Are autonomous vehicles going to start taking jobs away from truck drivers? Is the technology ready for widespread deployment? Are people ready for it?
It depends on who you ask. Automation, more than outsourcing, has been replacing human labor for quite some time. Robots have taken over much of the manufacturing industries, and computers are increasingly being used to replace humans in the retail and fast food-industries as well. Producing more with fewer people has become the norm in some fields, with some 85% of job losses in manufacturing between 2000-2010, according to some reports, attributed to automation.
Many trucking industry types appear to be going full-steam ahead on the idea of having self-driving vehicles playing a large role in the people-and-goods-moving industries, with both successful and unsuccessful testing being done in major cities across the U.S. Last fall an autonomous truck traveled 120 miles on auto-pilot to deliver a truckload of beer, though it was all highway miles, with a driver riding along.
A recent analysis from the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, suggests that, despite all the furor over autonomous vehicles putting the approximately 3.5 million U.S. truck drivers out of jobs for good, those predictions and fears are generally unfounded. The number of physical and mental tasks that the typical driver undertakes daily are generally things that an automated truck wouldn't be doing for itself.
"In addition to the numerous regulatory and logistical hurdles that automated trucks still need to clear, generalizing the skilled work undertaken by millions of truck drivers and their peers overlooks how this industry functions. In many ways, the current national conversation on the trucking industry tends to overemphasize the technology and oversimplify the complex set of labor concerns, where many jobs are not likely to disappear anytime soon."
Brookings uses the Department of Labor's O*NET database "degree of automation" metric as a way of measuring the amount of automation involved in various industries. While pointing out that the low automation score for truck drivers doesn't automatically mean that self-driving trucks are not a risk to jobs, they do recognize that not only do most truck drivers do much more than hold a wheel for 600 miles, i.e. local and last-mile deliveries, but that the occupation as a whole scores lower than average (22) on a scale of 0-100, with 100 being fully automated.
Aside from the logistical concerns with automating duties that don't lend themselves to it, and despite the massive amounts of money being poured into it, lawmakers and the motoring public in general have a long way to go in accepting driver-less vehicles. Safety concerns still abound, and self-driving vehicles, even semi-autonomous, would probably have to either be proven flawless in their operation, or statistically better drivers than humans.
An interesting aspect to determining the safety of self-driving vehicles is the difficulty in proving in any statistically significant way that the technology has been shown to be safe. For example, to meet the safety standards comparable to today's vehicles, a fleet of 100 test cars would have to drive approximately 12 1/2 years at 25MPH, non-stop, without failure. The high bar of safety is going to prove a very difficult mark to meet in the U.S., regardless of who is building the vehicles.
Sometimes I hear the industry talk about autonomous vehicles as though they're about to put the safest driver on the road," says Nidhi Kalra, senior information scientist at the nonprofit RAND Corp. "The reality is it's more like putting a teenage driver on the road."
So, for the time being, it's a long row to hoe to get us to the point that the rise of self-driving vehicles results in any significant job loss to truck drivers. The safety, legislative, and cultural hurdles standing in its way still provide shelter, and nobody's really sure how long it will take for it to happen, if ever.
As Mark Twain so famously put it: "The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated."