Automation Isn’t About to Make Truckers Obsolete

By Maury Gittleman & Kristen Monaco

Hardly a day goes by without someone suggesting that technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics will transform the 21st-century labor market. A prominent example of this has been in truck driving. But in looking at the data, we believe that, while the risk of job loss from automation is very real, the projections that often get touted are overstated. We argue that there are three key reasons why:

Truck drivers do more than drive trucks

Truck drivers perform all kinds of tasks, from checking vehicles and securing cargo to maintaining logs and providing customer service. Many of these tasks are nowhere close to being automatable. And while some tasks are closer to automation—for example, checking for unbalanced loads, low tires and other safety problems can be performed by sensors—dealing with any issues still requires human intervention.

Full automation is far into the future

In our study, we based our employment projections on the introduction of level 4 automation, a high-automation environment that assumes the system controls driving and monitoring in some, but not all, operating conditions. Level 5 automation, which requires the system to perform all driving and monitoring activities in all conditions, is not currently being tested in practice, and level 3 automation, which requires human intervention as the system backup, does not really threaten drivers’ jobs.

Several companies are developing level 4 automation for autonomous trucks. Most of this development is focused on automating the long-haul/interstate portion of a truck trip, not short haul or local truck moves. According to our computations, roughly one-quarter of all heavy trucks are used in long hauls of 201 miles or more. Given that truck automation is currently targeted at these longer hauls, we are looking at potential job losses for roughly one-quarter of heavy truck drivers, or about 450,000 drivers.

There aren’t as many truck drivers in the US as people think

Though a number of articles assert that there are roughly 3 million truck drivers in the US, in reality the number is smaller. There are also operational and regulatory obstacles that may get in the way of level 4 technology being implemented quickly. Another challenge is that interstate trucking is a complex affair involving multiple parties. What all of these factors make clear is that we’re not going to see losses of millions of heavy truck driving jobs anytime soon.

But while the numbers are not as dire as some headlines suggest, truck driving is already experiencing significant challenges, due to business cycle fluctuations, increasingly complex supply chains and changing work force demographics. This makes it all the more important for us to have an accurate understanding of the challenges facing the industry over the next decade, including those posed by automation.

Maury Gittleman is a research economist at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, where Kristen Monaco is an associate commissioner.


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