzine

    My employer has invested heavily in automation and supplemental driving aids over the last few years. As a driver with over 20 years of accident-free service, I loathe any additional equipment that interferes with my abilities, no matter how noble the intention. My greatest concern with autonomous vehicles isn’t as much the software and A.I. side of the equation, but with the durability and reliability of the hardware and wiring. Many of the newer additions to our fleet have myriad “gremlins” in the wiring for the accident avoidance and driver alert systems. These systems often share sensors, and when these sensors fail the result can be anything from bothersome lights/chimes to full shut down of the entire vehicle. These are minor annoyances now, but since the trend seems to be more decisions by the computer and less by the driver these failures could become disastrous. More and more the driver isn’t even able to override the avoidance systems, leaving the subject of accident liability in question.

    Foul weather, road surface condition and ice and snow mitigation seems to be taking a very heavy toll on the circuits and sensors for these systems as well. As with aircraft, I can’t see any safe path forward to automation without fully redundant systems in the future of autonomous road vehicles. With increased highway speeds, more vehicles with which to share the road and more lanes being added annually, the need for completely fail-safe systems seems to be a virtual pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

    Reply
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