Self-Driving Technology Can’t Come Fast Enough for Trucking Industry

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  • Most drivers aren't comfortable with the prospect of self-driving cars filling our roads. A survey conducted by AAA found that around 75 percent of drivers would be afraid of riding in an autonomous vehicle. For consumers, the idea of placing complete trust in an as-yet unproven technology is simply a bridge too far. It's a logical skepticism, one that shows manufacturers face a difficult task in proving the safety of their autonomous vehicles.

    But while consumers and drivers are reluctant to embrace the driverless car mania, businesses across the country are eagerly awaiting the day that humans are no longer in control of their vehicles. Automakers, for example, want to be the first to release these vehicles onto the marketplace and to dominate sales. Companies like Uber and Lyft that provide rides to customers also see the potential for making larger profits by eliminating labor costs.

    However, the group that will likely benefit the most from completely autonomous vehicles is the trucking industry. Like ridesharing companies, shippers stand to save an incredible amount of money by eliminating driver pay from their equations.

    Big Trucking is Looking for a Cure for Labor Problems

    Automated tractor-trailers would solve an ongoing problem in the trucking industry. For years, shippers have complained of a truck-driver shortage, a shortfall in the number of drivers available to meet their shipping demands. The American Trucking Association, a group representing the interests of shippers, said in 2015 that the industry was short 48,000 drivers, a shortage that the ATA estimates could swell to 175,000 by 2024.

    Demands for shippers have increased over recent years, and that trend is expected to continue in the years to come. Consumer spending has been driving that increase. The trucking industry accounts for nearly 70 percent of freight tonnage moved in the United States, so organizations point to the truck driver shortage as a problem that will be felt by all Americans, particularly consumers.

    The industry also says that driver pay is "quickly becoming the largest operational cost for trucking companies." The American Transportation Research Institute said that 34 percent of trucking's operational costs per mile is driver pay. The industry says that the shortage will necessitate higher wages, which means higher costs for shippers.

    Imagine the excitement on the part of the trucking industry, which could significantly reduce the costs of their operations by cutting out or at least greatly reducing the expense of driver pay. If self-driving vehicles live up to the promise of dramatically reducing the number of crashes - as we all hope they do - then shippers can also save money by reducing the expense of damage to their vehicles, injuries to their drivers and legal costs stemming from crash-related lawsuits.

    Problems of Their Own Making

    No one begrudges the trucking industry for reveling in the hopes of a driverless future. Automation has become a common theme in many industries in the United States. If technology breeds efficiency and saves costs for companies, it eventually becomes adopted.

    Typically, the people hit the hardest by adoption of automation are the workers, as is evidenced by the automated and exported jobs in the manufacturing sector of our economy. While it would be easy to see driverless trucks as a natural evolution that many industries have experienced, there is an important caveat as it applies to trucking companies.

    The shortage of truck drivers, at least in the narrative of industry leaders, is portrayed as the byproduct of forces beyond the control of trucking companies. The economic rebound after the Great Recession and the aging trucker workforce are both commonly cited reasons for trucking's labor woes. But the truth is a little more complicated than that.

    The trucking industry bears much of the responsibility for their inability to retain workers. Over the past several decades, truck driver pay has failed to meet the standards of job candidates. If truck drivers were paid today what they had been paid in 1980, the inflation-adjusted annual salary would be over $110,000. Instead, it currently pays just $40,000, according to one analyst.

    Additionally, whereas truck driving was once a union job with good benefits, the truck drivers of today are often classified as independent contractors. They enjoy fewer benefits, experience high rates of turnover and often carry costs that used to be footed by employers.

    To understand the current state of labor in the trucking industry, you must consider the mass deregulation that occurred in the late 1970s. Deregulation led to the creation of more trucking companies, which thus created more competition among companies and drove down wages for drivers. The stability and lure of truck driving jobs have been declining ever since.

    Trucking companies don't pay truckers enough to make up for the grueling demands of the job. Truck drivers spend long stretches of time away from home. The days are long. The conditions are often less than desirable. To attract qualified candidates, employers must make the job more desirable, either by improving work conditions or paying more, or both.

    Could Self-Driving Vehicles Save the Day?

    In the face of labor problems in the trucking industry, self-driving technology offers great promise to employers. Automation could offer trucking companies the option of not addressing the issue of rising wages, which would be necessary to compete with other industries in the labor market.

    But there's still a long way to go before driverless vehicles populate our roads. Experts in the trucking industry often say that the evolution will take place gradually. Trucks will become more automated, requiring less effort on the part of a driver. Some believe that even when trucks drive themselves throughout the course of shipment, a human being will still be in the driver's seat in case of emergencies.

    Of course, this is mostly speculation at this point. But as we learn from the never-ending stream of headlines about self-driving cars, automated technology will be here soon enough. When it does, you can be sure that those with the most to gain will be quick to embrace automation. Chief among those will be shippers.

    In the meantime, drivers are hoping that trucking companies look for more immediate answers to their driver shortage. When companies cultivate a workforce that is inexperienced, unsuited for the job and unsatisfied with their work conditions, their job performance suffers. When that dissatisfied workforce operates the largest vehicles on our roads, their problems also become the problem of all drivers.

    We should also hope that companies with a vested interest in self-driving technology don't act hastily when putting this technology on our roads. Most Americans view driverless vehicles with a healthy dose of skepticism, but all are hoping that their fears will be unfounded.

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