Self-driving vehicles are set to have an enormous impact on the shipping industry. If trucking became fully autonomous, then operating costs could decline by a full 45 percent, according to a December 2018 report from McKinsey, a consulting agency. This would save the industry between $85 billion and $125 billion. The impact on trucking jobs over the next few decades may be equally as profound in both negative and positive ways.

State of the Technology

According to McKinsey, automation will transpire in several phases. During the first phase, the industry is expected to introduce a technology known as platooning, in which driverless vehicles are connected wirelessly to a lead truck with a driver. During the second phase, autonomous vehicles will obtain the ability to drive on interstate highways without a driver, but humans will be needed to drive during the last miles of the delivery. In the third phase, trucks will become fully autonomous in all parts of the route. Autonomous vehicles continue to be plagued by safety concerns and design flaws that have yet to be overcome. Nevertheless, the technology is progressing fast enough that fully autonomous vehicles could conceivably happen by 2027 at the earliest, though it will take many more years to fully phase out the older non-autonomous fleet. 

Autonomous Vehicles Could Improve Driver Retention

Despite all the hand-wringing over automation, the trucking industry is actually facing an acute labor shortage at the moment. According to The Atlantic, the trucking industry has almost a 100 percent turnover rate per year due to the physical and emotional stress of the job. The first waves of autonomous vehicles could actually ameliorate much of this stress on the drivers by taking on the least desirable routes, while drivers will stick to the routes closest to home.

How Autonomous Vehicles Will Impact Employment

In the short term, truckers will cover only the last miles of transit. But once trucks become fully autonomous, then jobs in the industry will likely shift from driving the trucks to serving and maintaining the driverless fleet. Thus, the total number of jobs could remain the same, even as the number of drivers falls. Current truck drivers tend to be older, so this will have less of an impact on younger workers.

The self-driving vehicle problem is inextricably bound up with larger questions about the future of work in an age of artificial intelligence and automation. The nature of work will change, so workers will need to adapt and gain different skills to remain relevant.

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