900,000 Truck Drivers Could Lose Job To Autonomous Trucks, U.S. Government Warns

Washington, D.C. – A report issued this month by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) is warning that autonomous trucks could displace as many as 900,000 professional truck drivers in as soon as the next decade.

The report entitled, “Automated Trucking: Federal Agencies Should Take Additional Steps To Prepare For Potential Workforce Effects,” was published on March 7, 2019, and to this point, has received very little coverage in the establishment trucking press.

The GAO interviewed a cross-section of automated technology developers, trucking company executives, as well as leaders of commercial drivers license (CDL) training schools. Additionally, the GAO interviewed officials from the Departments of Education, Labor, Transportation, and Veterans Affairs.


The purpose of the report was three-fold: 1.) to evaluate when automated trucks would begin impacting the commercial driving workforce, 2.) to determine what extent the impacts would be on the labor market, 3.) and what the U.S. Departments of Transportation and Labor can and should be doing to assist drivers who inevitably lose their jobs.

Automated Technology Makers Target Long-Haul Trucking First

As part of GAO’s findings, the agency said the primary deployment of automated trucks will begin in the long-haul application with drivers only needed for the first and last portions of the route.

Here is an important excerpt outlining the most likely scenarios for the initial strategy of autonomous truck deployment.

Two [automated technology] developers said that in their business models a driver would be in the truck for the first and last portions of the route to assist with picking up and dropping off trailers at hubs outside urban areas.

Alternatively, one developer said a remote driver—one not in the truck but operating controls from another location—would drive the first and last portions of a route.

Stakeholders identified potential benefits of self-driving for part of a route, such as increased safety, labor cost savings, and addressing what they said is a truck driver shortage.

Research funded by industry also suggests that an automated truck could improve productivity by, for example, continuing to drive to a destination while a human in the truck conducts other work or rests.

In addition, one study noted that the most likely scenario for widespread adoption of automated trucks is the one in which trucks are capable of self-driving from exit-to-exit.

According to the GAO, we are still “decades” away from trucking stakeholders being able to replace drivers for entire routes. The report states:

None of the technology developers we interviewed told us they are planning to develop automated trucks that are self-driving for an entire route. It will be decades before large trucking operations replace their fleets of conventional trucks with trucks that self-drive for an entire route.


Coming Job Losses

For years truckers have been consistently told by stakeholders, OEMs, and automated technology developers that automated trucks will provide important “driver assist” functions and make the driving job easier and less stressful. Now, technology makers and others are beginning to sing a bit of a different tune, according to this report.

The GAO report warns up to 900,000 truck driving jobs, and potentially even more, could be lost over the course of the coming decades due to the adoption and public acceptance of autonomous trucks.


Here is another excerpt from the report that speaks to this.

Technology developers we interviewed generally predicted the number of long-haul jobs would decrease with the adoption of trucks that are self-driving for part of a route.

Drivers constitute a significant operational cost, so part of the reported economic rationale for self-driving trucks is to employ fewer drivers, allowing companies to transport the same amount of freight—or more—at lower labor costs.

Estimates in the studies we reviewed ranged from under 300,000 driver jobs lost to over 900,000 jobs lost—out of a total of nearly 1.9 million heavy and tractor-trailer truck driver jobs to BLS data—and in each case over periods of 10 to 20 years or more.

Interestingly, the GAO said stakeholders and several technology developers expressed their belief that automation would drive costs of long-haul trucking down, which would in-turn encourage shippers to ship more goods on trucks.

This new demand, they argued, would create a flood of new local driver jobs on either end of the long-haul routes, thus softening the impact of the looming job losses.


Drivers Will Exit Voluntarily Or Retire Before They Lose Their Job

Another eye-opening portion of the report is what “several stakeholders” predicted would happen before autonomous trucks replaces many long-haul truckers. According to the report, drivers will see the writing on the wall and exit before their employer hands them a pink slip.

The report reads:

Several stakeholders we spoke with agreed that any decrease in long-haul jobs would likely not affect many current drivers because most will have voluntarily left driving for a different job or retired by the time self-driving trucks are widely deployed.

What About Wages For The Truck Drivers Who Are Left?

The GAO report is not silent on what automation will do to wages of the drivers who remain. According to the report, drivers who are not displaced can expect their wages to “decrease” in both the long-haul and short-haul applications.

Why? The report states that lower demand for long-haul drivers and increased competition for short-haul jobs will likely drive wages for both applications down.


Drivers In The Southwestern States Will Be Impacted First

The GAO report also revealed geography will play a substantial role in which drivers are displaced first. According to technology developers and industry stakeholders, drivers who run the southwest states are likely to feel the affects of automation before anywhere else.

The report explains its findings this way:

Technology developers also told us they are focusing the initial development of automated trucking technology in the southwest United States because of its good weather and long highways. As a result, any future job losses could first occur there.

The GAO concluded that both the Departments of Transportation and Labor should continue to convene key stakeholders as the automated trucking technology evolves to help the agencies analyze and respond to potential workforce changes that may result.

Transportation Nation Network will continue to bring you the latest and most accurate reporting on the continued development of automated driving technologies.

Click HERE to download the entire 63-page GAO report.

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