USDOT Says Driverless Trucks Likely To Replace Long-Haul Truckers First, Reduce Wages
Washington D.C. – The United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) is providing truckers a possible glimpse into the future regarding the impacts of Automated Driving Systems (ADS).
In a recently released 91-page report entitled Driving Automation Systems in Long-Haul Trucking and Bus Transit, the USDOT in conjunction with the Departments of Labor (DOL), Commerce, and Health and Human Services, put forward a series of findings related to the expected impacts from widespread adoption of ADS within the trucking industry.
Transportation Nation Network has thoroughly reviewed the findings (so you don’t have to) and compiled seven of the biggest takeaways below.
1. Profit Motive Driving Push to Deploy Self-Driving Trucks
Proponents of ADS often tout benefits to public safety as the primary reason for widespread adoption of these technologies.
While the safety benefits promised by those pushing for adoption of ADS are far from proven in real-world applications, the USDOT’s report also identifies another objective as well.
“The primary economic motivation for investing in additional (e.g., Level 5) capabilities is to remove the need for a driver on a truck and thereby reduce costs,” the report states.
The USDOT asserts trucking fleets will realize savings through reduced labor costs and “improvements in vehicle utilization as they (presumably) would not require rest periods or meal breaks.”
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Further, the report explains “trucking firms could also realize direct cost savings from reduced repair and maintenance costs, insurance premiums, and vehicle downtime” and “could decrease fuel costs by optimizing throttle and brake controls to minimize fuel burn.”
2. Mega Carriers Will Be First Fleets to Adopt
“New forms of driving automation would likely first be adopted by the large trucking firms,” the USDOT report states. “Smaller trucking firms are likely to begin adopting driving automation when equipped trucks are sold into the secondhand market, but the adoption rate would lag the adoption rate of large firms.”
In addition, large carriers will be most strategically well-positioned to “negotiate bulk discounts” on the technology and may have lower borrowing costs than smaller trucking firms, including owner-operators.
However, the USDOT expects adoption costs to be sizable since “these complex systems may be more expensive to maintain than their conventional, human-driver systems, further increasing adoption costs.”
3. Long-Haul and Team Driving Jobs Will Be Impacted First
According to the USDOT, the impact of automation in trucking will be felt in short-haul and regional operations, but is likely to be initially most disruptive to long-haul driving jobs.
“The size of the current long-haul workforce most likely to be impacted by the potential adoption of Level 4 or 5 automation in the coming decades is approximately 300,000 to 500,000 jobs,” the report said.
The USDOT explained that long-haul driving is “less-complex” than other segments and thus, self-driving technology developers are honed in on displacing drivers in this segment first.
Moreover, the report identifies long-haul team drivers to be most at risk of displacement in the early adoption of ADS.
“If a human driver remained onboard a Level 4 vehicle, the ADS could allow for the faster delivery times currently associated with team driving while incurring the labor costs associated with just a single driver,” the report states. “In this case, the ADS could take over for highway driving while the human driver rests in the back of a sleeper cab.”
Plus, long-haul drivers have fewer “non-driving responsibilities” than short-haul drivers which make replacing the driver more feasible.
4. Domino Disruption Effect Resulting From “Downward Pressure” on Long-Haul Driver Wages
During the transition period to widespread fleet adoption of Level 4 and 5 autonomous trucks, there “may be downward pressure on long-haul driver wages, as demand for drivers declines compared to driver supply,” the USDOT report said.
This likely would result in causing some current and former long-haul drivers to search for higher paying driving jobs, and thus, shift the disruption to both the regional and short-haul segments, as well as into specialized areas such as hazardous materials, over-dimensional loads, automobile transport, refrigerated/perishables, and cross-border freight.
Additionally, the USDOT expects “some former long-haul drivers will transition to jobs as local delivery drivers for the last mile of automated long-haul movements, similar to port truck driving.”
The Department also noted “port truck drivers are among the very lowest-paid heavy-truck drivers.”
5. Demographics of Truck Driving Labor Force Will Make Transition “Difficult”
According to the USDOT, the average age of the professional truck driving force is 48.
Other surveys show this number to be as high as 58.
Additionally, USDOT data indicates 51% of truckers have a high school education, while 16% have less than that.
The USDOT asserts that the combination of an aging workforce and “lower educational attainment” suggests that “transitioning to other careers may be difficult” for many of these drivers.
While the DOL intends to retrain those displaced, the USDOT concedes “many of the alternative blue-collar jobs that would be available have higher physical demands,” making it much more difficult for older workers.
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Specifically, since automation will likely “increase in the productivity of the trucking sector,” the USDOT says it could result in a surge in job demand in the retail, agriculture, manufacturing, and construction sectors.
6. Drivers Exiting the Industry and “Gradual” ADS Adoption Could Limit Mass Layoffs
The USDOT report outlines two factors that could limit mass job layoffs.
“The introduction of driving automation systems is likewise expected to be gradual, requiring testing of new technologies and the turnover of the existing vehicle fleet,” the report states. “During the transition, some drivers will retire, and other workers will choose different occupations. Natural attrition will likely mitigate potential driver unemployment.”
7. “Highly Uncertain” When Significant Industry Disruption Will Occur
The USDOT said that “vast uncertainty” remains about the “precise forecast” of the number of trucking jobs that will be replaced by driverless technologies in both the short and long-terms.
However, the Department indicated ADS is not an “imminent” threat to truck drivers.
“These technologies are not yet commercially available,” the USDOT stated. “Once on the market, they would require a period of testing before they become widely accepted in the trucking and transit industries.”
Further, the report concludes “new paradigms and service models” could emerge that will make it even more challenging to identify future workforce impacts.
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