I’m an outlier when it comes to predicting the advent and everyday use of autonomous vehicles in trucking in that I tend to believe this technology will take hold far sooner, and far more dramatically, than most of my colleagues who cover this industry.
A big reason I believe this is because I’ve been fortunate enough to experience many of these autonomous technology breakthroughs first hand. I’ve sat behind the wheel of various trucks as they’ve driven themselves down public roads and highways. And during that process I gained enough insight to learn that this technology is legitimate. It may not yet be perfect. But it does work. And it works well. And, obviously, that technology is only going to get better as more research and real-world experiences are gained.
But, as well as the technology works, there are other factors in play that I don’t think get as much attention as they should. And if history is any indication, I think they will play a massive role in pushing the adoption and deployment of autonomous commercial vehicles into mainstream use. I’m talking, of course, about basic economic realities that are already, in many ways, accelerating the push toward autonomous vehicles. And last month, two major news stories popped up that reinforced my views on this front.
The first story was Amazon, which is now emerging as the commercial and cultural force of our time, announcing that it was raising its minimum pay for employees to $15 an hour. In a historical context, this move echoes Henry Ford’s decision a century ago to pay his employees the then unheard of rate of $5 a day because he wanted to attract the best workers possible. And he wanted the people who built his automobiles to be able to purchase them on their own. Ford’s decision initiated a ripple-effect across the country at the time, and sent wages climbing across the board as competitors tried to keep pace with Ford and employers in unrelated industries simply tried to hang on to the talented workers they already had. It is likely that Bezos' move will have the same effect on today's economy. And don't forget that rumors abound saying he will soon go into the trucking business himself in order to move Amazon goods more efficiently -- a move that would could have explosive consequences for driver pay scales throughout North America.
The second news story last month that caught my eye flew under the radar a bit – but it seems to me one that has long-term ramifications for trucking as well: A report saying that as the economy gains steam, employers are suddenly worried that there won’t be the usual pool of seasonal workers available to help them get through the upcoming holiday season. For years now, many businesses – including well-known trucking and P&D fleets – have relied on seasonal laborers to meet the uptick in production customer service and logistics demands they face annually at the end of each year. But now, with wages rising and jobs plentiful, there just aren’t enough people out there who need the additional money to pick up the slack.
The timing on Amazon’s move couldn’t be worse for trucking, just as fleets are finally and aggressively boosting pay and benefits to attract and retain drivers. Amazon’s wage hike is going to increase pressure on fleets to pay even more money to attract and keep drivers -- and it just seems logical to assume that some point, say around $20 an hour for drivers or so, the promise of automation – and its ability to send driver wages and benefits straight to the bottom line – is going to start looking irresistible to fleet managers.
On the opposite side of the same coin, the inability to attract workers at all, is another big problem that automation can certainly help with. And it seems likely that companies that are struggling to meet consumer demands during a critical part of the business year will be more and more willing in the future to circumvent those manpower problems by using more automation in their businesses. And yes – that includes delivering truckloads of cargo all the way down to individual parcels.
Neither event cited here has the power to drive a change toward autonomous trucks on its own. My point is, however, that there are macroeconomic forces in play that often get overlooked when debating the viability of autonomous vehicle technology and are a timely reminder that we’re not just talking about the technology alone. Never underestimate how the very basic human desires to simply get work done — and save time and money while doing so — can shape the future of trucking and the role autonomous vehicles will play in it.