Why Self-Driving Trucks Won’t Replace Drivers
The prospect of automated technology has sent ripples across most industries, but hauliers have had to hear more about it than others. Self-driving trucks were first tested last year, Tesla’s electric semi comes with an Autopilot feature, and Uber’s self-driving freight division is underway. These unprecedented developments sounded alarm bells, with speculations of job losses circulating in the media. But hauliers have long been sceptical about the ability of automated technology to replace human labour. Now, experts and researchers are saying self-driving trucks could actually be positive for lorry drivers.
Here’s their take.
There’s more to trucking than just driving
As any lorry driver knows, there is much more to the job than the act of driving. Hauliers are also responsible for maintenance of the vehicle on the road, checking the brakes and air hose, dealing with people and paperwork, loading and unloading—the list goes on. Those tasks are not easily automated. For example, if a lorry were to break down in a secluded location, the driver need only hop out, make the necessary quick repairs and carry on. But a driverless truck in the same situation would require the costly transfer of yet another maintenance truck onsite to fix it. Self-driving technology simply cannot handle those kinds of eventualities, making human monitoring crucial. Just as most airplanes are auto-piloted but require a certified human pilot, automated trucks will need to be supervised by licensed truckers.
Automation will improve drivers’ lives
It’s no secret road transport is suffering from a shortage of professional hauliers and part of the issue comes down to young people’s poor image of the sector. The job itself is also a difficult one: the physical strain of long hours on the road, extended periods of time spent away from family, and economically difficult. Many young people are unwilling to put up with that, while the aging workforce is taking retirement earlier than usual. Theoretically, self-driving trucks could eliminate many of those issues, by putting less pressure on the driver. For example, a long-haul driver of an automated truck could set the speed for lower fuel consumption, take a nap for an hour on the journey, then take over again once rested. By improving the quality conditions and other aspects of driving, new entrants will likely be more drawn to the career option.
Self-driving trucks will create more jobs
Self-driving trucks also imply higher productivity. For one, they are linked to a huge increase in safety, with fewer accidents. Automated trucks are also better for traffic thanks to a convoy strategy called platooning and they provide better fuel economy. Efficiency is also a factor: theoretically, drivers could multi-task by taking care of back-office work right inside the cab as it is rolling. In the US market, Uber is predicting that “if the self-driving trucks are used far more efficiently, it would drive down the cost of freight, which would stimulate demand, leading to more business.” Their view is that “growth for self-driving trucks will therefore mean growth for truck drivers”. Hopefully, this will also mean an increase of wages. Though new skills would be required to operate an automatic truck, the hope is that it would also be a more accessible job, with one of the biggest reasons for lack of new entrants being stringent regulations, as well as the high cost and difficulty of getting a license, which many see as not worth the struggle.
It’s not likely we will see completely autonomous trucks on the UK roads soon, as self-driving lorries still have not passed the testing stage. For this reason, research on the topic of automation and its impact on lorry drivers is still limited as the effects have yet to be shown in practice. But even if driverless trucks were to be rolled out tomorrow, mass consequences for current jobs would likely not kick in for decades. Whatever the future holds, all signs seem to point to increased automation.