Editorial: Automation and the Truck Driver

This Editorial appears in the June 19 print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.

Automated vehicle technology is coming to trucking, but what will that mean for the truck driver?

This was a prominent topic during Transport Topics’ LiveOnWeb program last week featuring American Trucking Associations President Chris Spear, autonomous vehicle consultant Richard Bishop and Josh Switkes, CEO of truck-platooning firm Peloton Technology.

While conversations about automation often drift toward fully autonomous trucks, that’s still decades away, Spear said.

“I think driver-assist is where we need to put our energy,” he said. “I think that’s the most reachable goal within the next few years, and it could yield tremendous benefits if it’s done right.”

Drivers who are working today will not be put out of work by automation, especially with freight volumes expected to grow and the driver shortage expected to worsen, Peloton’s Switkes said.

“Yes, over time, automation will reduce the number of drivers needed, but for the foreseeable future, that’s just going to slow down the growth of the shortage,” he said. “Eventually, it’ll reduce the driver shortage. The time in the future when there are fewer drivers needed than the amount of drivers we have today is far off.”

Bishop agreed that any labor concerns are far away and fully driverless trucks won’t be ubiquitous until at least a couple decades from now, but some early examples of driverless operation could happen within five years in limited environments such as a remote western freeway or private freight yards.

“The more you constrain the environment, the simpler the job is and the sooner it can happen,” Bishop said.

That’s the approach taken by some of the new tech developers entering the industry. They are focusing their efforts on automating highway driving from exit to exit, while continuing to rely on drivers for operation on roads with intersections and cross traffic.

Meanwhile, truck manufacturers and suppliers of active safety technology have made it clear that they see a trained, professional driver as indispensable to trucking for the foreseeable future.

Truck driving jobs aren’t going away anytime soon, but those jobs will likely change over time. When automated driving technology reaches the point where the truck is capable of driving itself on the highway, it could free the driver to perform other work tasks in the cab.

The driver of tomorrow may become less of a machine operator and more of a systems manager, similar to today’s airline pilots, who use autopilot but continue to monitor the plane’s progress and can respond when something unexpected happens.