An Uber Fairy Tale

February 8, 2018

John Bendel

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The Uber folks say that self-driving trucks will create more truck driving jobs.

Yes, that’s every bit as goofy as it sounds.

Uber claims it has been researching the impact of self-driving trucks on truck driver employment. In a web blog, Uber says they “worked with economists and industry experts to better understand the potential economic implications of self-driving trucks and the transfer hub model.” Driverless trucks would linehaul between these hubs along the interstates. Human drivers would take over from there.

To be fair, Uber says this is just one of nine scenarios in the study, though it is the only one described in the blog.

OK, so Uber removes linehaul drivers. Those jobs go away. Bye-bye. How does that create more driving jobs?

It doesn’t, of course, not in the real world. But this is Uber World. Here’s how Uber sees it:

“The deployment of self-driving trucks improves efficiency on long-haul routes, lowering the overall cost of trucking and reducing the total cost of the goods being shipped. When goods are cheaper, consumers buy more of them. And when consumers buy more, more new goods need to be shipped than before, which drives truck freight volume up.

“When 1 million self-driving trucks are operating on highways, we would expect to see close to 1 million jobs shift from long haul to local haul, plus about 400,000 new truck driving jobs.”

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Excuse me?

Remember that Uber is in the autonomous truck business, and like everyone in that space, they play down the job losses their driverless trucks would cause. Sure, self-driving trucks are supposed to be safer, a clear economic benefit. But that’s not why so many profit-making companies are piling into the business.

Carriers with self-driving trucks would save on driver pay. More importantly, they will be able to run a driverless truck around the clock. No ELD needed. Linehaul gets a lot cheaper. And, by the way, whoever wins the self-driving truck race sells a lot of driverless trucks.

Daimler was the first to make a splash in 2014 when they demonstrated an autonomous truck in Germany. The driver was reading a newspaper, but he was there behind the wheel. Daimler went far out of its way to assure everyone they had no intentions of replacing drivers – only helping them out. Other companies have made similar claims. They’re all trying to avoid public relations blow-back.

But no one is trying quite as hard as Uber is here.

I have no problem with Uber Freight, the load matching service, or with the Uber autonomous truck effort inherited from the now-defunct company Otto. And the folks whose study says losing 1 million linehaul drivers will mean the creation of 1.4 million new driving jobs? Hey, they’re just doing their jobs. But that does not change the ludicrous result of that study. It’s undiluted rubbish even in their own fantastical terms.

According to the U.S. DOT, transportation accounts for about 9% of consumer goods prices. Even if losing 1 million linehaul drivers reduced consumer prices by the entire 9%, would folks actually behave as Uber projects? Would they buy like mad and keep buying? How many snow blowers and plasma TVs can a household use?

But prices can’t be reduced by the whole 9%, not even close. A recent poll reported in Transport Topics says manufacturers believe wide deployment of driverless trucks could save up to 25% of their trucking costs over all – an overestimate in my view. Nevertheless, let’s say that brings the potential driverless discount down to 2.75%. Is that enough to trigger a long-term buying spree that would meet Uber’s projection? All by itself? Could deleting 1 million jobs in a workforce of more than 234 million – less than half of one percent – have that much impact on the economy?

Maybe in the heart of an algorithm trying to please the people who coded it.

Could organic economic growth over an extended period make up for the loss of linehaul drivers with different driving jobs – more people, more demand, more jobs? Sure. But in the driverless trucking world envisioned by Uber and others, it’s not at all likely.

And then there’s the immutable logic that says you can’t create driving jobs by eliminating driving jobs.

But thank you, Uber, for the rosy scenario. We all enjoy a good fairy tale.

John Bendel

John Bendel is Land Line’s contributing editor-at-large. A former trucker, former editor at National Lampoon, and longtime truck writer, John is an author, photographer, and freelancer for New York Times. There’s more, but in short, his insight and matchless style of writing makes “Gizmos and Gears” a runaway reader favorite.