The Impact of Automated Trucking on the Workforce

Interior of a self-driving truck on the highway

As automated self-driving vehicle technologies continue to evolve, many wonder what the future of trucking looks like for the 1.9 million heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers employed in the United States—the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has an answer.

According to a recent report issued by the GAO, two factors will determine the role of truck drivers and operators in a post-automation world: the level at which technology progresses and government regulatory decisions. These elements are expected to develop slowly over the next 5 to 10 years, leaving time for both the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Department of Labor (DOL) to continue working together alongside key stakeholders to prepare for changes within the trucking industry.

The Role of Truck Drivers and Operators in an Automated World

Cindy Brown Barnes, a director in the GAO’s Education Workforce and Income Security team, predicts that technological and federal advancements within the trucking industry will lead to one of two possible scenarios for truck driver jobs in the U.S.

Fewer Long-Haul Drivers

In this scenario, local drivers transport goods from factories to designated drop-off areas, where an automated truck picks up the loaded trailer and drives the rest of the route. The trucking industry is experimenting with technology that makes long-haul automated driving possible: GPS, cameras, accelerometers and gyroscopes, radar, light detection and ranging (LiDAR) sensors, and platooning.

As tech companies push for more advanced automated trucking technologies (in spite of a growing distrust for self-driving cars among the American public), long-haul truckers may become a rarity.

More Skilled Truck Drivers

In the second scenario, truckers are still needed to perform tasks technology can’t: navigating urban environments, fueling the truck, changing tires, or loading and unloading the truck. Partial automation technology will be used as a tool for truck drivers rather than a replacement—trucking will be less stressful and physically demanding, decreasing turnover rates and encouraging more young workers and women to enter the workforce. Partial automated technologies could also produce more specialized driving roles that require technical know-how and engineering skills, creating more opportunity for drivers to continue their educations.

As outlined in the GAO report, workers both inside and outside the trucking industry aren’t currently feeling the impact of automation. It’s the responsibility of the DOT and DOL, the report argues, to use the next decade to prepare for potential mass layoffs and develop educational programs for training a new workforce of specialized truck drivers.

According to the government watchdog, full automation isn’t an immediate concern, but preparing for a future in which driverless trucks are the norm requires anticipating big economic changes now.

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