|What Does Tesla's Automated Truck Mean for Truckers?|
On Thursday night, Elon Musk rolled out Tesla's biggest gizmo yet: a fully electric semitruck. The Semi can go a whopping 500 miles between charges, hauling 80,000 pounds along the way. And it can sorta, kinda drive itself—on highways, anyway. The truck comes with Enhanced Autopilot, the second generation of Tesla's semiautonomous technology, equipped with automatic braking, lane keeping, and lane departure warnings.
"Every truck we sell has Autopilot as standard," Musk said of the Semi, which goes into production in 2019. "This is a massive increase in safety."
That may be true—about 4,000 Americans die in truck-related collisions every year, and human error is responsible for many of them. Self-driving trucks will certainly change lives. That goes double for the nearly 3.2 million people currently employed as delivery and heavy truck drivers. But we don't know how: A dearth of research means that no one really knows what effect automation will have on the sector. It's clear that truck driving will change, though, and companies testing autonomous trucking today in Florida and California and elsewhere show what that new future might look like.
Driving TodayTrucking jobs are, as a recent report from the Washington, DC, think tank Global Policy Solutions points out, solid, middle class jobs. The median annual wage for delivery and heavy truck drivers is $34,768, 11 percent higher than the country's median wage. Trucking has also been an opportunity for black, Hispanic, and Native American workers, who have faced serious, race-based barriers to entry in other blue collar jobs and are now overrepresented in the industry. Many trucking jobs are unionized, and the gig doesn’t require an advanced education. You probably won't get rich doing it, but driving a truck is an option for those—men, in many cases—who might otherwise have done the kind of factory work that's left the country in the last three decades or so. Losing these jobs outright could devastate them.
Truck driving is, at the same time, a not-so-great job. Driving is solitary, physically inert, and psychologically exhausting. And long-haul truckers can be on the road—and away from family and friends—for months at a time. So people leave. In fact, there aren't enough truck drivers to go around. The American Trucking Associations reports the annual driver turnover for large truckload carriers reached a whopping 90 percent this year, and it projects a 50,000-driver shortage by the end of 2017.
The trucking jobs that do go away will affect some states more than others. That report from the Washington think-tank Global Policy Solutions notes that states with high shares of trucking industry employees, including North Dakota, Iowa, Wyoming, West Virginia, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Indiana, would be the most vulnerable. But not enough research is being done on the effects of automation on the trucking industry in the first place.
Maya Rockeymoore, who directs Global Policy Solutions and helped write the trucking report, says she’s been surprised by how little thought lawmakers, policymakers, and the automotive industry itself have given to the repercussions of their technology. When she took the report to industry meetings and congressional offices, “it wasn’t clear that any of them had done any modeling or forecasting or research about the impact of their disruptive technologies on the labor market before developing their technology,” she says. "It signals, perhaps, that disruption and the value of disruption itself as being a more important factor than the impact on society." The first bill regulating self-driving technology is working its way through Congress, but commercial vehicles like trucks aren't likely to be included in the final legislation. That means states will continue to decide individually how to regulate self-driving trucks on their roads.
Morris, of Embark, says this lack of research is partly out of necessity. “It’s much easier to measure the things that you have now that might go away,” says Morris. “It’s much harder to measure the things that will be created through innovation.” Cars might have killed the buggy whip industry, but they created jobs in the hospitality industry, the oil and gas industry ... and trucking.
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