Self-driving trucks will impact trucking jobs, report says.

March 12, 2021

Tyson Fisher

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A study conducted by the U.S. Department of Transportation looking into how self-driving trucks may affect the workforce suggests an uncertain future for truckers.

Earlier this year the U.S. DOT, in partnership with the Department of Labor, Department of Commerce and the Department of Health and Human Services, released a report to Congress titled “Driving Automation Systems in Long-Haul Trucking and Bus Transit: Preliminary Analysis of Potential Workforce Impacts.” Essentially, the federal government wants to know what will happen to trucking jobs once self-driving trucks are available.

Specifically, the report looks at the impact of self-driving trucks on the long-haul trucking sector. The report also focuses on Level 4 and 5 automation. Level 4 automation will allow a truck to mostly drive itself, whereas Level 5 technology eliminates the need for a human driver completely. Level 1 and 2 automated technologies are already in trucks, including automatic emergency braking and lane-keeping systems. Since Level 1-3 automation requires a driver at all times, they are not expected to displace trucking jobs.

How will self-driving trucks affect the career of truck driver?

According to the report, self-driving trucks will not happen anytime soon. In fact, effects on the labor market will likely take place over the span of several decades. This is somewhat good news for many current truckers given the average age.

The study has the average age of a trucker at 48. However, research from the OOIDA Foundation puts that number a decade higher at 58. Either way, the report points out that many current drivers will be at or near retirement age within the next decade. Consequently, this “natural turnover” is expected to reduce the amount of involuntary job losses caused by self-driving trucks.

For those who will still be driving when Level 4 and 5 self-driving trucks are available, the situation gets a bit more complicated.

To start, new jobs are expected to be created. The report speculates that self-driving trucks will likely lower freight costs and increase productivity, leading to greater economic activity and more jobs in the transportation and logistics industries. The Department of Labor offers retraining programs that help displaced workers adapt to new technologies and market conditions.

Perhaps the biggest issue truckers will face when self-driving trucks replace drivers is finding a job with equivalent pay. About 7% of truckers have a college degree. Truck driving is known to offer a middle-class income for those without a college degree.

Known as an “opportunity occupation,” trucking is the second-largest such occupation after nursing.

One job replacement mentioned is last-mile deliveries. However, those trucking jobs often pay less. Finding other jobs with a similar median income of nearly $44,000 will prove to be difficult for displaced truckers, the report states.

However, the report does not dive into more specialized truck freight like hazmat, over-dimensional loads, auto transport, refrigerated and cross-border. A variety of additional factors such as regulatory requirements and nondriving tasks could slow down job displacement in those areas.

Currently, there are between 300,000 and 500,000 long-haul truck drivers, according to the report. Whether or not that number will go up, down or remain stagnant by the time drivers are being replaced by self-driving trucks is unknown. Assuming that widespread adoption of Level 4 and 5 is decades away and likely to be a gradual transition, younger drivers can anticipate reduced demand for driving jobs and adjust accordingly. That combined with retirements and driver turnovers will absorb some involuntary job losses.

Look for a more in depth analysis of the report in the May issue of Land Line Magazine. LL

Related stories:

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Two studies reveal how far away we are from fully automated vehicles

When can we buy self-driving vehicles? No one knows

Tyson Fisher joined Land Line Magazine in March 2014. An award-winning journalist and tireless researcher, his news reports, features and blogs bring depth to our editorial content, backed with solid detail. Tyson is a lifelong Kansas Citian.