The arrival of autonomous trucks is getting closer to reality. When they roll along our motorways and into our towns in 2040, will that spell the end of the driver shortage?
There is not much consensus as to when the self-driving, autonomous truck will be a regular feature on our roads. José Viegas, former secretary of the International Transport Forum believes that this will take place within the next decade (source: Irish Times) whereas the USA’s Center for Automotive Research predicts that self-driving vehicles will only reach just over half of new vehicle sales by 2040. Steven E. Shladover, head of the Partners for Advanced Transportation Technology R&D programme at the University of California, Berkeley says that we are decades away from driverless trucks, citing road safety as the key barrier to adoption. (source: Atelier.net)
Many industry experts expect to see drivers in the truck cab for at least another 10 years, if not more, as the technology will not be 100% automated and will require a driver on hand to intervene when necessary. The introduction of the new technology, partly encouraged by truck manufacturers introducing the new autonomous driving technology on a gradual basis, will enable current drivers to enjoy easier, safer and more efficient driving conditions, to retrain and move over to the new technology.
There is a perfect storm of factors that make this question so significant for fleet operators. There is a significant worldwide truck driver shortage; the demand for road freight deliveries continues to rise with the trend for consumers to buy online, and the cost of employing a truck driver constitutes a significant part of the total cost of ownership of a truck. Autonomous trucks can reduce labour costs; keep running 24/7 without being constrained by driver rest time and driving distance limitations, save fuel and potentially be more efficient than human-operated trucks.
There are many different scenarios being discussed in the media ranging from talk of no driver shortage as many truck drivers lose their jobs to automation; one in which there is an increase in the demand for truck drivers and, finally, a more moderate stance in which drivers remain but their roles change.
Among those organisations that believe there will be a dramatic decline in the number of jobs for drivers are, for example, the International Transport Forum which thinks that 2 million American and European truckers could be directly displaced by 2030 and Goldman Sachs which predicts trucker job losses of 25,000 per month in the USA as self-driving trucks roll out.
Among the more optimistic views for drivers’ futures are those presented by Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group in its recent research which finds that there may be an increase in trucking jobs as self-driving vehicles become adopted on a widespread basis. The Uber ATG vision is one in which self-driving trucks carry loads long distances on motorways between what Uber call “transfer hubs” where drivers then take over to complete the last mile delivery in urban areas.
Uber believes that efficient use of self-driving trucks will drive down transport costs and increase demand for freight carrying, which in turn will lead to more human drivers on the road to deliver in local areas. This scenario might also help make truck driving conditions more attractive including enabling drivers to drive shorter distances, spend more time with their families and friends and maintain more sociable working hours.
Viewing this issue through a different lens, Christian Laprot, president of the International Road Transport Union says that “Autonomous vehicles will help the haulage sector deal with the current shortage of drivers in many parts of the world” (source: Financial Times)
Among the skeptics about forecasts for driver job losses is Joe Rajkovacz, director of governmental affairs and communications at the Western States Trucking Association who told The Atlantic“There are so many things a driver does. I just don’t believe that you’re ever going to see, at least in the world that’s imagined now, this fully autonomous truck without anyone in it.” However, he does see the benefits of technological advances to improve truckers’ working conditions.
There is at least one area of certainty for truck drivers in relation to self-driving trucks and their future employment: their roles will change as new technology is introduced. In a recent article “Trucking and logistics will lead the autonomous vehicle revolution” Jerry Hirsch, editor of Trucks.comsays that we will witness two complementary transitions. “One will be that of a truck to an autonomous device. The second will see the traditional truck driver change to a load manager or freight conductor.”
Hirsch acknowledges driver shortages in the short term and thinks that “Automation can help plug the gap, creating yet another economic incentive for the industry to push self-driving technology that can increase productivity.”
Maybe when self-driving trucks appear on the road, a human-like robot will sit behind the wheel. The sight of an empty truck driver seats might be too frightening for the general public.
Whether or not semi-autonomous or autonomous trucks will solve the driver shortage issue, there will always be demand for transporters to carry large volumes of products in their trailers. Having flexible trailer capacity with trailers that are equipped with the latest trailer technology are the keys to playing a successful part in the transport industry. Ask TIP how you can benefit from our 60.000+ trailer fleet by contacting us via this form.
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