Driverless trucks are on course to replace many of the best long-distance trucking jobs, while shifting the industry towards more low-wage gig jobs.
But if we take proactive steps, automation could deliver efficient freight, family-supporting jobs, and healthy communities.
While truck driving is often portrayed as one of the few remaining middle-class jobs that doesn’t require a college degree, the quality of trucking jobs varies significantly across different segments of the industry:
Truckload firms are hired by a single customer to haul a full trailer of freight, such as from a factory to a store. Truckload firms tend to pay low wages, churn through drivers new to the industry, and often misclassify their workers as independent contractors. Few of these drivers have the protections of a union.
Less-than-truckload firms and parcel companies such as UPS pick up shipments from multiple customers and combine them together at a distribution center. "Linehaul" drivers then bring the combined load to a facility near the destination, where it's sent out for delivery.
In part because these long-distance drivers are more likely to be part of a union, they typically have higher wages, better benefits, and stable careers.
Local driving jobs, particularly those driving light-duty trucks, pay significantly less than long-distance jobs. The large majority are delivery drivers for everything from express packages to flowers. These workers take home salaries that can be half of what long-distance drivers make.
The other major category of local driving jobs are at the ports, where drivers work long hours for low wages. When port drivers are contractors rather than employees, they can work the equivalent of two full-time jobs, yet be paid less than minimum wage.
Here are the four ways that automation is most likely to change trucking:
Many industry experts and developers expect that self-driving trucks will soon be able to drive autonomously on the highway, but that it will take far longer (perhaps several decades) before driverless trucks will be able to routinely navigate local streets packed with cars, pedestrians, road work, and other unexpected challenges.
Humans will also be needed to handle the many non-driving tasks — coupling tractors and trailers, fueling, inspections, paperwork, communicating with customers, loading and unloading — that drivers currently perform.
Therefore, the most likely scenario for widespread adoption involves local human drivers bringing trailers from factories or warehouses to “autonomous truck ports” (ATPs) located near major interstate exits. Here they will swap the trailers over to autonomous tractors for long stretches of highway driving. At the other end, the process will happen in reverse: a human driver will pick up the trailer at an ATP and take it to the final destination.
In this adoption scenario, self-driving trucks will be best suited for industry segments with long stretches of highway driving, minimal need for drivers to perform other tasks, and large firms with the capital and expertise to integrate new technologies. Two parts of the industry fit this bill:
The long-distance drivers who haul combined loads in these segments rarely do much more than driving, which makes their jobs vulnerable to automation. Up to 51,000 less-than-truckload drivers are at risk, plus 32,000 parcel drivers.
These drivers earn some of the highest incomes in trucking. Because they are able to make a career out of trucking, they tend to be older than the average driver, and much older than the average US worker.
Since truckload drivers travel long distances on the freeway and typically don't perform tasks like loading freight or caring for special items, their jobs are also at high risk from automation. Working conditions in this segment are arduous and turnover is high.
The combination of automation decreasing the cost of moving freight by truck, and consumers ordering more goods online and expecting rapid delivery, will likely increase the need for local drivers to:
However, these new driving jobs are likely to be far worse than the jobs that are lost. Drivers bringing loads to ATPs are likely to face conditions similar to those currently experienced by port drivers, such as low pay, long periods of unpaid waiting, and misclassification as independent contractors.
The port driving sector is rife with stories of drivers putting in 16-hour days, but losing money after paying off truck loans, company charges, and other fees. And if local drivers can only afford old and inefficient trucks, more communities are likely to suffer from the high pollution and asthma rates common in neighborhoods near ports.
Delivery drivers, meanwhile, typically take home less than half the pay of long-distance drivers. Retailers seem increasingly likely to subcontract to small firms with low pay or adopt the Amazon Flex model of treating delivery drivers as independent contractors who do not receive benefits, must use their own vehicles, and lack the right to organize for higher wages and better working conditions.
Currently, long-distance trucking firms rely on complex systems to match drivers with a series of loads, seeking to minimize miles driven without freight, while complying with limits on how long drivers can be behind the wheel.
Splitting trips between autonomous trucks that can almost constantly be on the highway and local human drivers who go home each night vastly simplifies this load matching problem. This approach is likely to lead to the “digitization” of freight, with app-based marketplaces where local drivers can select from available loads.
Digitization could significantly reduce the number of miles driven without freight, saving the trucking industry billions each year. However, the destructive competition of a digitized load-matching system could put intense downward pressure on local drivers’ earnings.
The way we move goods is going to change dramatically in the coming decades, but how new technologies make their way onto our roads — who benefits, who may be left behind, the impact on our environment — will be shaped by the response of governments, businesses, and workers across the industry.
Effective public policy can ensure that trucking evolves into a productive, high-road industry. Policymakers, collaborating with workers and industry leaders, have an opportunity to tackle some of our biggest challenges: creating good, family-supporting jobs, improving road safety, and reducing traffic congestion and carbon emissions.
Three main pillars should drive that collaboration:
Policymakers should create a Trucking Innovation and Jobs Council, bringing together diverse stakeholders across the sector — workers, employers, technologists, and policymakers — to support a 21st-century trucking workforce.
The Council would develop and implement an action plan for how industry stakeholders would fund, design, and carry out policies and programs to accomplish two goals:
Policymakers should establish a framework of strong labor standards that can shape the impact of autonomous trucks, ensuring high-quality trucking jobs now and into the future. Specific policies include:
Some of these policies have long been needed; the goal is to enact them now so that low-wage business models do not become the norm in the industry’s growth segments.
In order to ensure the best outcomes for drivers, local communities, and our transportation infrastructure, policymakers need to play an active role in guiding the industry and the development of new technology. Examples of specific policies include:
This report identifies an adoption scenario with good outcomes for workers, job quality, and public health and safety: human-led platooning, coupled with clean electric local trucks. In this scenario:
The result would be a robust, sustainable 21st-century trucking industry that broadly shares the benefits of innovation among technology developers, trucking companies, drivers, and communities.