In a short video played at Paccar’s recent annual shareholders meeting, a truck pulls up to a building at the entrance to what appears to be a Walmart distribution facility. The driver hops out of the cab to check in. The truck pulls forward, weaves its way through the yard, then backs into a parking place.
No, we didn’t leave out a step. The driver did not hop back in the cab to guide the truck. The truck found its way on its own.
In some ways this demonstration is old news. Paccar, the truck manufacturer that is the parent of the Kenworth, Peterbilt and DAF nameplates, was playing with what were then thought of as remote-control trucks as far back as the 1990s at its Mount Vernon research center.
What’s changed? The terminology, for one. Now such driverless vehicles are often referred to as “autonomous.”
Technology also has come of age. Many of the components that would be necessary for driverless vehicles — detection and warning systems — have migrated to commercial and consumer cars and trucks. More will show up soon.
Expectations also are different now. Back when Paccar was dabbling with remote-control trucks, the idea was a “maybe this will turn into something useful some day, but that day is a long way off” proposition. Now, “some day” is already “here and now” for some applications, and it may not be far off for widespread adoption for consumers on the open road.
That has interesting implications not just for drivers and driving but also for a huge swath of the job market.
We touched upon one of those “here and now” applications in a recent column discussing the competitive landscape for the Puget Sound ports. Automation is one parcel of that landscape in which the local ports trail facilities elsewhere in the world. At those advanced ports, vehicles and cranes move containers on and off ships and truck chassis without a driver or operator on board.
Driverless systems work well in closed environments such as port terminals or that Walmart distribution yard, where the only other vehicles to contend with are those linked in to the same system, and in which unpredictable obstacles and impediments — like pedestrians — are minimized. Type “autonomous truck” into YouTube’s search box and on the first page alone you’ll get videos from Caterpillar, Komatsu and Hitachi showing how huge trucks can be operated at mining and construction sites without drivers.
Adoption of driver-free technology out in the rest of the world will be slower in coming. Not only does the technology have to improve, regulations will have to be written and issues over liability when something goes wrong remain to be resolved. But the pace of technology development, and the push by such major companies as Google, Tesla and Apple, will force government to deal with the issue sooner rather than default to its usual pattern of procrastination.
The safe bet is that autonomous vehicles are coming, if not already here. Less safe is a bet on the growth of certain occupations, like commercial driving.
Such is the way with technology anyway, but particular attention is being paid to the subject as people look for ways to invigorate a lagging economic recovery. The debate is whether increased technology will dampen, or remove entirely, the job growth that is normally thought to accompany economic recovery.
Technology is a major tool for businesses to improve efficiency, productivity, competitiveness and quality, and to cut costs. It’s a huge factor in the ability of American manufacturers to reclaim production work that had been lost to China. It’s one way businesses will deal with upward pressure on labor costs created by higher minimum-wage levels. It’s also how companies will deal with shortages of available, trained and skilled workers in certain fields — including, as it happens, long-haul trucking, where retention of drivers is an issue.
But while technology is disrupting and eliminating jobs in one place, it’s creating them in another. Someone will be needed to build the autonomous systems for vehicles and roadways, and install, maintain and repair them. Someone will need to do the massive amounts of software writing and testing to make sure the systems work safely and reliably — and if you think that’s not a constant issue, just ask Starbucks, which managed to shut down much of its point-of-sale system (hardly a new technology) with a programming glitch.
The problem is that people who do one kind of work that is being eclipsed by a new technology don’t often transition neatly into the new jobs that have been created. That’s where having a well-organized, responsive and flexible vocational training system will be crucial.
“Autonomous vehicle technician” may not be its own occupational classification now. In a decade or so, it will be.
Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.