Autonomous automotive technology has the potential to attract new talent to trucking, but it will eventually reduce the number of truck drivers needed and require retraining programs for displayed drivers. That was the takeaway from a subcommittee hearing on Emerging Highways and Transit in the U.S. House of Representatives on Dec. 7.
Industry experts spoke to lawmakers to outline the advantages several emerging automotive technologies will have for the trucking industry, including advanced safety systems, vehicle-to-vehicle communication systems, platooning, and autonomous driving technology.
Greer Woodruff, senior vice president of safety, security and driver personnel at J.B. Hunt, told the committee that it is vital to include commercial vehicles in any new legislation concerning emerging technologies, and specifically autonomous vehicle technology, in order to make sure eventual state and federal laws do not conflict or impede the safety and efficiency of interstate commerce as new technology enters into common use.
Woodruff made a point to emphasize the adoption of safety technology by J.B. Hunt and the industry at large in reducing driving accidents and fatalities. Woodruff noted that trucking spends over $9 billion annually on advanced vehicle safety systems that have dramatically reduced accidents nationwide, and that these technology investments help ensure that drivers and passengers of all vehicles make it safely to their destination.
Susan Alt, Volvo Trucks North America senior vice president of public affairs, told lawmakers that “trucking is a tough job,” a reality that makes it difficult to attract ample numbers of drivers to move the nation’s goods. But, Alt noted, younger generations are attracted to, and enjoy working with, new technologies, meaning autonomous vehicle technology has the potential to “lure more drivers into trucking.”
Larry Willis, president of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department, countered that trucking’s ongoing driver shortage is mainly due to low wages and benefits. Willis also expressed serious concerns about the loss of truck and bus driving jobs due to autonomous vehicle technology in the coming years, noting that, “Our economy is not prepared for the job dislocation and downward pressure on wages that will result from the adoption of autonomous vehicle systems.”
Building on his remarks, Willis urged lawmakers to move proactively to develop wage and labor policies that will protect human workers as autonomous technology is deployed on commercial vehicles.
Willis warned representatives that “millions of jobs” were threatened by autonomous vehicle technology in particular and stressed that they should “think strategically” about the training programs that a new economy created by autonomous vehicles would require.
Lawmakers expressed concern that new vehicle technologies and subsequent driver displacement would require national job training programs to help unemployed drivers find new jobs.
J.B. Hunt's Woodruff said he felt job disruption on the scale presented by Willis was “decades away,” even though he noted that in the future, it was likely autonomous trucks would haul freight long distances, with human drivers in strategically locations taking over for regional and last-mile operations.