Passing Zone

For the Love of Robots

March 29, 2017

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When it comes to trucks, automation threatens to just take away a job that very few people want anymore anyway.

Going back to at least 1921, when the sci-fi play R.U.R (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by Czech writer Karel Čapek was first staged, people have wondered whether they should embrace (however gingerly) or madly flee whatever robots may come their way.

Poster for the production of R.U.R.(Rossum’s Universal Robots) by the Marionette Theatre, New York, 1939. Image: U.S. WPA Federal Theatre Project
Poster for the production of R.U.R.(Rossum’s Universal Robots) by the Marionette Theatre, New York, 1939. Image: U.S. WPA Federal Theatre Project

Fast forward to now and we find in trucking that it’s fashionable, if not outright politically correct, to describe the ongoing evolutionary robotization of trucks as being all about embracing “autonomous driving technologies.”

I’m okay with that. I can grasp how that string of multisyllabic words might sound less threatening than the dynamic and to-the-point “self-driving” and “driverless” descriptors would to two key groups of people who will be very directly affected by the automation of trucks— four-wheelers and, yes, truck drivers.

We can’t blame motorists for being terrified by the mere thought of a driverless truck— a robot truck!— wreaking havoc on a highway just as soon as one of its fuses or relays or circuits or programming goes blooey.

Four-wheelers have already been spooked but good by the free-wheeling testing of some self-driving cars around the country that have gone so awry they’ve probably set back the acceptance of autonomous driving by John and Jane Q. Citizen by several years or more.

As for truckers, chances are good that those who hear even a whisper about self-driving trucks having a future at the fleet where they work might just feel behooved to launch a drive for union representation before it’s too late.

I have no doubt the average motorist will eventually embrace self-driving cars and minivans and pickups. Once such technology becomes commonplace on luxury sedans and sports models it will trickle down to everything, including the humblest of compacts. Still, there will be a steep learning curve and a steeper regulatory path to travel first-- and the sticker price will remain prohibitive for awhile for most car buyers.

But truck drivers, starting with the long-haulers, will have to accept that once autonomous technology for trucks is both roadworthy and legally compliant, fleets will buy into it because nothing else has come along to solve the industry’s ever-burgeoning driver shortage that holds the glowing promise of lasting relief that, yes, robot trucks do.

All this came to mind when I came across an article published on March 28 by Claire Cain Miller, a correspondent for The New York Times, that looks into whether or not robots are "winning the race for American jobs.”

Miller discusses a paper authored by two economists who argue that robots are beating Americans out of manufacturing jobs.

Interestingly, in a paper that the  same researchers released last year, they contend that even if more factory jobs were automated, ultimately new and better jobs would be created for the displaced human workers and, therefore, employment and wages would return to their previous level. In other words, yesterday’s machine operators would be tomorrow’s computer programmers.

Alas, while the earlier paper was a “conceptual exercise,” the new one was based on “real world data” and its conclusions are not so rosy. Miller reports the researchers “were surprised to see very little employment increase in other occupations to offset the job losses in manufacturing. That increase could still happen, they said, but for now there are large numbers of people out of work, with no clear path forward — especially bluecollar men without college degrees.”

One of the researchers did add the caveat that the new jobs that will pop up to replace the factory jobs turned over to robots may not do so in the same places where those factories are located, as in the Rust Belt.

The upshot is that if you hold down a job in manufacturing, you’re going to want to keep an eye out to see if the next guys hired have a pulse… or if they arrive on the line in a box.

Very seriously, though, the sad truth is who wants these good-paying, stable factory jobs to go away? They even let you go home every night to your own home.

But the same can’t be said about long-haul truck driving. Plain and simple, no matter what truck fleets do— from providing sweetly spec’ed trucks to boosting pay to you name it— it is becoming achingly clear that there will never again be enough qualified people to safely drive all the trucks needed to roll across our highways.

And that's all the opening robot trucks need to take their place on America’s roads.

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Author Bio

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David Cullen

Executive Editor

Executive Editor David Cullen comments on the positive and negative factors impacting trucking – from the latest government regulations and policy initiatives coming out of Washington DC to the array of business and societal pressures that also determine what truck-fleet managers must do to ensure their operations keep on driving ahead.

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