Self-driving technology will bring lots of benefits. The most obvious is saving thousands of lives lost each year to car accidents that are largely caused by human error. Vehicle automation could also reduce traffic, fuel consumption, and the frustration of looking for parking. But as with any technologies, there will be adverse side effects and unforeseen consequences.
Like we’ve seen with other forms of automation, one of the first casualties could be kicking to the curb people who make their living driving, as machines replace humans behind the wheel. And truck drivers could be the canaries-in-the-coal mine indicators of how self-driving technology will affect jobs and the economy as a whole.
There are 3.5 million professional truck drivers in the US, according to the American Trucker Association. Truck driving is a mainstay of the economy in many places, and the most common job in more than half of the states.
It’s also one of the last vestiges of stable middle class income for those without a college degree and in places where factory jobs have already been eliminated by automation or shipped overseas. An experienced trucker makes about $40,000 per year, and with overtime some can earn up to $70,000 a year, with full medical coverage and other benefits to boot.
But truck-driving jobs could be the first to go in a self-driving future. And vehicle automation will not only have a huge impact on trucking-driving jobs, but a ripple effect that extends past the trucking industry.
While self-driving cars get most of the headlines, autonomous big rigs could mean big savings for trucking companies. “Driver pay accounts for about 25 to 35 percent of the cost of truck operation,” noted a recent article by Singularity University.
And as with self-driving cars, it’s not a matter of if but when technology takes the wheel in trucking. Last year, Daimler showed off its first self-driving Freightliner big rig, although it added that the technology will require up to a decade of testing and need to rack up more than a million miles before its ready for public roads.
A consortium of trucking and technology companies in Europe have shown how automation can help form platoons of self-driving big rigs. And Otto, a self-driving truck technology start-up founded by former Google engineers and executives, was bought by Uber in August.
Automation won’t only affect truck driving jobs but many others. The millions of truck drivers out of the road have to stop to buy fuel, food and other services. And the hundreds of truck stops dotting the country’s interstates and dollars spent there that help support local communities could be hurt by automated big rigs.
According to The Detroit News, there are an additional 1.7 million people who drive taxis, buses, and delivery vehicles for a living, and automation will also impact these jobs. We’re already seeing Uber experimenting with self-driving taxis in Pittsburgh, though it has run into problems, and Ford has promised to have self-driving ride-sharing vehicles in services by 2021.
Truck driving jobs aren’t going away tomorrow. In fact, the trucking industry expects to see 21 percent more truck driving jobs by 2020 and a shortage of drivers. Higher demand than the supply of professional truck driver could also push pay higher for at least the next five years.
But the Singularity University article warned that “it would be false to pretend that in the much longer term, [automation] doesn’t reduce the number of people working as career truck drivers. This is one of many of the jobs today that will be modified or replaced by automation in the years to come,” it added, “and there is no stopping it.”
Originally published by PCMag.com
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