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America’s first autonomous truck went for a drive way back in October 2016 from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs. With a professional driver’s assistance navigating on and off the highway, this autonomous truck made the 120-mile journey safely and effectively.
Those 120-miles opened up a road of rocky terrain with an intense uncertainty for the future of the trucking industry.
As the truck reached its final destination in Fort Collins, one question loomed heavily in the air: are truck drivers going to lose their jobs?
Apprehensions of autonomous trucking go beyond this one question, though. In fact, this one change could have significant economic, political, and technological implications as well.
There are 3.5 million professional truck drivers in America, according to the American Trucking Association. There are upwards of 8.7 million individuals employed in the trucking and freight industry overall. This number does not include hotel managers, gas station owners, rest stop workers, and family members that depend on the transportation industry for their livelihoods. American Trucking Trends reported that trucking gross revenue was over $725 billion in 2016. The freight industry is the strongest it has been in years.
An industry-wide implementation of autonomous trucking would create a serious disruption in the lives of millions, ultimately upsetting the economy in a way that America has not felt in decades.
Morgan Stanley estimated that the freight industry would save $168 billion annually with the use of autonomous technology. This would assume, then, that autonomous trucking should cause the freight industry to skyrocket in net revenue.
It is estimated that $70 billion of this would come from reducing labor costs. That further means that autonomous trucking would be taking $70 billion out of the hands of drivers and their families.
Furthermore, this sort of major upheaval in the economy ignites the interests of politicians as well. The introduction of autonomous trucking would likely pull politics deeper into the transportation business. The Department of Transportation has already created a 15-point safety assessment for all automated vehicles, and that is just the start. The conversations regarding the influence of technology on the economy started with Uber… and they will only continue to grow as the sizeable trucking industry is affected.
The potential impact for society is large… but is it likely?
There are three key presumptions that this “autonomous trucking disruption” is based on:
These notions about autonomous trucking are widespread, but they should be taken with a grain of salt. Technology changes rapidly, so we are all concerned and anxious about the future of robotic cars.
Self-driving trucks can replace professional drivers. But will they?
The trucks currently being tested and implemented are self-driving, but they are not fully autonomous. In fact, most of these “autonomous trucks” will be driver-assisted. Despite significant advances in technology, the safety and versatility of these trucks is still highly uncertain. Transporting from one port to another is more than just the ability to avoid a crash on the highway. These trucks need to be able to handle different types of roads, terrains, weather conditions, and even different hubs and ports.
Thus, for the time being, these “autonomous” trucks will function in a similar way as auto-pilot; there is a driver in the seat nearby, ready to take control in certain situations (such as maneuvering in and out of a major hub amidst hundreds of other trucks). Think of this wave of tech not as autonomous but as highly-enhanced trucks with adaptive cruise control and super-safety systems of braking, lane departure, following distance, and more.
Additionally, other drivers on the road are pushing back against these autonomous trucks even more fervently than truckers are themselves. People already feel nervous when they drive next to large trucks. The image of looking up to see no one in the driver's seat of such a huge chunk of metal and cargo is unnerving and unsettling. This can and will create tech-related panic on highways.
Whether or not this leads to more accidents is uncertain. Whether this leads to more protests from consumers is highly expected. If customers take a stand against autonomous trucking because they feel unsafe or they worry about the loss of jobs—businesses will be forced to reconsider their technological models.
Businesses are quick to change to the cheapest form—such as autonomous trucks over trucker salaries—but this could end up costing them their consumer pool. In this way, it will be crucial for transportation managers to analyze consumer response with each upcoming technology decision.
Autonomous trucks are cheaper than paying driver salaries, but they will likely intensify insurance rates. Because this technology is emerging, insurance companies have not yet had to deal with these risks on a widespread scale. It’s possible that shipping and transportation insurance will skyrocket in pricing out of the fear of the unknown risks of technology. Additionally, this will likely change the overall auto insurance system—not only for companies but for the average driver as well. With more autonomous vehicles on the road, insurance companies will have to reevaluate risk and cost.
The reason for this? The safety of autonomous trucking is still highly unknown. The Titanic was unsinkable until it sunk; many individuals are not willing to take that same risk regarding the safety on their roads. Autonomous trucks are considered safer than human drivers… until that first accident.
Overall, the level of safety and cost uncertainty is high.
Despite the “facts” of the autonomous trucking industry, the reality of this shift is still left to be determined. All that is certain is that technology will continue to play a significant role in how freight and other industries do business. These changes will have drastic implications on the rest of American society in ways that all businesses, corporations, and government departments will be forced to contemplate and recalibrate.
It’s not time to start looking for a new job. It’s time to start innovating and determining ways for drivers, transportation managers, and autonomous trucks to live cohesively.