By Rishi Shah, Opinion Editor
The trucking industry is a vital workforce in America with over 3.5 million drivers. The trucking industry in total, drivers and other laborers, exceeds over 8.7 million workers. This astonishing workforce is now being threatened with the ever-growing trend of self-driving vehicles.
The trucking industry took off in the 20th century after the Interstate Highway System, the extensive network consisting of freeways between many states, spread and created a new method for distributing freight. Trains and ships were the primary mode of transport but those systems were highly blocked in and did not have much room to adhere to new routes and get to emerging cities. The highway system could essentially bring loads of goods directly to the consumer without much intermediaries and had the ability to change route instantly.
According to a 2006 study, there were about 26 million trucks on the road carrying over 70% of American freight. Now, with the sudden and immediate threat of robotic vehicles taking over, the American trucking industry faces a huge hit. Companies are eager to adapt to new changes if that means saving them money. Major corporations such as Amazon, Google and Uber along with many car manufacturers are all simultaneously fine tuning this emerging technology that will save them million, if not billions.
There has also been a shortfall of adept truck drivers within the industry. There is a need of 90,000 new drivers annually but a lack of qualified workers. It is estimated that there will be a shortfall of over 50,000 drivers this year. With that being said, companies are racing to mitigate this damage and loss of sales caused by the slowing workforce. The shortage of drivers is “a huge inducement for the development of autonomous and fully driverless trucks (and other vehicles),” said David Cole, director-emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan (NBC). This technology can easily replace the driver who spends an average of 11-14 hours a day driving. One can blame the labor force for not picking up these jobs but it is obvious that the threat of an industry being wiped out is keeping many from taking on these jobs. Companies are scrambling to perfect this technology as workers look for other opportunities.
Self-driving trucks are not a thing of the future either. It is happening now. In 2016, Budweiser sent a truck carrying 45,000 cans of beer from their plant to their warehouse about a 120 miles away in Colorado. The twist? There was no human behind the wheel. This experiment proved that this technology can inevitably replace human drivers and companies are expecting to roll out these robotic vehicles within the next decade (3-5 years from now). This is a massive change as millions of workers face unemployment.
Although there will not be an immediate loss of drivers, there will be a massive learning curve. Each autonomous vehicle will be expected to carry a specialist that will be there as a fail-safe precaution. Though there are many employed truckers, most are not aware of this technology nor are well adept in the field. There will be a new industrial standard and many will have to go through extra steps to be qualified to serve in a robotic vehicle.
With much cheaper labor costs, safer roads and extended periods of work, I strongly believe that self driving trucks are going to tear apart a historic American trucking industry.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, November 7th print edition.
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