The conventional wisdom about the impending automation of trucking is that self-driving trucks spell doom for truckers. Last year, Goldman Sachs estimated that at its peak, the self-driving trucks could mean losses of 300,000 jobs per year for the trucking industry. Similarly, the McKinsey Global Institute calculates that nearly 1.5 million trucker jobs could be gone by 2027.
On closer look, however, the relationship between automated trucking and trucking jobs may not be so linear. A recent article in The Atlantic suggests that there is another (and very different) scenario: self-driving trucks could create more jobs.
This idea comes from research from Uber Advanced Technologies Group, which is developing self-driving trucks and a version of Uber that matches carriers and drivers. Uber ATG’s argument that self-driving trucks will help and not hurt truckers is derived from two basic principles:
- The trucking industry is on course for a dramatic change over the next few decades, regardless of whether or not automation is implemented.
- Self-driving trucks would, for the foreseeable future, be used for only part of a long-haul route, not its entirety.
According to the American Trucking Association, the average age of truckers has been on the rise for decades. Fewer young people are entering the workforce, likely because of the demands of the job, and the ATA predicts that more than 400,000 current truck drivers will retire over the next 10 years. In that same time period, freight demand will steadily increase – without the workforce to support it.
Uber’s plan to integrate human truck drivers and automated trucks hinges on “transfer hubs” – or points around the country where long-haul self-driving trucks will transfer their freight to truck drivers for local, more complex transport. Uber claims that as long as self-driving trucks are used efficiently, they will drive down the cost of transport, thereby stimulating demand across the board, including for human truckers to transport freight in local areas.
Many industry experts, including professional truck drivers, agree that this mutually agreeable relationship between automated and human truck driving could come to fruition, though it is by no means a guarantee. It remains to be seen how this will shake out, but the potential for a positive outcome is a welcome alternative to the grim outlook that has dominated the conversation thus far.