Will Autonomous Trucks Eliminate Drivers?

This blog’s first post was on Sept. 14. In that piece I wrote about autonomously-driven trucks. Today I have decided to explore this topic again from a slightly different angle.

Ginger Christ asks, over at Materials Handling and Logistics (MH&L) if driverless trucks will take over the industry. And I think the answer is an unmitigated, “yes.” However, in her piece she quotes Ted Scott, director of engineering for the American Trucking Association, who says, “If I have to spend $150,000 to autonomize a truck, why would I put a driver in it? It doesn’t make sense to put a driver we’re paying $50,000 to $100,000 in a truck.”

Scott’s argument, I think, is not valid. While we can automate routes,

paperwork, and we can even make software intelligent enough for re-routing, we cannot write code to handle every contingency within the industry. I recently read an article where a rookie trucker was staging his vehicle at a dock; he had arrived prior to the warehouse opening. And as he opened his swing door the boxes on the last couple pallets fell out. What is an automated truck going to do about that? Is that going to be the warehouse workers’ jobs to clean up? Is Company A going to send Company B a bill for making their workers clean up after the mess created by the autonomous truck?

Despite the robust software and integrated systems that we can now use to automate trucks and driving, there is still a need for an independent-thinking humans to take care of issues that arise. Lastly, while Scott also makes the dollar-figure argument, automated systems are not going to cost $150,000 on top of vehicle acquisition costs (my argument is not for costs as the

y are now, but as they become commonplace). And current truck drivers make, on average, much closer to the $50,000/year than the $100,000/year. So that argument is a little be of a straw man.

In the same way that airline pilots are skilled professionals who basically monitor the automated systems that actually fly the plane and who also preprogram the plane’s route, I think truck driving will become a programming (routing), and problem-alleviation job.

Some might argue, in fact, while Mr. Scott doesn’t say it directly, this is in fact his issue, “If I cannot save money by eliminating the driver, why should I automate my trucks?”

I contend that trucking companies will see vast savings but not the expected savings from eliminating an employee. Automated trucks will save fuel costs, insurance costs, driver-error costs, and other indirect costs. Automated trucks are the future. They will save money and save lives. I believe, however, that they will not replace drivers.

Thanks for reading.


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