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Self-driving trucks have potential to solve driver shortage – without stealing jobs

A truck driver gets out from his truck at a container terminal at Incheon port in Incheon, South Korea, May 26, 2016.REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji (REUTERS)

If you live in a city or suburb and rarely do any highway driving, you may think the reported shortage of truck drivers in the country has little to do with you. But it does.

The estimated 300,000-plus truck drivers in Canada haul around virtually every product people use and buy daily, from bread and milk to Fitbits and furniture. And when trucking runs smoothly, companies know how to manage their inventories and plan production; they can compete. Without a sufficient number of drivers, the entire system gets derailed — and prices for consumer goods rise.

That’s a situation the trucking industry is hoping to avoid, but they’re battling demographics: the average driver is aging out of the occupation and young people aren’t entering the field at a rate required to keep up with predicted demand. By 2024, there could be a shortage of 34,000 to 48,000 drivers in Canada, according to a new study produced for the Canadian Trucking Alliance by infrastructure development consultants CPCS.

Last year, the trucking industry in Canada produced more than $19 billion in GDP, but the industry’s indirect economic footprint is twice that size. As the Canadian Conference Board wrote in its 2011 study on the driver shortage problem, this issue is a major threat to the economy and Canada’s competitiveness.

At the same time, some tech-watchers would argue that this is possibly the worst time for young people to enter the business because driverless trucks are coming and they will one day replace humans behind the wheel. Many anticipate that since self-driving tractor-trailers could save transport companies their biggest expense (human labor), they will go mainstream even before self-driving cars.

Signs of the technology’s progress are everywhere. In April, the first test run of a large self-driving truck convoy crossed Europe, showcasing vehicles from six of Europe’s top truck manufacturers. Freightliner’s “Inspiration Truck,” the first self-driving truck licensed for road tests in the United States, was introduced to the press last spring. Autonomous-ready “robotrucks” are already in use in Alberta’s oil sands and other major mining sites around the globe. Finally, this spring, several former Google employees who previously worked on Google’s self-driving car project launched Otto, a San Francisco start-up that will retrofit existing trucks with driverless capabilities for as little as US$30,000.

So is this a situation where the disruptive technology will solve a labor shortage problem?

According to David Bradley, president and CEO of the Canadian Trucking Alliance (CTA), the answer is not exactly, and that’s a good thing for everyone.

Drivers will do everything but drive

Bradley and the Trucking Alliance do not see fully autonomous trucks on Canadian roads in the near-term forecast. In fact, Bradley says trucks that do not require a human on board will not be a threat to employment for a couple of decades, “if we ever get there.”

The potential economic fallout of fully autonomous trucks is something that has been discussed at length in the media. Among the most shared and cited stories on the issue is a post on Medium written by Scott Santens, a New Orleans-based blogger who covers the effects of technology on the economy and is an advocate for a guaranteed basic income.

In his lengthy piece, published just over a year ago, Santens paints a bleak picture of what smart trucks could mean for the United States, in an industry where more than 3 million drivers earn middle class incomes. Their disappearance from the country’s highways wouldn’t just dramatically reduce their spending power and ability to pay their mortgages, but would also lead to substantially less activity for the diners and motels that serve truckers along the nation’s highways. The employees at such businesses would in turn be spending less in their local communities.

“If we now step back and look at the big national picture, we are potentially looking at well over 10 million American workers and their families whose incomes depend entirely or at least partially on the incomes of truck drivers, all of whom markedly comprise what is left of the American middle class,” Santens writes. He believes totally autonomous trucks could hit the market at any time.

But Bradley thinks doomsday scenarios, like Santens’ and many others, are overblown. He says people are overselling the self-driving technology while underestimating the hurdles on the road to people-free trucks. Complicated regulatory questions will take a couple of decades to work out and hazarding a guess about when fully autonomous trucks be operational is the stuff of soothsayers, he says, adding, “Will these trucks replace jobs? We just don’t see it.”

Truck Driver 2.0

The impact of semi-autonomous trucks – those that still require a person in the cab, though not necessarily in the driving seat – is much rosier, even promising to the industry group.

The hope is that an infusion of high-tech systems could help the job title shake off a gray reputation. Typically when we think of a trucker, we think of someone “grinding through those gears,” Bradley observes. “That’s their claim to fame.” But stepping into a modern truck is like entering a cockpit, and many trucks on the road already use automatic transmissions. The CTA predicts that semi-autonomous trucks will make the job more attractive to millennials and women and others who might otherwise not see themselves in the physically-demanding role.

Indeed, Otto’s launch video features driver-assistive technology, not fully autonomous trucks, and the model-actor playing the driver is far from the stereotypical macho trucker we’ve met in movies like 1991’s Thelma and Louise. Instead he is a clean-cut young man who probably knows how to code and may be working on a business plan for his own social good startup while his high-tech truck drives itself down the highway.

In fact the actor in this promotional vignette is illustrating how not being glued to the wheel will afford drivers time to take care of a range of tasks, like inventory reports and scheduling, without pulling over.

Semi-autonomous trucks give the driver the option to turn on the self-driving function during long-stretches of highway that aren’t particularly tricky for the truck’s many sensors and cameras to navigate. But if the truck runs into windy roads or bad weather, it would alert the driver and wait for him or her to take over. If there’s no response (suppose the driver is taking a nap), the truck pulls over and stops.

“We think this could be a very good thing in terms of safety and traffic flow,” says Bradley. “Any time you have interactions with a vehicle, particularly between cars and trucks, it’s not a symbiotic relationship. That's just the nature of the beast. Using this technology and supplementing drivers’ skills has great potential.”

Mike Myler, a veteran truck driver who has been teaching at Humber College’s Transportation Training Centre in Toronto for 23 years, says that the school’s seven-week program already attracts all ages and more women than you might assume. In a recent class of 16 students, 12 of them were women.

The maneuvers that his trainees find hardest to master are switching gears (the program still uses manual transmission trucks) and backing up in tight spots, such as at a dock. These are tasks that autonomous trucks would probably execute without input from a person. “Making the job a little easier with a truck that can do more will probably attract more drivers into the profession,” says Myler.

What won’t change about the job is the many days a person must spend away from home. According to Myler, newbies in the business almost always have to pay their dues and take the long-haul trucking gigs before they find something that keeps them at home at night. Job interest will ultimately still be a question of lifestyle for many candidates.

Even then, future truck drivers may want to have a plan B, as truck drivers were recently called out on a list of jobs in the Canadian workforce likely to be replaced via automation. But with truck drivers making an average of $46,880 a year in Canada and millennials continuing to struggle to find employment, there’s hope for the industry yet.

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