In The News
Why Truckers Will Still Have Jobs in a Self-Driving Future
Recent developments in driverless vehicles could have huge implications on the future of trucking. In April, three autonomous Mercedes-Benz semi trucks completed a cross-border convoy drive from Stuttgart in Germany to Rotterdam in the Netherlands -- about 400 miles -- as a "connected," self-driving platoon. Last month, Uber purchased Otto, a six-month-old startup founded by former high-level Google employees that develops self-driving systems for heavy trucks, signifying the ride-sharing giant's intent to disrupt the trucking business, as it did the taxi industry.
And when you read the latest headlines, you get the sense that the trucking sector as we know it will soon be dead, with drivers being the first casualties.
On the surface, this all makes sense. When trucks can drive themselves, what need will there be for human drivers?
But a deeper analysis offers a different outlook. That's because it's one thing to build heavy trucks that are capable of driving long-haul routes on their own, without any human intervention. Most industry experts agree that the technology, for the most part, is already here or very close. The question is this: At what point will those trucks be allowed to do so on public roads?
And that's the rub -- and the reason why there will still be demand for human drivers in the trucking industry beyond the 10 to 15-year timeline many analysts are predicting before trucking jobs are fully automated. Yes, self-driving technology is roaring full speed ahead, but here are two major societal roadblocks that must be overcome before robots start taking over the roads -- and taking away trucking jobs.
Roadblock #1: Ethics
When a machine assumes more and more of a human driver's responsibility for decision making -- such as selecting the most optimal routes, deciding when to change lanes, and when to safely pass another vehicle -- how will it handle the moral and ethical dilemmas that humans face from time-to-time?
Take, for example, this scenario: You're riding in a self-driving vehicle approaching a busy intersection at 45 mph. With pedestrians congregating at the corner on your right, your vehicle doesn't detect a child on a bicycle attempting to dart across the street until it's too late to stop. So, what does your vehicle decide to do?
It could veer to the left into oncoming traffic and avoid the child but crash head-on into a car carrying a family of four. It could lurch to the right but risk barreling into a group of eight pedestrians. Or, it could hit the child.
What would the machine choose? How would it evaluate and determine what it should choose? And whatever it decides, who (or what) will be responsible for the consequences?
It's hard enough as humans to make split-second moral decisions in crisis. But at least we have the power at that moment to choose with our conscience. Would we, as a society, be o.k. with the idea of being spectators inside machines that make life-and-death decisions on our behalf, without our consent?
There would need to be an ethical framework for guiding autonomous vehicle decision-making that society could agree upon. But, that's no easy task, especially in the U.S., where individual freedom is so highly valued. The idea of giving machines the right to choose over human conscience could be a tough sell.
Roadblock #2: Liability
When a fully robotic vehicle is involved in a collision, who (or what) is responsible?
There's a growing consensus around the idea that the automaker would assume liability. But this idea gets a bit more complicated in the trucking world. That's because it's one thing when self-driving sensors are installed by a single car or truck manufacturer -- you have only one party involved. What about when you're dealing with multiple companies to build a complete truck -- with a sleeper, van body, liftgate, and other upfits -- like what you see with most expediter trucks today? Who would be responsible to install the cameras, sonar, radar and other self-driving sensors on the truck body and integrate them with the sensors on the chassis?
And who, ultimately, would be liable for an incident caused by a sensor malfunction on an upfitted truck? Would it be the chassis OEM, the upfitter, or the sensor manufacturers?
Or, what if there's a computer glitch? When a vehicle is driven by software, who would be allowed to work on it? And if persistent system glitches occur, causing a collision, who's the responsible party -- the truck OEM, the upfitter, the repair shop, the trucking carrier itself?
There's a lot of consensus around the idea that driverless vehicles are technologically possible. But the issue concerning who would be the responsible party for machine failure is not so clear-cut. And that would need to be resolved before fully autonomous trucks can become acceptable and approved for widespread use on public roads.
The Driver's Role?
So, what role will truckers serve as more advanced self-driving systems become available?
At least for the foreseeable future, the more likely scenario is that man and machine would learn to coexist in a semi-autonomous world. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) labels it Level 3 automation (with fully autonomous vehicles considered Level 4) where the truck is responsible for most driving tasks and decision-making on its own, but a licensed driver is required to be in the vehicle at all times to take over when necessary.
Think of it much like what we've seen in the airline industry. Today's jumbo jets are highly automated with autopilot systems that manage about 90-percent of the flight, with pilots handling take-off and landing, while being on-hand to take over the controls at any point during the flight. As trucks become more and more automated with advanced autopilot technology, the truck could drive itself for most of the route, especially on the highways, while licensed drivers manage the starts, stops, and in-town driving, and be available to take over the wheel at any point.
This scenario would allow trucking companies and owner-operators to take advantage of the latest automated truck technologies to improve safety, reduce driver fatigue, and achieve optimal fuel efficiency, while drivers still retain the right to make their own ethical decisions behind the wheel.
The Bottom Line
While most headlines and trend lines seem to be pointing toward a driverless future, there are many questions--beyond the technology--that government, industry and citizens must answer before robots will completely rule the roads. Until then, drivers will still have a role in the trucking industry as more advanced automated driving technologies offer the promise to make their jobs safer, less stressful, and potentially more profitable.