Just introduced in mid-November, Tesla has unveiled its new electric Semi, a Class 8 semi-tractor that can haul 40 tons and travel 500 miles between charges. Enhanced Autopilot technology comes standard with each unit, which effectively means that every new Semi will be ready to operate at a higher level of automation than current vehicles can. Tesla expects the Semi to go into production in 2019.
Tesla’s Enhanced Automation includes steering assistance, lane departure warnings, and automated braking. Add automated acceleration, and you’ve got a vehicle that can operate at Level 3 automation, and higher levels of automation could be available as well, depending on the sensitivity of the Semi’s object and hazard detection monitors.
If a long-distance, heavy-duty truck with high levels of automation will be available for widespread commercial use within two years, what will that mean for truck drivers? Will current truckers need to find new jobs? Will the industry find ways to employ current drivers in new or different positions? Or will the American economy have to absorb a million or so displaced workers?
The American trucking industry has struggled with chronic driver shortages for years, and the prospect of highly automated trucking to move goods around the country has led the industry to support the development of driverless technologies. With the promise of substantial savings in labor, fuel and insurance costs, together with the potential to increase the operating hours of each vehicle, the economics of trucking point unmistakably toward driverless technology. One estimate projects annual savings of $168 billion in a $700 billion industry.
So how soon can American truck drivers expect to suffer the consequences of disappearing jobs in one of the few labor markets that offers a middle-class income without a college education? Not very is the short answer. Regulatory barriers remain the greatest obstacle to automation in the trucking industry, and Congress’s refusal so far to include trucking in its pending bills to promote driverless vehicles will undoubtedly delay the widespread appearance of driverless trucks on American roads.
What Happens When Self-Driving Trucks Are Commonplace?
Goldman Sachs economists estimate that during the peak period of industry adoption of driverless technology, about 300,000 trucking jobs per year could be lost in the 2025-2030 period, or later if the current momentum toward automated trucking is interrupted. Trucking currently employs nearly 3.5 million in the United States, with about half that number working as Class 8 truckers operating the largest vehicles. If the Goldman Sachs projections are sound, then trucking as a livelihood in its current form will be substantially wiped out within 15 to 20 years.
Because truckers are disproportionately older than most American workers, the sharp constriction of trucking jobs could well be less severe than the raw numbers would indicate. The median age of truckers today is about 50, which means that most of those currently employed in the field can be expected to retire by the time automation drives human workers from the industry. That still leaves several hundred thousand long-haul truckers at risk of job displacement.
One automated trucking startup, Starsky Robotics, hopes to move truckers into office jobs, where each employee would remotely operate several trucks at a time, completing up to 30 trips a day per worker. Business models that essentially repurpose drivers from actual to virtual operation could take up some of the slack in the trucking labor market. It also seems likely that human drivers will still be necessary to start and complete trips in congested urban traffic near railheads and port facilities, in much the same way that ships require local pilots to enter and leave harbors.
Even fully automated trucking will frequently require a human driver under certain operating conditions, such as difficult mountain terrain or snowy weather, which significantly complicates the performance of optical sensors. Nevertheless, any young person interested in driving trucks for a living should probably think twice about the career — it seems very unlikely that the demand for truckers will be more than a quarter of today’s workforce in 20 years.
In the near term, it remains entirely possible to make a good living as a truck driver, and the current shortage of drivers is about 100,000. The median income for a driver with three years of experience is $57,000, and more seasoned drivers typically earn from $70,000 to $100,000 per year. Anyone tempted by these figures to enter the trucking industry will be well advised to earmark a good percentage of that money for training in another field, because it doesn’t appear that these jobs will be around for very long.