A Trucker Shortage? Bring on the Robots.
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Few occupations are as essential to the U.S. economy as driving a truck. Unfortunately, not enough workers still want the job. Should robots take the wheel?
Trucking employment fell markedly at the start of the pandemic and has yet to fully recover, even as demand for freight has soared. Industry analysts reckon the current shortage at 80,000 drivers — a record high — and expect it to reach twice that over the next decade. Nationwide, this deficit has worsened congestion at ports and warehouses, while helping to suppress growth and push up prices.
Even before Covid-19, the industry had been complaining for years about a lack of manpower. The problem is that long-haul trucking simply isn’t appealing for many workers: It involves grueling schedules, extended time away from home, dangerous conditions and significant health risks. Turnover exceeds 90% at bigger carriers — which helps explain why the shortage has persisted even as employers have been boosting wages and offering big bonuses.
Congress’s answer to this challenge? Get teenagers to do the work. A provision of the new infrastructure bill would let big-rig drivers aged 18 to 20 move goods across state lines, once they’ve been trained. This won’t do much to alleviate turnover. Given that teen drivers have much higher rates of fatal accidents, it could even create new hazards. And more to the point: It will be preparing kids for a career that doesn’t have much of a future.
Autonomous trucks are already plying American interstates. Startups such as Aurora Innovation Inc. and TuSimple Holdings Inc. have lured significant funding while putting promising new technologies on the road. Shipping stalwarts such as Walmart Inc. and FedEx Corp. are investing heavily. Beer runs have proved to be a natural starting point.
If these efforts pan out, they could transform the $800 billion trucking industry. An analysis by McKinsey & Co. estimated that automation could reduce logistics costs by as much as 40% and operating expenses by 45%. For consumers, that should translate into quicker deliveries, cheaper goods and more reliable service.
Other benefits abound. By obviating legal limits on drive time, autonomous trucks could travel 24/7, thereby easing congestion, boosting delivery capacity and doubling the daily range of a given truck, from 600 miles to 1,200 miles. By mitigating human error, they should drastically reduce accidents. Environmentally, they could be a boon: Efficient throttle and brake controls can minimize fuel burn, while traveling in electronically linked “platoons” will reduce wind drag, boost gas mileage, and slash emissions.
Does this mean truckers are just out of luck? In all likelihood, no. A recent study sponsored by the Department of Transportation found that layoffs from automation will be limited, gradual and more than offset. Yes, fewer drivers will be piloting big rigs coast to coast. But collaboration between workers and technology will create new and better opportunities. All told, the study found, automation could add as many as 35,000 new jobs a year, raise wages for all U.S. workers, and boost gross domestic product by as much as 0.3% over three decades.
On balance, this suggests that lawmakers should welcome autonomous trucks for the long haul.
As a start, Congress should make testing such technology easier by granting manufacturers more exemptions to current federal safety standards, especially those covering equipment such as steering wheels or brake pedals that would be irrelevant for many autonomous vehicles. Moving forward, regulators should steer clear of overly prescriptive design standards in favor of an objectives-based approach that would allow for more innovation.
As for those drivers who may still lose out due to automation, Congress should ensure that established programs for displaced workers at the Department of Labor are broadened and equipped to help them move to higher-skilled roles. Driving schools will need to incorporate more technology into their curriculums. And apprenticeship programs should help younger workers adjust to the jobs’ new demands.
In time, robot drivers should become an unremarkable feature of the great American highway. For all manner of reasons, it can’t happen too soon.
Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.
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