Will advances in autonomous technology degrade job quality in the trucking industry?

By Michael Brenneis

While advances in autonomous technology may net additional jobs in the trucking sector, without thoughtful public policy and a commitment to equitable private practices, they may end up being some of the worst the industry has to offer, and come at the expense of jobs at the higher-end of the pay spectrum, so says a new report by University of Pennsylvania researcher Steve Viscelli.

Based on industry research and interviews with experts in many sectors of the industry, the most likely 25-year scenario is that the long-haul (150+ miles) highway-driving component of freight delivery will be automated either with or without an on-board pilot. The author calculates that this scenario would eliminate 294,000 of the highest-paid highway driving jobs from this $740 billion-per-year industry. However, it would be expected to create numerous additional jobs in the local delivery sector, trucking the autonomously-delivered goods over the last few miles to their final destination. This scenario may also include efficiencies provided by the digitization of last-mile delivery—a sort of Uber and Lyft for trailer loads.

The last-mile delivery segment may be less susceptible to automation in the short term due to the complexities of the urban environment and the percentage of non-driving—and not automatable—tasks that the drivers perform.

The issue is that these local trucking jobs are typically some of the worst in the industry. They tend to be misclassified as independent contractors rather than permanent employees. They also tend to be low-wage, minimally unionized, with fewer benefits and significant turnover. These local jobs exist in a more urban environment where they are filled with a higher percentage of workers who are younger, people of color, and immigrants. Conversely, the long-haul contingent tend to be older, whiter, and more rural. Long-haul drivers may have difficulty finding rural jobs that pay as much as their trucking job. Automation stands to usher in a monumental geographic, and demographic, trucking-job shift.

According to the author in an accompanying webinar, public money—including the Defense Department—has funded innovation in autonomous vehicles, including sensors and relevant computer science. “A lot of the intellectual property that exists today is arguably public property…we have a right to…be a part of the discussion about where these benefits are going to go.” The industry tends also to rely on public money to sustain and retrain its low-wage workers. Viscelli argues the public has a right to develop careful policy in order to shape the effect that automation will have on workers.

To this end, the author has developed a list of policy recommendations to guide the implementation of autonomous technology in a way that will not intensify the disruptive effects on a labor force that has been characterized as in crisis.

  1. Develop an industry-wide approach to worker advancement and stability;
  2. Ensure strong labor standards and worker protections; and
  3. Promote innovation that achieves social, economic, and environmental goals.

The implementation of technology is not an immutable force; policy has indeed been guiding the application of autonomous technology for some time. But the risk exists that without deliberate policy in the future, the current labor trends—decreased economic stability, low wages, high turnover, misuse of independent contractors, and gig economics—will continue, or worsen. Implementing the best technology in the most efficient way can sustain and grow family-supporting-wage jobs, and bolster healthy communities. Observers hope that employers and policy makers, when faced with current labor trends and looming automation, will seek a path that sustains both the industry and its workers.

Michael Brenneis is an Associate Researcher at SSTI.