A Medium article on driverless trucks went viral in my Facebook and Twitter feeds last week. It seemed as if everyone I knew was suddenly deeply worried that these robo-semis were going to hit America’s economy like, well, a Mack truck.
It’s easy to see why so many people shared the piece. Writer Scott Santens lays out a catchy case:
• Trucking employs a huge number of people, by Santens’s math “8.7 million trucking-related jobs.”
• Those jobs are relatively well paid, and those incomes create a lot of other jobs in small towns nationwide.
• The technology already exists to make those trucks self- driving. There’s Google’s self-driving car, of course, but “according to Google’s experience, the greater danger lies within cities and not freeways, and driving between cities involves even fewer technological barriers than within them. Therefore, it’s probably pretty safe to say driverless freeway travel is even closer to our future horizon of driverless transportation.”
In fact, the first self-driving truck is already on the road. Apple and Uber and loads of other companies are also working on self-driving technology.
• “According to Morgan Stanley, complete autonomous capability will be here by 2022, followed by massive market penetration by 2026 and the cars we know and love today then entirely extinct in another 20 years thereafter.” Other research reports estimate significant penetration by 2035 or so.
• Wireless “platooning” will allow one driver to lead several driverless trucks.
• Economic devastation will follow as middle-class jobs are zapped and whole communities hollow out.
• Therefore, “no one should be asking what we’re going to do if computers take our jobs…. We should all be asking what we get to do once freed from them.”
This case is certainly stirring, but it’s a bit premature. Santens overestimates when fully automated trucks will arrive and how many workers they will displace. I’m skeptical that this will be a major policy problem in the next two decades.
Start with what truckers do, and how many of them there are. Santens quotes the American Trucker Association to get 3.5 million. The Bureau of Labor Statistics puts that figure a bit lower, around 2.8 million. Only 1.6 million of those are long-haul truckers.
The rest are “driver/sales” employees or “light truck or delivery services drivers” – short-haul services that won’t quickly be replaced by automated cars, because chaotic urban roads are harder for autonomous vehicles and because part of the job is loading and unloading the truck.
Also, why would we assume that driverless trucks would be bad for trucking-support jobs? Maintenance and loading still must be done. Moreover, other jobs will be created, in designing and maintaining the new systems. Someone has to map all those roads.
But I think it will be a while before we get to a fully autonomous vehicle. The “driverless truck” that Santens cites is partially autonomous. If it foresees something it can’t deal with, such as heavy snow, it signals the driver to take over; if the driver doesn’t respond, it slows to a stop. That improves the lives of truck drivers.
I do expect that eventually, our roads will be autonomous. But I’m not as optimistic as I used to be, because it turns out that Google’s achievement is not quite as amazing as many people seem to think.
You hear about how Google cars have driven an amazing number of miles without accidents. You hear less, however, about how they did so: by 3-D mapping every inch of those roads so the car has a database of every stationary object, from traffic lights to guardrails. That allows the car to devote its processing power to analyzing the movement of objects that aren’t in its database.
Such mapping is incredibly labor-intensive, which is why, according to Slate writer Lee Gomes, those amazing mile counts “are the same few thousand mapped miles, driven over and over again.” Most are near Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, which gets only 15 inches of rain a year and never has snow or ice.
Just getting Google’s technology to a point where we could have self-driving trucks would require mapping every inch of the nation’s more than 164,000 miles worth of highways. But then what do you do with the truck? You’re probably going to have to map some of the roads that connect to those highways too. And then constantly remap them, because things change. You'll also have to teach the computer system what to do in a blinding snowstorm.
Long-haul trucks must be able to go anywhere in all kinds of weather. Google’s latest cars, the ones that are really autonomous, are essentially driverless golf carts, which mitigate the risk by slowing the car down and cushioning the front with foam. Presumably that approach will enable them to speed up as they work the kinks out. But it seems like getting from there to fully automated trucks – necessarily huge, heavy and capable of horrific damage, with handling capabilities that change depending on the load, and a stopping distance almost twice that of a car at high speeds – will probably take a while.
Those trucks will still have drivers, and will continue to have them until we fix the road and weather problem, because a truck that requires an expensive capital investment but must stop to wait out the weather is not obviously preferable to one with a driver who can slow down and keep on truckin'.
Speaking of that capital investment: It won’t happen all at once. Owner operators may push a rig to 750,000 or a million miles before they look for a new one.
Overall, Santens is right that eventually, we'll solve the problems and self-driving trucks will displace a lot of drivers. But the number of jobs lost will be smaller than he thinks, and the change will be slower. So while eventually a set of former drivers will have to figure out what to do with their freed time, that’s likely to be a problem for the next generation of truckers, not this one.
Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes on economics, business and public policy.