February 27 2017
Late last week, a new competitor to Uber’s self-driving truck Otto, hit the road for testing. This signals we now have a tech race on our hands.
When Otto delivered its first cargo of beer last fall, the world was in awe. The thought of vehicles travelling long distances operated by themselves, opens the prospects of greater efficiency in trucking.
Now, we’re learning Uber isn’t the only company testing this technology on roads. On Friday, Embark, a self-driving trucking startup, was launched. It has gained state approval to test semi-autonomous vehicles on public roads in Nevada. Their focus is not to replace truck drivers, but to make drivers more efficient by allowing the drivers to hand off control to the autonomous system during long hauls. The driver would still have to take over control when exiting the highway.
Also, Embark hopes to cut travel time of long-hauls. A self-driving truck doesn’t need to stop because the driver is tired or hungry or for mandatory rest breaks. A quick perusal of federal rules for truck drivers demonstrates just how many rules truck drivers currently face. And there’s common sense in ensuring that drivers carrying large cargo (and in some cases hazardous cargo) should be alert. Making drivers more efficient could translate to more deliveries and lower prices for customers.
Embark doesn’t plan to build trucks but purchases and outfits them with self-driving sensors and other equipment. They plan to provide the software and data tracking to help trucking companies automate.
Trucking is an easy starting place, because highways are straight and flat. Navigating them is simpler than local roads. Embark’s vehicles won’t handle cities or traffic lights for example.
Embark also hopes to ease the pressure on trucking industry. Recode reports:
“The American Transportation Research Institute estimates there is currently a shortage of 100,000 truck drivers in the industry, which is poised to only get worse as baby boomer drivers — the bulk of the industry’s workforce — retire over the next decade,” [Embark co-founder and CEO Alex] Rodrigues said in a statement. “Embark's goal is to increase productivity per driver and prevent the shortage from becoming a crisis.”
Elsewhere Embark’s CEO notes that because of this technology he thinks salaries for truck drivers will actually increase:
“Our expectation is that the salary for truck drivers will go up,” Rodrigues said, because the job will become more skilled. “Interactions with the customer, individual pick up and drop off, and the harder parts of truck driving” will become more important than driving hundreds of miles per day down the interstate.
We’ll have to see if this argument holds true. If the focus of truck drivers shifts to customer interaction over driving skill, safety, and performance, the salaries may not follow. Just looking at BLS job function overviews, we see that customer service representatives earn median pay of $31,720 per year while tractor-trailer drivers earn $10,260 per year. It may be that they become tech-proficient o they become more akin to delivery drivers who enjoy an even local median wage of $27,760.
The implications of automation in trucking are exciting and scary for those whose jobs depend on them. For American families, particularly women with husbands, sons, and families members who have relied on the trucking industry for a stable middle-class living, it’s important to keep these future changes in mind.
Transportation is undergoing exciting, but fundamental changes in our economy and as a society we have to think through how we can ensure that those who will be affected are prepared for the coming changes.