Autonomous trucks will displace good-paying, long-haul driving jobs, replacing them with low-paying delivery and port jobs, according to a new study.
Of 2.1 million trucking jobs in the U.S., 294,000 drivers on the nation’s highways face the greatest threat from driverless technology, according to the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education and Working Partnerships USA report.
Getting trucks from factories or warehouses to autonomous truck ports on the outskirts of cities next to major interstate exits could lead to new jobs. But lacking job protections, workers would earn far less than long-haul truckers.
“These new jobs will be local driving and last-mile delivery jobs that — absent proactive public policy — will likely be misclassified independent contractors and have lower wages and poor working conditions,” said Steve Viscelli, a University of Pennsylvania sociologist, who wrote the report.
Long-distance drivers move goods from factories to distribution centers or retail stores, or between distribution centers. Many work at “for hire” trucking firms. They drive loaded trucks for one customer or a combination of freight from different customers.
Drivers for companies like UPS typically offer better pay and benefits that lead to stable careers. By contrast, full truckload companies tend to pay lower wages and consider their workers independent contractors, Viscelli said.
All drivers are earning higher wages today because freight hauling demand exceeds available trucks and drivers. Some shippers are raising driver rates to keep them from leaving for a better-paying competitor. The American Truck Associations estimates the industry is short 63,000 drivers.
But the ATA has rejected predictions of a robot-driving takeover.
“I want to put it in context and stop talking about how it’s going to kick drivers out of cabs,” ATA Chief Executive Chris Spear told Trucks.com in a recent interview.
Because automated trucks can practically run around the clock, the industry will need 6 percent fewer truck tractors, according to a separate study by the Roland Berger consultancy. Larger fleets that can afford to invest in automated trucks will attract more freight volume. Smaller fleets and independent owners will lose out.
Sensor and software technology advances will lead to driverless trucks operating on some interstates by the mid-2020s, Roland Berger predicts. How many depends on state legislation that would allow trucks to drive without human intervention.
Both Viscelli and Roland Berger envision a transfer-hub model, where a conventional truck with a driver pulls a trailer to a handover point near an interstate. An automated driverless truck would then pilots the trailer along the interstate. Once the truck arrives at the second transfer hub, a human-driven truck pulls the trailer to its final destination. Roland Berger predicts 20 to 25 percent of truck freight could move through transfer hubs by 2035.
The transfer-hub model could save 40 percent versus today’s cost where drivers account for 30 to 50 percent of the cost of freight hauling, according to Roland Berger.
“If I had no drivers on some of those line-haul routes, I’d save 50 percent of the costs because there are other efficiencies that can be created,” said Denny Mooney, senior vice president of Global Product Development for Navistar International Corp.
But the nation’s transportation infrastructure is not ready for driverless trucks, said Norita Taylor, spokeswoman for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.
“There are some dangerous cracks in the road to autonomous trucks,” she said.
Viscelli said government policy would pick the winners and losers in driverless trucking. He recommended a “Trucking Innovation and Jobs Council” to bring stakeholders together.
The ATA said that concept already existed in the Partnership for Transportation Innovation and Opportunity. It seeks open dialogue on jobs, career pathways and transitions that may result from the adoption of autonomous vehicles.