Will autonomous cars eradicate driving jobs? Don’t hold your breath

Automation, job security, and truck driving were center stage at last week’s Democratic debate. Andrew Yang and Elizabeth Warren in particular sparred over whether automation was going to kill jobs and wipe out the trucking industry. Without a doubt, the next 10 years will see drastic changes to the way cars and trucks move us and our cargo around.

But the next decade of changes will entail much smaller changes than many people – presidential candidates included – are expecting. The 2020s probably won’t bring flying cars, solar roads, or robot gas pumps. Like much of our current world and technology, the 2020’s will most likely see a melding of the amazingly futuristic with the frightfully analog.

Headlines would have you believe something else, though. If you keep even a loose watch on autonomous driving news, you’ve undoubtedly seen dozens of breathless announcements proclaiming that driverless cars will be on our roads in just another 5 years. Make it 10. Better yet, 20.

Indeed, self-driving technology is taking so much oxygen from the public discourse that the general public seems to have missed not only what’s happening currently, but also what we can expect to see next. Hint: it’s not a steering-wheel free driving pod.

“I don’t think in general the public and our lawmakers are in tune with the ramifications of technology and what the industry is necessarily trying to do,” Wally Steagall, Vice Chair of the American Trucking Association’s Technology and Maintenance Council, told Digital Trends in an interview. “You can drive point A to point B autonomously. Don’t get me wrong. That technology? We can do that. It’s all the things that make it safe and viable that are tough.”

Level 5 fully autonomous driving is a devilishly hard problem. It’s a task that is so difficult, that the computer system that can tackle any situation in any weather on any road would likely be so advanced as to be self-aware — at which point it would likely hire a chauffeur to get around. Ignore Level 5 full autonomy for now. The immediate future is in teleoperations.

Phone a (driver) friend

There is fierce debate on what impact self-driving cars will have on the economy, and what exactly it will mean for peoples’ jobs. One estimate pegs the impact at one in every nine jobs being affected in some way by the transition to autonomous vehicles. That is a staggering number. Other estimates are as low as 1 million jobs affected, or one in every 132 jobs. No one really knows, and the truth is likely somewhere in-between. What is certain is that the future will see a whole lot of job changes — not necessarily losses — due to self-driving vehicles.

The long-haul truck driving industry is closer to the immediate end of this problem. Namely, they have 60,000 more jobs than they have humans to fill them.

“Given the rate of driver turnover and the shortage of drivers, I’m not worried about long haul drivers losing jobs, and I’m not worried about mechanics losing jobs either, ” says Steagall. “I’m very bullish on the role of technology as increasing the value of the people and hopefully bringing more stability to those work environments — not the opposite.”

Keen-eyed readers might see this shortage of workers as the exact opposite problem of what Andrew Yang and other candidates are talking about. This has been a persistently growing problem in the transport space, and where many saw the need to increase wages to attract new drivers, Silicon Valley saw the need for a technological solution. Enter teleoperations and what “autonomous” generally means today.

Starsky Robotics

As you read this, there are likely semi-trucks cruising through Florida being operated not by a trucker behind the wheel, but by a trucker behind a desk. Starsky Robotics recently debuted its fleet of teleoperated trucks that are controlled by drivers far away in anonymous offices filled with banks of screens and steering setups familiar to any serious racing video game fan.

Teleoperations controllers are currently controlling trucks, forklifts, delivery robots, and more. In some use cases, they are always in control, while in others they only take over as the vehicle encounters unfamiliar or unusually difficult circumstances. For trucking, that means the last 100 yards or so of the dock or warehouse – the freeways and roads in-between are relatively simple and straightforward enough for the AI to handle on its own. This means one teleoperator could conceivably be responsible for multiple trucks at once, immediately putting an outsized dent in the 60,000 driver shortage.

“This is where technology could address some of the turnover and the huge driver shortage issue with long haul trucking, especially,” says Steagall. But he underscores that the technology still has some maturing to do before it can be truly useful. “In order to go driverless, we need better prognostic and performance measurement. For that to really be safe and not have a driver in a cab, you’ve got to replace that driver’s gut feel of a vehicle with a with a nervous system that’s advanced enough for it to recognize when something’s wrong. An open door switch? That’s one thing, but knowing that a trailer’s on fire or something’s vibrating in a way that’s not normal, but there’s really nothing firing off a fault code? Those are things we can’t do yet. The feedback that you need from the vehicle, to be safe, is significantly more than we currently have.”

The long road ahead

Still, despite the challenges, teleoperations are quickly spreading across self-driving companies, both as an additional safety layer and as an immediate solution to the intractable problem that is Level 5 autonomy. We can all expect to see “remote drivers” popping up more in our daily lives as shuttle drivers, ferry pilots, and even taxi drivers far in advance of any full self-driving capability.

Teleoperations and autonomous trucks will not destroy the entire trucking sector. Instead, these technologies will simply fill an employment gap that has been unsolvable for a number of years now. Sure, truck stops, cafes, and truck washes will likely be affected. There is major truth in that. But you’ve likely noticed on some inter-state road trip that the trucking industry isn’t the fastest to adapt to new technologies. Many trucks on the road are decades old. It will take the better part of the 2020s to shift that sector over to teleoperations and partial autonomy. The sectors and businesses dependent on truck drivers will slowly shift away, not be left abruptly without business.

Yes, some people will lose jobs. Yes, some people will gain jobs. That’s called an active economy and has no need to be the subject of a presidential debate. Automation will come and transform many things, but you can rest assured that trucking and truck drivers will survive. The commute just might be to the home teleoperations setup instead of the cab of a Mack or Peterbilt.

Now if we want our politicians to argue about whether they should be required to wear pants while remote controlling a 70,000 pound semi-truck, I’m all for that.

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