The Driverless Future May Solve the Truck Driver Shortage

by Gina Sbarbaro

With the successful test drive of a self-driving semi from Los Angeles to Jacksonville, the trucking industry is going to see some major changes. This technology has the potential to make a major impact, since the trucking industry brings in annual revenue of over 7 billion dollars and makes up over 81% of the entire revenue of the commercial transportation industry. Compared to train, plane, and boat transportation, the trucking industry made up sixty-five percent of all freight transportation in North America in 2016.

San Francisco start-up Embark Trucks announced that the 2,400 mile coast-to-coast trip was completed in five days for “hours at a time with no disengagements.” The autonomous technology located inside the truck relies on cameras and sensors to avoid obstacles, collect data, and map its surroundings. On this trip, a driver did sit behind the wheel of the truck in case any issues arose. Embark’s long-term goal is to create an autonomous truck that is self-driving on freeways, but needs manual guidance to travel through small towns or cities and to get on and off exits. While this technology would help the trucks cover more distance in a shorter time, the limits on the technology would also allow truck drivers to keep their jobs.

But it’s hard to imagine with this growing technology that all 7.3 million trucking related jobs in the U.S. are really safe. While Embark currently promises job security by ensuring the trucks need human drivers for specific tasks, as the technology continues to develop in both trucks and cars, it is not a stretch to say the roads may soon be occupied with self-driving vehicles that do not require human assistance. Perhaps the majority of the 7.3 million jobs will be safe, since there remains a need for unloaders, warehouse staff, and administration. However, the 3.5 million jobs currently occupied by the truck drivers themselves are in danger.

The median annual salary for truck drivers is $40,000, while truckers that work for private companies can make over $70,000 a year. Eliminating these jobs could save companies millions of dollars while simultaneously creating safer roads, saving on fuel, and increasing speed of delivery. However, as advancements continue to take place, keeping drivers employed becomes challenging.

Nevertheless, a compelling reason to implement the technology is the driver shortage. With more than 70% of goods consumed in the US moved by truck, it appears that the industry is full of available jobs.  In fact, as recently as January 2018, there was a need for almost 900,000 more drivers. This shortage is not a new problem and has been an issue for the past 15 years. In addition to the many safety and efficiency benefits that self-driving semis offer—and Embark’s plan to keep truckers employed—the combined circumstances suggest it is just a matter of time until the benefits favor advancing the technology to create fully-independent self-driving semis.

As for Embark Trucks, the company will continue developing its autonomous technology and plans to install the technology in 40 more trucks by the end of 2018.

*Disclaimer: The Colorado Technology Law Journal Blog contains the personal opinions of its authors and hosts, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of CTLJ.