Driverless trucks: economic tsunami may swallow one of most common US jobs

Driverless trucks: economic tsunami may swallow one of most common US jobs
America is producing more than ever before, but it is doing so with fewer and fewer workers. Once trucks become automated, where will these jobs go?
Once replaced by automation, where will all the trucking jobs go? Photograph: Wojciech Lorbiecki/Alamy

Martin Ford
Thursday 16 February 2017 07.00 EST
In April 2016, Uber announced the acquisition of Otto, a San Francisco-based startup that has developed a kit that can turn any big rig into a self-driving truck.
The Otto technology enables complete autonomy on highways: trucks can navigate, stay in their lane, and slow or stop in response to traffic conditions completely without human intervention. Otto’s equipment currently costs about $30,000, but that is certain to fall significantly in the coming years.
Otto is by no means alone. Massive automated vehicles are already commonly used to move materials for the Australian mining industry. Daimler, the German multinational company, has likewise demonstrated its own model, a giant 18-wheeler with a “highway pilot” mode available (meaning a driver has to remain present, promptingthe head of the US branch to say that “tomorrow’s driver will be a logistics manager”). Another approach is to use automated convoys, in which self-driving trucks follow a lead vehicle.
It seems highly likely that competition between the various companies developing these technologies will produce practical, self-driving trucks within the next five to 10 years. And once the technology is proven, the incentive to adopt it will be powerful: in the US alone, large trucks are involved in about 350,000 crashes a year, resulting in nearly 4,000 fatalities. Virtually all of these incidents can be traced to human error. The potential savings in lives, property damage and exposure to liability will eventually become irresistible.
There’s only one problem: truck driving is one of the most common occupations in the US.
Once replaced by automation, where will these jobs go?

In Australia, the world’s most truck-dependent nation, mining giants are using remote-controlled lorries to shift iron ore around massive mining pits. Photograph: Reuters
As of 2015, a typical production worker in the US earned about 9% less than a comparable worker in 1973. Over the same 42 years, the American economy grew by more than 200%, or a staggering $11tn.

For millions of average Americans, the reasonable expectations of their youth – a steady job, home ownership, college education for their children – have degraded into decades of stagnation, even as they have been continuously bombarded by news of the overall growth and prosperity of the US economy.
The driving force behind this transition has been technology. It is widely recognized among economists that while the impact of globalization has been significant, especially in specific regions of the country, robots and factory automation have been a far more powerful force. Indeed, even those jobs that did migrate to China are now evaporating as factories there aggressively automate.
Among those workers who remain employed, it has become almost cliche to complain about good, well-paying factory jobs that have degraded into far less lucrative and reliable positions at Walmart. The few good working class jobs that remain are those that – at least so far – have been exempt from the forces of both globalization and automation.

Chips with everything - The Guardian The Ratio Club and the rise of British cybernetics – tech podcast
Jobs such as long-haul driving.
Indeed, truck driving is arguably one of the final barricades protecting a traditional world where diligent effort exerted in a blue-collar profession is respected, essential – and well compensated. It is likely no coincidence that a map highlighting the states where truck driving reigns as the lead occupation is closely correlated with a map showing the states that voted for Donald Trump.
This perfect storm creates the perception that America is “no longer winning” at manufacturing and that “we don’t make anything any more”. This could not be more wrong. Since 1990, the total value of goods produced in American factories has increased by 73% (after accounting for inflation).
The jobs story is very different, however. That near doubling in output has been accompanied by a 30% decline in manufacturing employment – a loss of more than 5m jobs.
America is producing more than ever before, but it is doing so with fewer and fewer workers.
For the foreseeable future, automated trucks are likely to be limited to long-haul highway operations, and it will probably require human intervention to pilot the truck along the final few miles to its destination.
In other words, there will still be some jobs, but it is easy to imagine that the nature of the “truck driving” occupation might be radically transformed. Piloting a future, computerized truck might well be perceived as a “technology” job. These workers will be freed from days and nights on the road and would be able to live normal lives, often in desirable urban locations.
In other words, piloting trucks for those final few miles might eventually evolve into a white-collar profession actively sought after by college graduates. This might be especially true in the wake of the onslaught of software automation in many other traditional white-collar, knowledge-based occupations (financial analysts, lawyers, computer programmers – any job that involves manipulating information in a predictable way).

Matt Grigsby, senior program engineer at Otto, takes his hands off the steering wheel of a self-driving, big-rig truck during a demonstration on the highway, in San Francisco in 2016. Photograph: Tony Avelar/Associated Press