I work as a hostler (also known as a switcher or a spotter) for a large, regional LTL (less-than-truckload) carrier. As I was preparing to leave work the other day, I had been talking with some other employees about current working conditions and business levels. The conversation turned to cost-cutting, and without thinking about it, I mentioned the emergence of autonomous vehicles and how my job would probably be gone before I could retire from this occupation in 15 years or so. A couple of the other guys dismissed the idea, saying they doubted it was that close. I replied that I was not as optimistic about my job security as they were. I have read a few scattered articles about Daimler Trucks and the prototypes they have tested, and I follow technology news enough to know that autonomous cars have made great strides in development and cleared some pretty significant hurdles in the way of full-scale road testing in various cities. I decided that the potential impact to not only myself, but the 3.5 million professional truck drivers employed in the United Sates, and millions more around the world, was too great to let the subject go unexplored.
According to data compiled by the American Transportation Research Institute, driver pay and benefits ranges from 38-43 percent of the total operational cost by mile. Those costs are only going up due to a significant shortage of drivers industry-wide, and the resultant increases in compensation offered to attract qualified drivers. The only problem with the increasing pay is that, relative to the cost of living, compensation has actually gone down. From my own experience, I can say with confidence that failure to keep pace with the competition when it comes to pay and benefits leads to painful labor shortages, which create a lot of forced overtime, leading to even more defections by drivers that just get fed up with the excessive overtime. I think we can say that labor costs are an incentive to automate, given the widely reported move to automation by McDonald’s. Of course, it’s not an overstatement to say that the two industries are apple and oranges when it comes to automation.
With many rigs weighing over to 100,000 pounds, safety is another primary concern, both in terms of loss of life and costs to the company. According to data from the NHTSA, large trucks were involved in 3,598 (11.2%) of the 32,166 fatal crashes that occurred on American roads in 2015. According to another report by NHTSA, as a driver’s experience increases, the odds of involvement in a fatal crash gradually go down. Nothing surprising there, but with large waves of retirement expected in the next decades, and growing evidence that younger drivers are not entering the industry in sufficient numbers, the workload on the existing supply of drivers is only going to increase. Tired drivers get in more fatal crashes and make many more non-fatal mistakes. Repair, maintenance, liability and insurance costs will go up because of it. Even with a driver on-board, autonomous trucks will improve safety by minimizing driver fatigue and mistakes. That looks like another check mark in the automation column.
Another area where companies always look for savings is operational efficiency, in the case of trucking companies, this means moving the customer’s freight as efficiently as possible through the system and in a way that allows them to provide value to those customers. One way to do that is by using the minimum number of man-hours, fuel, and rubber to get the freight from shipper to consignee. LTL freight yards, rail yards, and distribution centers are a more controlled environment than roads and highways. Yard hostlers tend spend a fair amount of time on standby between stretches of high activity. This presents an opportunity to save on fuel and labor costs, as well as reducing the opportunity for injuries to occur. Another area, with far greater potential savings, is over-the-road. The majority of the labor costs of LTL and truckload companies goes to pay the wages/mileage from city to city, on the major highways.
Of course, the challenge is not selling the industry on potential cost savings, since those things sell themselves. The challenge is proving that this technology is ready to put to work. The full adoption of the diverse technologies involved in automation will not happen all at once, but in stages, largely dependent on the particular industry or application involved. Obviously return on investment is key, but the safety of these vehicles is just as important to responsible operators.
“Safety is also a major factor for truck manufacturers such as Volvo Group, which has demonstrated heavy-duty vehicles with various levels of autonomy over the past few years, including a self-steering tractor, a driver-less garbage truck and the world’s first fully autonomous mining truck.” – Susan Carpenter, Trucks.com, July 13, 2017
The combination of cost savings and safety enhancements, with the added fuel of competition (trucking is a fiercely competitive industry), and added buy-in from companies like Uber, will mean that momentum will continue to increase. Some manufacturers though, such as Daimler Trucks, are taking a more measured approach, citing both regulatory hurdles and anomalous driving conditions that haven’t been handled yet
In terms of how this affect the commercial driver, we probably won’t see wave after wave of job losses in the next few years. This technology could actually help make trucks more safe, and help solve the critical driver shortages that the industry is experiencing by improving both working conditions and efficiency. In the long-term though, and by the same means, this technology will likely put increasing downward pressure on wages and available jobs by allowing companies to do more work with fewer drivers.