Heartland Tech Weekly: Preparing the trucking industry for driverless vehicles

Last week, I attended an event hosted by The Atlantic on the future of work. One of the discussions centered around autonomous trucking — whether driverless trucks are really just years away from being deployed on the roads, and how to prepare drivers for an industry poised to experience technological disruption.

After the event, I followed up with the panelists — Hilary Cain, Director of Technology and Innovation Policy at Toyota, and Jay Lim, VP of Workforce Development Policy at the American Trucking Association. They’re both members of the Partnership for Transportation, Innovation and Opportunity (PTIO), a group formed in the summer to explore the potential implications of autonomous technology on the future of work.

One of the things we talk about a lot here in the Heartland tech section is the potential for automation to both destroy jobs, and create new ones. So I wanted to press Cain and Lim further on the idea of how trucking jobs will look different thanks to automation. Both of them think that it will still be a couple decades before driverless trucks are widely deployed on the roads — but that it’s important to start thinking now about developing new workforce training programs.

What’s interesting about the trucking industry is that it’s already facing hiring challenges — the trucking industry is expected to have a shortage of 50,000 workers by the end of 2018. Additionally, 890,000 drivers are expected to retire over the next decade, the consequence of having an older workforce — the average age of the trucker is 49, 7 years older than that of the average American worker. Lim told me that when the ATA typically surveys students and other potential recruits to understand their hesitations or conceptions about the trucking industry, automation isn’t one of top three concerns.

“It’s more concerns about being away from home, or some people just don’t know what truck drivers do, and there’s a social stigma that affects a lot of the people that we’re trying to recruit and their parents — their parents don’t necessarily want their children to go into a blue collar industry, much less trucking,” Lim told VentureBeat.

PTIO is eager to talk about how in trucking — like in other industries — automation will eliminate routine tasks, while placing a greater reliance on soft skills. Both Cain and Lim say that there’s already a “a wide array of non-driving duties that truckers perform on a daily basis” like securing cargo, conducting pre-trip and post-trip inspections, interacting with shippers and receivers, weighing loads, that they believe truckers will still need to do even if they no longer need to drive the vehicle.

But while autonomous vehicle developers and trucking executives have ideas on what new types of skills will be valued, no one really knows for certain what new types of jobs will be created. That limits some of the work that can be done now to develop the necessary workforce training programs.

Still, PTIO is forging ahead — the group has held listening sessions over the summer and through the fall with local employers, politicians and other stakeholders to lay the groundwork necessary to create scalable training programs. They’re finding that collaboration is key — something that likely won’t come as a surprise to the readers of this newsletter. But just because certain groups know they have to work together, doesn’t make the road ahead any more smooth.

“What we are noticing is that successful workforce development programs in various industries inevitably include strong collaboration between the private sector and the education community,” Cain told VentureBeat. “These two groups will need to work together to better align education and training programs with careers pathways.”

What do you think trucking jobs will look like in the age of automation?  If you live in a state with a large trucking industry — what are your thoughts on what’s needed to prepare workers to deal with automation? You can also sign up here for VentureBeat’s Heartland Tech newsletter to get this column in your inbox weekly.

As always, thanks for reading, and send me your thoughts via email.

Anna Hensel
Heartland Tech Reporter