We’ve all heard the horror stories: One day, autonomous trucks will appear on our roads, and in the blink of an eye, thousands upon thousands of truck drivers will suddenly be unemployed without any good prospects for earning a living for themselves and their families.
It’s certainly a possibility I’ve worried about over the past several years while watching autonomous technology take shape and move closer to commercialization.
But lately, I’m starting to suspect that those fears are just flat-out wrong. In fact, I’m starting suspect something quite the opposite from the usual doom-and-gloom Massive Truck Driver Unemployment scenario we’ve been fretting about for some time now may occur. Instead, I believe that autonomous trucks might actually be a boon for trucking industry jobs. I now think it’s quite possible that autonomous trucking technology might create something like 15 to 20 new human jobs for every truck driver that it displaces from a career behind the steering wheel. And many of these will be good-paying jobs with a great deal of responsibility demanded from those employees.
Allow me to explain.
This new line of thinking first occurred to me back in October of last year while visiting Torc Robotics in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for an update on its joint autonomous truck program with Daimler Trucks North America.
During my tour, my Torc hosts showed me a “Mission Control” center in their facility, where a team of specialists sat behind a bank of computer and video screens, monitoring a small fleet of autonomous trucks as they ran their evaluation routes. They were jumping in to assist the trucks (and the engineering team onboard) when problems arose.
The Torc team told me they were certain that one day, control centers like theirs would be commonplace at fleets running autonomous trucks. A shift of logistic experts would come in both day and night to ride herd over a gaggle of autonomous trucks, helping out with deliveries, finding new shipments and negotiating rates, handling customer service issues as well as dealing with any operational or maintenance issues that arose, as well as handling emergencies. Moreover, the Torc experts told me, in the early days of autonomous technology, experienced truck drivers would be the prime choice for this control jobs because of their real-life, first-hand experiences dealing with those issues.
And that got me to thinking…
The mental image of the pending autonomous age has been one of fully independent robot trucks roaming the highways alone, stopping only for fuel and the occasional oil change or repair – almost completely devoid of any human contact or interaction.
But anyone who knows anything about trucking knows that is simply unrealistic. Trucks take massive amounts of human interaction to function on a daily basis. Drivers do far more than simply drive a truck. They perform pre- and post-trip inspections. They act as loadmasters, making sure cargo is properly stored and secured and that trailer tandems are in the correct position. They fuel the truck and perform on-the-spot maintenance fixes. They act as customer service reps, and often help load or unload trucks. And they act as a security detail, making sure that the cargo doesn’t get stolen or damaged in any way during transit. And these are all jobs that humans will still have to do to support a single autonomous truck making its way across the country on a route.
The computers and autonomous control systems onboard that truck – as impressive as they are – won’t be able to perform a single one of those tasks with anywhere near the competency that a human being can. If there is a problem on an autonomous truck run – and Lord knows there are always problems on truck runs – a human being somewhere is going to have to get involved and start getting other human beings involved to get the issue solved.
This is just an educated guess on my part, but I think that for a single cross-country autonomous truck trip with four fuel stops, you might need as many as 12 different people at truck stops along that route to perform all the tasks required to keep that truck legally compliant, safe and moving on to its destination*. And that’s not counting two or three control specialists monitoring the truck during their daily shifts back at fleet headquarters and assuming no maintenance or emergency issues arise during the trip. Those are all tasks that would have once been handled by a single human truck driver.
Whether there’s a human being behind the wheel or not, it seems more and more obvious to me that – in their early days, at least – autonomous trucks are going to need a lot of human help to keep them on the road. And it my growing hunch is correct, that will prove to be a positive force for creating good new jobs in the trucking industry.
*In the interest of time and efficiency at a busy truck stop with autonomous trucks lined up waiting for fuel, I’m assuming a three-person team which would be responsible for fueling the truck, performing engine, safety and cargo checks and performing any necessary required maintenance – anything from putting air into tires to checking, cleaning or recalibrating autonomous cameras and lidar and radar sensors.