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Just Another Robot on the Lost Highway

July 26, 2013
Will truck drivers be the next occupation to be automated by robots?

“Is it time to put truck drivers on the endangered species list?” I asked that question over on our sister site at Material Handling & Logistics recently, tongue firmly set in cheek, given that 70% of all the goods transported in the U.S. move on a truck, so it’s hardly likely that truck drivers will soon join the ranks of stagecoach drivers and paddleboat pilots.

However, an article this week in the Wall Street Journal asks almost the same question that I posed: “Daddy, could you tell me what a truck driver was?”

To be sure, my column and the WSJ reporter’s column are asking the same basic question but come to entirely different conclusions. My point centers on the crushing preponderance of government regulations, such as the new Hours-of-Service (HOS) rules, that are making the truck driving profession a less-and-less attractive occupation. The new HOS regs, for instance, cut 12 hours from a driver’s work week, making one wonder if the end goal is to make truck driving a part-time job.

However, unlike some service industries that are mandating 29-hour weeks to save on healthcare and other benefits, it’s not the trucking companies themselves pushing for the shorter work weeks – it’s the government itself. Although the Labor Department expects to see a healthy growth rate for truck drivers over the next couple years, transportation analyst Rosalyn Wilson sees the situation quite differently, “Truck drivers represent a job category with the fewest potential workers trained to fill them,” she points out, “so where will these drivers come from?”

Based on some conclusions drawn in the WSJ column, though, maybe we won’t need any more drivers. Robots, not human beings, apparently will be the future faces of truck drivers, an idea which even the American Trucking Associations, a trade group representing the major trucking companies, says is “close to inevitable.”

To be sure, the concept is heavily reliant on technology and infrastructure that don’t currently exist. Although Caterpillar, to name one company, has developed autonomous mining trucks that are used in a barren stretch of land in Australia, nobody has yet developed tractors and trailers anywhere near comparable to a standard fleet of 53-foot trucks. Similarly, there are currently no roads, highways or interstates configured to accommodate driverless trucks. The article also just sort of leaves it to our imaginations to determine whether on-time delivery rates would improve with robots behind the wheel of these trucks (or would they even require steering wheels?), or if the presumed savings of no longer hiring human drivers would result in cost savings throughout the supply chain or just for the trucking companies and fleet operators?

Even so, the WSJ article is projecting out two decades or more, so who’s to say what we might see in 2033, particularly if self-driving cars catch on between now and then? If nothing else, autonomous drivers certainly would lead to some significant changes in truck stop jukeboxes.

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