Hardly a day goes by without someone suggesting that technologies like AI, machine learning, and robotics will transform the 21st century labor market. A prominent example of this has been in truck driving – an occupation that spans multiples industries and moves over 70% of U.S. freight by weight —which many speculate will see a widespread loss of jobs with the rise of self-driving technology. Some have forecast that autonomous vehicles will eliminate 2-3 million trucking jobs over the next several years. But in looking at the data, we believe that, while the risk of job loss from automation is very real, the projections that often get touted are overstated. In a study in the Industrial and Labor Relations Review, we argue that there are three key reasons why:
Reason #1: Truck drivers do more than drive trucks.
Let’s say autonomous technology could take care of all the driving — an assumption we’ll return to shortly — is that all truck drivers do? Clearly, no. Truck drivers perform all kinds of tasks, from checking vehicles and securing cargo, to maintaining logs and providing customer service. Many of these tasks are nowhere close to being automatable. For example, there is currently no technology available (or being widely tested) to automate the loading or unloading of trucks. The equipment that tends to be used for this (such as pallet jacks) merely helps reduce the physical burden. It’s still up to truck drivers to handle this essential job.
Next, consider customer service. While loading and unloading freight, truck drivers also typically engage in on-the-ground customer service, complementing the work of official customer service representatives. These customer service activities could be taken over by customer service reps or replaced by technology, as they have been in other industries, but until this happens, companies are going to rely on truck drivers to carry them out.
And while some tasks are closer to automation – for example, checking for unbalanced loads, low tires, and other safety problems can be performed by sensors – dealing with any issues still requires human intervention. Even if a sensor spots a flat tire, a driver will have to fix it. And other tasks that have been automated in many trucking companies, such as updating logbooks, invoices, and other paperwork, are ones that never took up that much time for truck drivers, so complete automation likely wouldn’t have substantial impact on the demand for their labor.
Reason #2: Full automation of truck driving is far into the future.
Now let’s look at the task of driving itself. Is truck driving soon to be automated? First you need to know what automated driving means. The Society of Automotive Engineers has developed the current standards, which defines automation with a range of 5 levels — from level 0, no automation, to level 5, full automation. The amount of human interaction with the vehicle decreases as you go up a level and depending on who/what controls driving functions, such as acceleration and steering.
While headlines tout the rise of self-driving trucks, these accounts tend to conflate very controlled demonstrations of level 5 (full) automation, which are rare, and adoption of technologies that are largely focused on level 2 or level 3 (partial or conditional automation), which are more common. In our study, we based our employment projections on the introduction of level 4 automation, a high automation environment that assumes the system controls driving and monitoring in some, but not all, operating conditions. We used level 4 as our benchmark, because level 5 automation, which requires the system to perform all driving and monitoring activities in all conditions, is not currently being tested in practice, and level 3 automation, which requires human intervention as the system backup, does not really threaten drivers’ jobs.
We’ve found that several companies are developing level 4 automation for autonomous trucks, seeking to demonstrate cost effectiveness by reducing the need for labor. As this technology advances, it increases the risk that some drivers will be displaced. But how many?
Most of this development is focused on automating the long-haul/interstate portion of a truck trip, not short haul or local truck moves. We estimated the proportion of trucks in the U.S. that are used for long hauls, using the Vehicle Inventory and Use Survey (VIUS), last updated in 2002. According to our computations, roughly one-quarter of all heavy trucks are used in long hauls of 201 miles or more, compared to roughly half of all heavy trucks used in relatively short ranges of operation (50 miles or less). Given that truck automation is currently targeted at these longer hauls, we are looking at potential job losses for roughly one-quarter of heavy truck drivers, or about 450,000 drivers, as the technology becomes more sophisticated and reliable over time and as regulatory obstacles are overcome. Although it’s far from the millions, this of course is still a significant number of people at risk of being displaced.
It is also likely that trucking fleet operators in certain sectors will adopt automation technology earlier than others. For example, for-hire carriers and private carriers in warehousing and transportation historically have been earlier adopters of truck technology, such as on-board computers, than those who carry their own freight in other industries. If we only focus on long haul tractor trailers in for-hire transportation and warehousing, the initial potential effects of automation would be on roughly 19% of trucks, or about 342,000 drivers.
Reason #3: There aren’t as many truck drivers in the U.S. as people think.
Though a number of articles assert that there are roughly 3 million truck drivers in the United States, in reality the amount is smaller, which means fewer jobs can be lost even in a worst-case scenario. The federal government’s Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) system has a category called “Drivers/Sales Workers and Truck Drivers”, which is further divided into three groups: “driver/sales workers”, “light truck or delivery services drivers” and “heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers.” According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 3.1 million people total are employed in these groups. However, it is clear from the SOC manual descriptions that driver/sales workers are unlikely to be truck drivers, and that “light truck or delivery services drivers” contains many jobs that do not involve driving trucks. These drivers also likely to operate in local areas and thus won’t be as vulnerable to the level 4 technology being developed for long hauls.
The “heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers” group is the only one that indicates a Commercial Driver’s License is required for the job, a typical requirement for working as a truck driver. Employment in this group was roughly 1.8 million in 2018. When we add self-employed truck drivers to this amount (they are not counted in the BLS total, but it’s estimated they are roughly 10-25% of the full count), the total employment of heavy truck drivers in the U.S. is roughly 2.4 million. And if we factor in how many of these are long-haul drivers employed in the sector most ripe for level 4 technology, and assume there are an additional 114,000 owner operators potentially affected, that brings the total number of drivers initially vulnerable to this automation to 456,000 – a much smaller number than the self-driving truck headlines suggest, but still quite a significant one. This amounts to 0.3% of the entire U.S. workforce, and is in the neighborhood of the entire number of welders, an occupation with broadly similar vocational preparation.
There are also operational and regulatory obstacles that may get in the way of level 4 technology being implemented quickly. One is that trucks break down during trips, for multiple reasons, and we don’t yet have an infrastructure in place to readily service self-driving trucks and prevent freight theft. Another challenge is that interstate trucking is a complex affair with multiple parties: The federal government sets safety standards for motor vehicles, but states license drivers and vehicles, enact traffic laws, and govern the size and weight of trucks allowed on roads, and local jurisdictions govern truck use on local streets and parking. We’re already seeing different states approach autonomous regulation in different ways, with some states restricting the use of level 4 technology. What all of these factors make clear is that we’re not going to see losses of millions of heavy truck driving jobs anytime soon.
But while the numbers are not as dire as some headlines suggest, truck driving is a very large occupation that is already experiencing significant challenges, due to business cycle fluctuations, increasingly complex supply chains and changing workforce demographics. This makes it all the more important for us to have an accurate understanding of the challenges facing the industry over the next decade, including those posed by automation.
[info from Maury Gittleman
Kristen Monaco at hbr.org]
Want to see what benefits AAOO offers to drivers to help make and save more money on the road? We offer benefits like a fuel card, load board, and health insurance? Click here to join our association today and get your first 30 days free!