self driving trucks

Are Self Driving Trucks The Future Of Trucking?

Traditional trucking jobs will change

That is the one thing we can be sure of when considering the future of self driving semi-trucks and employment.

In general, society welcomes technology with open arms.   Most people, look forward to a time when they can confidently go in their automobile and let it drive them from Point A to Point B.  Imagine sitting in the seat of your new car that reduces risks of accidents, drives for you and allows you to surf the web, read a book or do anything else you please.

They say we will be more productive.

A lot of people will not die in car accidents. Overall, the road will be a far safer place when driverless technologies take over the roadways.

So they are telling us that there’s a lot of good coming to the world thanks to automation.

But there are estimates that 3.5 million truckers will lose their jobs.

How can anyone involved in the trucking industry be excited about that statistic?

Who is Driving the Push to Automation?

Oddly, you wouldn’t expect Google (yes, the search engine) to be a pioneer of self-driving technology, but the company hopes to bring self-driving vehicles to the marketplace by 2020. While the search company is focusing on normal automobiles, they, too, have a stake in self-driving trucks. It’s more about artificial intelligence and sensor technology than it is propelling these vehicles.

The companies that are behind the major push for truck automation are:

  • Daimler Freightliner
  • Mercedes-Benz
  • Volkswagen Group
  • MAN
  • Scania

And you can also put some other big names on the list, such as Tesla. Autonomous vehicles, as a whole, rely on “learning” and “adapting” to new situations, so it’s safe to say that these vehicles will continue to get better as time goes on.

There’s also the need for sensor technology and advanced software to help these vehicles learn.

Google, for example, may not enter the world of autonomous trucks, but that doesn’t mean that the company won’t license some of their technology out.

There are a lot of companies working on self-driving technology, and there are a slew of small startups, many you’ve never even heard of, that are working to replace your trucking job. It’s nothing personal, but these companies see an industry where there is a potential to save lives, reduce costs and make driving far safer than ever before.

Autonomous Trucks Timeline

A realistic timeline for seeing autonomous trucks on the road is anyone’s guess. We have seen some vehicles on the road already, with Daimler Freightliner on the road in Nevada and being tested. Autonomous vehicles are also tested on local roads, so it’s safe to say that the technology will be here before anyone expects it to be.

But it will be a slow and steady process.

Laws and regulations must be put in place to accommodate  these new vehicles. A truck driving in the middle of nowhere in Nevada is far easier to operate than a truck in the middle of Los Angeles or Manhattan where there are cars surrounding the vehicle.

There are “deniers” of self driving trucks that think they won’t overtake real drivers, but it’s not an “if” any longer; it’s a “when.”

A few points to consider:

  • Driverless trucks are on the roads
  • Driverless trucks are being considered in future places
  • Managers are considering future costs

We’re lucky to be in an industry where there’s expected to be 100,000 jobs open in 2020. There’s a severe shortage of truck drivers, so initially, we expect many of these driverless vehicles to fill the gap that trucking companies deal with daily.

There’s also the question of costs.

Truckers know how rare it is for trucking companies to offer new trucks, and when the technology is very expensive, as it will be initially, this might result in many trucking companies waiting to replace their fleet with autonomous options.

Automobiles, your sedans and coupes, are expected to be fully automated by 2020 – 2021, according to Ford and several other automakers. Some automakers state that they’ll have several models of self-driving automobiles by 2020, so this is a good starting point for truckers, too.

I would guess, and it’s just a guess, that trucks will take an additional 5 years or longer to work on kinks and ensure regulation is in place to confidently allow these vehicles on the road.

Mercedes, for example, is already testing self-driving semi-trucks in the U.S. and Europe.

So, there’s no more denial that autonomous trucks will disrupt the trucking industry. But to what level will the industry be impacted? This is the million dollar question on everyone’s mind.

See, former Google employees have opened up a business called Otto, which was acquired by Uber.

The company is working on technology to retrofit trucks with autonomous capabilities for $30,000 – far less than a truck driver’s normal salary.

And with this technology, Uber already plans to have a small fleet of self-driving vehicles in early 2017.

What Work Will Be Left for Drivers?

Self driving trucks will impact the trucking industry forever. There are 3.5 million truck drivers in the United States alone, and 10 billion tons of freight is hauled each year thanks to truck drivers. The lifestyle is one that’s sedentary and often lonely, with little home time and demanding hours.

The pay isn’t all that great considering what drivers give up: friends, family and even hearing their kid’s first words.

Businesses have the capability to buy driverless fleets far faster than normal people. We can expect to see the industry swelling with driverless trucks once  the industry is confident that the trucks will perform better than their human counterparts.

A mine in Australia already uses driverless trucks because they’re cheaper and faster.

Trucking accounts for the biggest industry in 29 states, and you need to consider the impact that loss of human drivers will have all across the country:

  • Hotels and motels will be less occupied
  • Restaurants and food joints will suffer losses

Experts expect the trucking industry, which isn’t unionized as a whole, will take action as a collective.

Ultimately, drivers will need to face the realization that technology is going to replace them in the field. Drivers will be needed in the trucks as a backup for a few years, but these drivers will likely see their already insufficient pay fall, too.

Why pay a driver that’s not driving day and night?

It’s going to be one of the biggest disruptions in ordinary life that we’ve ever seen. Automation isn’t just going to overtake truck jobs; it’s going to overtake a lot of assembly line work, food prep, grocery store jobs and so on.

Before you know it, you’ll be greeting a machine at the drive through.

We can expect the initial impact to help lower the driver shortage keeping many truckers in their seat, and while we’re likely 7 years or more away from mass producing driverless trucks, it’s becoming a reality sooner than you think.

Truckers “might” be loading the vehicles rather than driving them, but we’re confident companies will also find an automated means for loading. Drivers, while remaining in the vehicles during the initial phases of self-driving truck integration will eventually find their bosses lowering their wages, replacing them with lower-paid employees or letting them go.

Trucking companies will only see one potential: massive productivity increases. And these productivity increases will come at a fraction of the cost of a human driver.

Truck drivers will only be the fall back plan for a few years before they need to transition to either managerial positions or new careers as a whole.

The trucking industry can expect an impact last seen during the fall of the U.S. steel industry.

Once, horse and buggy were the only way to get around besides walking. Ford came along and made the once-reliable horse obsolete, and driverless vehicles are the next step in the progression scale that will have a major impact on truckers.

Companies are testing out driverless semi-trucks, and OTR truckers will need to prepare for the inevitable replacement. Driverless technology never tires, makes fewer mistakes, and saves companies more money. When can we expect to pull up next to a truck, a rather dangerous vehicle capable of steamrolling a vehicle and killing everyone in seconds, and look over to see no one in the driver’s seat?

Far too soon.

While you may be able to sit behind the wheel and take over if the technology fails, it will get to the point where driverless truck technology is nearly perfected.