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Man Vs. Machine: The self-driving Conundrum 

The ongoing debate between the fate of trucking jobs when self-driving trucks roll out is ongoing. The popular rumor is that the new technology is going to force many drivers to the unemployment line, negating the usefulness of the human element. As we’ve been seeing a rise in automation across the entire industry, from warehouse order selection to robots carrying packages, automated trucking seems to be the next logical step for the industry.  

 “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.  

 Yet while some are crying out that robots will replace the need for human workers, there are many that believe that simply isn’t the case. In fact, there are many in the industry, government, and academic settings that believe that automated trucking will not take away from trucking jobs, but add to them instead.  

 Not So “Driverless” 

In the “automated doomsday” scenario that many envision coming from driverless trucks, the picture a truck that can run from dock to dock, without the need for human intervention or guidance. In Uber’s vision of the self-driving truck, the truck will handle the miles of highways that stretch between what Uber calls “transfer hubs.” From there, the human driver will take over to handle the more complex task of navigating both urban and industrial terrain. So rather than the truck driver being completely replaced by a robotic counterpart, they will instead work together as a team.  

 Woodrow and the Uber team have created a model based on the Bureau of Labor Statistics data, to see what would happen if self-driving trucks did hit the market with any considerable force. This new model what would happen if 25, 50, and 70 percent of the current trucking fleet in the U.S. became automated. The end result is this: if automated trucks are widely adopted and utilized correctly, freight costs will drop. With the decrease in cost, demand will begin to increase and create more business. With more freight on the road, there will be an even greater need for drivers to navigate through the local settings meaning more trucking jobs, not fewer.  

A Counter-Narrative  

Despite Ubers optimistic view of the self-driving scenario, there are still many who believe that automated trucks will be ruinous to the livelihood of drivers everywhere. Goldman Sachs made an audacious prediction that we would see a loss in trucking jobs at a rate of 25,000 per month to a grand total of 1.5 possible jobs lost over the next decade. The ITF said that we could see a cumulative loss of close to 2 million jobs in both the U.S. and Europe due to automated trucking by 2030. It would seem that the closer we get to automated deployment the more dire these predictions become. However, those within the industry take a much more practical or skeptical stance on the matter. Their argument, much like Uber’s, is that truckers do a lot more than just drive down long expanses of highways. The skill sets acquired by veteran truck drivers cover a wide range of skills and abilities that allow them to do more than simply drive in a more or less straight line.  

 “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.”  

 Rajkovacz points out that if a self-driving truck breaks down on the road, the company has no other option but to send a tow truck out to haul it to the closest mechanic to get it up and running again. However, with a human driver on board, there are a number of basic fixes that can be done which could make the difference between a long delay or a short one. More than fixing a problem when it happens, drivers know how to perform preventative maintenance which can stop an issue long before it ever becomes an actual problem.  

The Ever Growing Driver Shortage  

The real issue that the trucking industry will be facing is that there is a dwindling amount of drivers on the road today. There simply aren’t enough people that are willing to take up the sacrifices necessary for long-haul driving and most of the dedicated veterans in the industry are approaching retirement age. This means that automated trucking is something of a double-edged sword. On one side, automated trucking will potentially drive up the need for more drivers as demand increases. On the other side, automated trucking could drastically improve the quality of life for truck drivers which might entice more young people to take up the wheel to make their living.  

There are, of course, a number of changes in both practice and policy that will be required to make automated trucking both acceptable and efficient. Will automated trucks take away from human jobs? Most likely not. Will there be enough drivers to handle the potential increase in demand from the new technology. Unlikely. But forging the middle ground between the two will very likely yield some incredible results, both for the quality of life for the driver, and the efficiency of the industry as a whole.    

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