Just as it is now quite possible for an airliner to fly with no human intervention, the prediction for the not-so-distant future is that vehicles will be able to ferry passengers to their destinations with no hands on the controls. The future has arrived in limited form; drivers are now able to take their hands off the wheel as vehicles efficiently maneuver themselves into tight parking spaces. While full automation is on the way, however, complete autonomy of vehicles is still a way off.
Trains and ships are automated. Self-driving trucks have already been road-tested. These abilities are nothing short of revolutionary for the transportation industry. More changes are on the way. Merchandise is moved overwhelmingly by long-haul truckers over American highways. There are currently approximately 3.5 million drivers on the road and they haul 14 billion tons of freight annually, accounting for 66% of the merchandise moved in the country. Less than 10% is moved by rail today, even less by ship or by air.
Present Realities -- Future Possibilities
If trucks begin to drive themselves, that would seem to be devastating news for today's truckers. Conventional wisdom seems to lead to massive job loss and the conclusion is that automation will bring dramatic changes to the industry.
But, not so fast, say a variety of experts. The advent of self-driving trucks may actually spell good news for today's drivers. Among those weighing in is Uber's Advanced Technologies Group, and they're solidly on the side of technology. But, contrary to what might seem like a logical outcome, Alden Woodrow, Uber's product lead for self-driving trucks, thinks the move will be good for drivers.
First, he notes, the reality of "dock-to-dock" service by an automated truck service is still far in the future. His view is that the introduction of automated trucks for "hub to hub" service will enable more effective scheduling and time utilization, freeing drivers from those long, boring highway stretches, allowing them to remain closer to home and to take over the controls for more difficult maneuvers and to navigate complex "urban and industrial terrain."
He sees the advent of technology as a benefit, rather than a threat, for today's truckers, and the Uber model actually forecasts industry growth and perhaps more jobs. There will, of course, be some adjustments necessary, as he explains.
Woodrow is not alone in thinking that today's drivers and tomorrow's automated trucks will be complementary rather than mutually exclusive. Uber's vision for the future is for a "mixed-fleet system" that will connect long-haul routes by self-driving trucks with local delivery services where drivers and their expertise will be needed more than ever. The company's view is that this type of symbiotic relationship will lead to more efficient scheduling, better service, lower freight costs, and higher wages for experienced truckers. It's an optimistic view, but it is echoed by some other analysts.
Joe Rajkovacz, director of governmental affairs and communications at the Western States Trucking Association, agrees that truckers are not likely to become obsolete with the introduction of self-driving trucks. He adds that humans perform many other tasks, most of which require skill and judgment. He also believes that the technology has the ability to make the job better rather than to eliminate it. One example, he notes would be the optimization of route calculations and the ability to "take a nap" while the truck takes over on straight highway runs.
For better or worse -- and there are still plenty of conflicting models to consider -- technology does point to self-driving trucks in the future. How exactly it all shakes out for the drivers is still in human hands, and more and more experts are moving in the direction of compatible solutions that will benefit both the industry and its truckers.
Dylan Snyder is a team leader and real estate consultant at The Snyder Group - Keller Williams Realty Luxury Homes. His business is augmented by his high-caliber team of seasoned buyer specialists and a dedicated marketing department.