When Uber Technologies used a self-driving truck to run a load of Budweiser beer across 120 miles of Colorado last year, the feat gave the trucking industry a glimpse of a cost-saving driverless future.
But the loss of drivers has an employment dark side.
A White House report last December estimated the loss of 60 to 88 percent of approximately 2.5 million truck driving jobs. Globally, the International Transport Forum expects the demand for truck drivers will plunge between 50 and 70 percent in the U.S. and Europe by 2030. That would be a reduction of 3.3 to 4.4 million out of 6.5 million positions.
Yet many in the trucking industry believe these alarmist projections are premature.
Even the most advanced automation, robotics and artificial intelligence cannot undertake all the tasks drivers perform at loading docks or on the road.
This school of thought says drivers won't become obsolete. Rather their duties will change as the industry works out man-machine partnerships.
A change in responsibility
Both economic and safety issues are supporting autonomous truck development.
There were 4,067 people killed and an estimated 116,000 people injured in crashes involving large trucks in 2015, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Federal regulators view self-driving vehicles as a path to overall improved safety, noting that of the approximately 35,000 people who died in roadway collisions in 2015, 94 percent of the fatalities were a result of 'human choice or error.'
Cutting drivers out of the shipping equation also promises significant cost savings. According to the American Transportation Research Institute's 2016 analysis of trucking operational costs, driver wages and benefits run 63 cents per mile and represent 40 percent of the $1.59 average cost per mile of trucking.
However, truckers do far more than driving, complicating the picture of robotic transport.
Automation won't make truckers obsolete, said Tim Smith, general manager of business strategy and planning for Navistar International Corp., during a panel at the Advanced Clean Transportation Expo last month in Long Beach, Calif. Drivers will start to look more like managers who focus on tasks impossible for current technology.
Loading dock restrictions
Loading docks are a prime area where software and robots face significant challenges.
Specialized robots can move single totes or boxes in a conveyor belt model or run motorized tuggers to shift trailers around a yard, said Daniel Theobald, chief innovation officer at Vecna Technologies, a Cambridge, Mass.-based logistics robotics and automation company.
However, fully managing cargo with robots won't happen anytime soon.
"There will be lots of people involved with any of these processes," Theobald said.
Automatic truck loading systems, or ATLS, use robotic forklifts to move pallets on and off trucks, according to Andrew Schmahl, a partner at accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, who advises executives in the transportation industry for the company's strategy consulting business. But they depend on predictable loads that are "relatively standard size and weight," Schmahl said.
As loads become unpredictable, automation is more difficult.
"The first problem is how to load a truck to optimize the utilization of the load," said Matt Butler, director of solution strategy for JDA Software, a company that advises on supply chain planning. "How are you going to stack and position the pallets" That requires some human intervention today."
Load managers will be needed for quality control.
"You're going to need that driver or whomever to physically check to make sure that the goods are not damaged in any way as they're being loaded," said Cathy Morrow Roberson, head analyst for consulting firm Logistics Trends and Insights.
Drivers have to document, sometimes with photographs, the condition of goods when received.
Similar items can cause confusion on the dock.
"I was supposed to get some kind of organic product and they sent me regular product," said Jim Gadziemski, vice president of warehouse operations at Grand Rapids, Mich.-based logistics and warehousing firm Columbian Logistics Network. "How can a conveyor system notice that?"
Deliveries are another issue.
Many destinations require the truck driver to unload, Gadziemski said. "He has to have a pallet jack, [a fork lift-like tool used to lift and move within a warehouse]."
Even drop-trailer programs, in which trailers are left at a location for an indeterminate amount of time, can require a trucker's involvement, said Maggie Turner, an account manager for third-party logistics company AFN Logistics that manages such systems for many of its clients.
Drivers participating in AFN's program quickly become troubleshooters, Turner said. For example, one client with its own loading guidelines began shipping a fragile product.
"The driver picked up a few shipments [the shipper packed] and each toppled over," she said. It turned out the driver had previous experience working with similar merchandise and as able to share packing tips regarding air bags, straps and bracing with the logistics firm.
Problems on the road
Issues requiring driver attention don't end at the loading dock door - tires blow out or there are system failures.
"What happens when there's a mechanical issue?" Gadziemski said. "An air line breaks or a trailer is dirty with some kind of contaminate and you have to reject it. How would [automation] handle those things?"
Often the first sign of a problem on the road is a change in the sound from the truck, and automation isn't designed to identify an issue from a noise, Roberson said.
There are also basic actions that have to be performed.
"You've got to fuel [trucks] and truck stops don't staff people 24 hours to run pumps," Schmahl said. "There are problems to be solved, for sure, and it's not going to be overnight."
And if there are problems with the automated systems, will the truck have to wait somewhere for a technician to arrive?
"A truck driver's role is going to evolve into being a tech expert as well," Roberson said. "They have to perform various functions, like if something happens to the autonomous truck [and it needs] some kind of quick fix that can't be handled from the main office. The role is evolving."
Deliveries to houses or storefronts may be necessary, but automation can't handle them.
"We've been playing around with ideas of small electric vehicles that are attached to the trucks that can pull the package and deliver them," Theobald said. "But that's not going to happen for a while - more in the 10- to 20-year range."
Even driving can't be left solely to automation, because self-driving systems require clear roads and good weather, Schmahl said.
"In the medium term I think what you will wind up seeing is all those seemingly insurmountable problems about variable road conditions and permutations of driving and safety issues will be solved by cobots, - or teams of humans and robots," he said.
Cobot teams will also enable new business models, Schmahl said. For example, platooning - a driving strategy featuring digitally tethered trucks traveling in single file to reduce drag - is already near actual use.
Self-driving technology could allow multiple trucks to follow a lead vehicle over long distances. Then local truckers could meet the automated vehicles at a highway off-ramp and direct them through city traffic much as local pilots often take control of ships as they near their destinations, he said.
Local deliveries might similarly see transformation in the long run, Theobald said.
"Maybe someone designs a system where you have an extra-big mailbox at the house that the truck can put something in, allowing automation of some deliveries while truckers handled others that were oversized, too heavy or otherwise were not a fit for the mechanized system," he said.
Or delivery trucks might be outfitted with drones, with humans becoming mobile distribution center operators, Theobald said.
The human would pull into a staging area and send drones to deliver packages in a neighborhood, he said.
The shift in job definition could also help alleviate a growing problem: a shortage of drivers. The American Trucking Associations predicts that by 2024, the driver shortage will increase significantly by more than 260 percent "from 48,000 available driving jobs to 175,000 jobs."
"When the personal computer came out in the '80s, people freaked out over that. It created new jobs, new industries, and it redefined certain jobs," Roberson said. "I think the same thing is going to happen with the trucking industry. I think it's going to get sexy enough for the younger generation to want to get involved."
By Eric Sherman