Alexis C. Madrigal is a staff writer at The Atlantic. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology.
That’s what a new study from Uber’s self-driving-truck team says, and a variety of trucking experts think they might be right.
The outlook for trucking jobs has been grim of late. Self-driving trucks, several reports and basic logic have suggested, are going to wipe out truckers. Trucking is going to be the next great automation bloodbath.
But a counter-narrative is emerging: No, skeptics in the industry, government, academia are saying, trucking jobs will not be endangered by autonomous driving, and in the brightest scenarios, as in new research by Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group, there may be an increase in trucking jobs as more self-driving vehicles are introduced.
“We’ve been disappointed over the last year to see a lot of stories about how self-driving trucks are going to be this huge problem for truck drivers,” says Alden Woodrow, the product lead for self-driving trucks at Uber. “That’s not at all what we think the outcome is going to be.”
For one, Uber does not believe that self-driving trucks will be doing “dock to dock” runs for a very long time. They see a future in which self-driving trucks drive highway miles between what they call transfer hubs, where human drivers will take over for the last miles through complex urban and industrial terrain.
For that reason, Woodrow says that he saw their version of self-driving trucks as complementing humans, not replacing them. To make their case, Uber created a model of the industry’s labor market based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Then, they created scenarios that looked at a range of self-driving-truck adoption rates and how often those autonomous trucks would be on the road in comparison to human-driven vehicles.
Their numbers for autonomous-truck adoption are intentionally very aggressive, Woodrow says, corresponding to 25, 50, and 70 percent of today’s trucks being self-driven. These do not reflect an Uber prediction that between 500,000 and 1.5 million self-driving trucks will be on the road by 2028, but rather they allow the model to show the dynamics in the labor market that might result from widespread adoption. “Imagine that self-driving trucks are incredibly successful and impactful,” he says. “What would that mean?”
The other set of numbers in the model—the utilization rate of the self-driving trucks—is the component that leads Uber to a different analysis of the effect that these vehicles will have on truckers. Basically, if the self-driving trucks are used far more efficiently, it would drive down the cost of freight, which would stimulate demand, leading to more business. And, if more freight is out on the roads, and humans are required to run it around local areas, then there will be a greater, not lesser, need for truck drivers.
“If you believe the [automation] narrative that’s out there today, it is especially counterintuitive,” Woodrow says, “because the more self-driving trucks you have and the higher utilization they have, the more jobs it creates.”
This is not the story that’s prevailed in the last couple of years. Goldman Sachs, for example, predicted trucker job losses of 25,000 per month as self-driving trucks roll out. McKinsey Global Institute put out a report with the possibility of 1.5 million jobs lost in trucking over the next 10 years. The International Transport Forum proposed that 2 million American and European truckers could be directly displaced by 2030.
Truckers, in fact, have become the go-to example for people who should be worried about robots taking their jobs. The technology for highway driving is very close to deployment, and therefore, these reports have assumed, the humans in the trucks will not be necessary soon.
But people within the trucking industry have always been far more skeptical about the potential for job displacement. They have argued that truckers don’t just drive on highways. These jobs, in fact, require a wide variety of skills and the ability to operate in a host of unusual physical and social environments.
“There are so many things a driver does,” says Joe Rajkovacz, the director of governmental affairs and communications at the Western States Trucking Association. “I just don’t believe that you’re ever going to see, at least in the world that’s imagined right now, this fully autonomous truck without anyone in it.” For example, he pointed out that if a self-driving truck breaks down a hundred miles from nowhere, a company would have to send a tow truck out into the vast spaces of the American West, whereas an onboard driver or operator could make a variety of basic fixes and continue the trip.
Uber’s Woodrow agrees that drivers do an astonishing variety of things beyond driving. In his first days on the job, after arriving at Uber from Alphabet’s X research wing, he took a ride from Stockton to a cannery with a load of tomatoes, taking notes along the way about what the drivers he encountered were doing. “The drivers are getting in and out of the truck. They are moving axles. They are checking brakes, checking air hoses. They are talking to people. Building a self-driving truck is not just about finding a way to have the truck drive in a straight line on a highway,” he says. “There is so much to be done there before you get anywhere near being able to do the things that truck drivers are doing in an industrial facility or even on surface streets.”
Over time, Rajkovacz has become a believer that the technology could make truckers’ lives better, not necessarily by changing where they drive, but how. “In a perfect world, I could hop in the bunk in Salt Lake City, optimize my speed settings for fuel economy, literally set it at 55, and say, ‘I’m taking my siesta,’ wake back up, and take over in Reno,” he says. “I get that people think I’m smoking bird shit, but that’s what we are ultimately talking about with this technology.”
Making truckers’ lives better seems like it should be the major focus for trucking companies. The industry regularly promotes that there is a huge shortage of truck drivers. They don’t tend to mention that’s because the jobs are so hard—physically, emotionally, and economically—that the industry is approaching 100 percent turnover per year, according to Steve Viscelli, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania and author of The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream. “The labor case for self-driving trucks is really pretty good,” Viscelli says. “You got this crappy job that no one really wants to do long-term.”
People can be away from their families for 200 days a year. Most young people are not willing to make that trade-off. So, right now, and in the foreseeable future as the trucking workforce continues to age, there are likely to be too few drivers, not too many.