Will Automation Reduce Trucking Jobs

By Jack Dunn, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis

The automation of jobs has become an increasingly prominent development across the entire U.S. labor force. However, the trucking industry may be affected unlike others.

What Is Labor Automation?

Labor automation is a practice that dates back centuries in our country. It can best be described as substituting technology for human labor when performing jobs or tasks. Eli Whitney’s cotton gin was able to remove the seeds from 50 pounds of cotton in a single day. Doing the job by hand only yielded about one pound of cotton per day.

Remember switchboard operators? Early telephone infrastructure used humans to link calls. Operators would manually insert phone jacks into the appropriate spot to connect calls. Those jobs are now few and far between as automatic switching has taken over.

The rise of technology and automation in the labor force has led to many great innovations, but it does have the potential to displace workers. Employees in truck driving, one of the largest occupations in the U.S., could soon face this displacement as artificial intelligence becomes a bigger presence in their field. However, the companies leading the way in automation innovation say they are not here to take jobs or threaten livelihoods, but to help.

Autonomous Driving Advances

The number of self-driving cars has been on the rise. “Market trends suggest an 11.5 percent compound average annual growth rate for advanced driver assistance systems, from about 1.8 million vehicles in 2019 to just under 6 million in 2030,” Alan Adler of trucks.com reported in a March 28, 2019, article. The article cited Navigant Research analysis.

Tesla is one automotive company leading the way in autonomous driving. According to an April 2019 AutoPilot Review article, Tesla’s autopilot feature allows the cars to drive themselves with minimal human supervision. They can also be remotely summoned and operate independently for short distances. AutoPilot Review also reported in 2022 that certain models of Ford, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Cadillac and other automobiles now have similar abilities using a functioning autopilot.

The Governors Highway Safety Association notes that 38 states and the District of Columbia have enacted legislation or issued executive orders regarding autonomous vehicles. The District of Columbia and 16 of the 38 states have authorized full deployment of the vehicles.

Companies Are Testing Self-Driving on Semis

Companies such as FedEx and TuSimple have been testing their new self-driving feature on semitrailers in the Southwestern U.S. for the past two years. These companies declare their chief goal is to create an industry that uses human drivers via a different approach, and that they do not aim to take jobs away.

“We don’t actually think self-driving trucks are going to deprive any truck drivers [of their jobs],” TuSimple founder Xiaodi Hou said in a 2019 interview with Business Insider. “I don’t think we’re going to be enemies of the truck drivers. We’re actually very good friends with the American Trucking Associations.”

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that there were nearly two million heavy and tractor-trailer truck driving jobs in the U.S. in 2020. The American Trucking Associations said in a press release last year that the industry had an all-time-high shortage of truckers in 2021, at 80,000, and that the number was likely to grow.

Asked by Business Insider what he’d say to those truckers who value the work, Hou said his company complements–and doesn’t compete with–the traditional trucking industry.

“It’ll be a very gradual thing, and truck drivers still need to [drive] trucks,” he mentioned.

Why Are Drivers Needed?

The level of autonomy in the vehicles is another important factor in automated driving. SAE International, formerly named the Society of Automotive Engineers, breaks down automated driving into five levels.

  • Level 0 reflects features that are limited to providing warnings and momentary assistance, such as emergency braking and blind spot warning.
  • Level 5 reflects features that allow the vehicle to drive under all conditions without requiring drivers to take over.

TuSimple, for example, currently focuses on level 4 technology, which allows the vehicle to operate autonomously without any human interaction under defined conditions: A human driver does not need to take over driving responsibilities in most conditions.

While truck drivers may relinquish their driving responsibilities, there are certain aspects of the job that may require human interaction, including loading and unloading trucks, engaging in customer service, updating logbooks and filling out paperwork. However, autonomous driving could handle the long-distance highway miles, leaving the drivers to take over for the short, complicated routes closer to their delivery locations.

That could ease the stress of long-hour drives for truckers, in turn allowing for safer roads and driving conditions. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration reported that 4,436 vehicle occupants were killed in large truck crashes in 2019, the most recent year reported. Relieving drivers of their long-distance driving duties could help reduce crashes and fatalities.

Long-distance autonomous truck driving could be one solution that will make our highways safer, while also allowing truck drivers to keep their jobs.

What Does the Future Hold?

The future holds countless uncertainties about the effect of using automation on the labor force. Often, when certain jobs are created, others are eliminated. The World Economic Forum estimated that 12 million more jobs will be created than eliminated by 2025 due to automation, according to an Oct. 26, 2020, article on the forum’s website.

The jobs being eliminated are normally repetitive, such as data entry, or even can be dangerous, such as assembly line manufacturing, according to the article by Mohamed Kande and Murat Sonmez. Kande is U.S. and global advisory vice chair and leader at consulting firm PwC, and Sonmez is CEO and co-founder of pulsESG Inc., a software company serving environmental, social and governance organizations. The jobs created are often ones repairing or improving upon automation already in place, such as machine learning specialists.

“The technology will also change the nature of work for many other jobs, allowing workers to focus on higher-value and higher-touch tasks that often require interpersonal interactions,” Kande and Sonmez wrote. “These newly enhanced jobs will create benefits for both businesses and individuals who will have more time to be creative, strategic and entrepreneurial.”

Overall, the complete automation of trucking is far away, but automation is advancing quickly.