A headline might sing like a canary, yet not deliver on its promise. As I write this, there’s a headline popping up all over the place. It varies by news outlet, but typically reads like this one penned by Crain’s Detroit Business: “Robot truckers could replace 500,000 U.S. jobs, UM study finds.”
A siren song. Except that everyone in trucking knows there won’t be “robot truckers” outside of Hollywood for some time to come. Then there’s the conjecture that these machines could make a half-million jobs vanish. But “could,” like “if,” is a big word. It covers a truckload of possibilities: Could when? Could where? Could how?
The eye-opening research being reported cries out for a plain-spoken headline. Something like the one heading this column: “Autonomous trucks will roll in slow.” As for any impact on employment, the measured arrival of driverless trucks ensures that jobs will not be cut by the swing of a massive ax anytime soon.
Now with the lead unburied, let’s get right to the when, where, and how. The study comes out of a joint effort by the University of Michigan and Carnegie Mellon University, both top research universities.
Titled “Impact of automation on long haul trucking operator-hours in the United States,” the study assesses “how and where automation might replace operator hours in long-haul trucking,” according to a U-M press release.
The researchers found that up to 94% of operator hours may be impacted if automated trucking technology — not “robot truckers” — improves enough to be effective “in all weather conditions across the continental United States,” observing that automated truck technology now is being tested mainly in the Sun Belt.
Here’s a key point that speaks to how slowly these wheels may turn: “Our results suggest that the impacts of automation may not happen all at once,” said study co-author Parth Vaishnav, assistant professor of sustainable systems at the U-M School for Environment and Sustainability.
“If automation is restricted to Sun Belt states (including Florida, Texas, and Arizona) — because the technology may not initially work well in rough weather — [only] about 10% of the operator hours will be affected,” added Vaishnav.
The researchers gathered information on trucking shipments and the operator hours it takes to fulfill them. They also looked at different automated trucking deployment scenarios, including running them only in Southern, sunny states; using them only in spring and summer (April 1 to Sept. 30); operating them for journeys of more than 500 miles, and deploying them across the United States.
“Our study is the first to combine a geospatial analysis based on shipment data with an explicit consideration of the specific capabilities of automation and how those might evolve over time,” said co-author Aniruddh Mohan, a doctoral candidate in engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon.
In other words, a robot trucker may be at the end of the autonomous vehicle rainbow, but technology will have to drive past some incremental milestones to reach that pot of golden efficiency.
Now, onto job loss. The authors found that “there is little clarity on how automated trucking will be deployed and its economic and political ramifications, such as the impact on the long-haul trucking labor market.”
Still, Vaishnav pointed out that a key finding of the study is “just how economically attractive this technology would be and the fact that everyone, including truckers, agreed that the interstate part of the job could be automated.
“Ultimately,” he added, “societal and political choices can determine the mode of deployment of automated trucking capabilities, as well as the winners and losers of any shift to automation of long-haul trucking.”
This commentary first appeared in the April 2022 issue of Heavy Duty Trucking.