With the rise of outsourcing that started in the 80s, US workers across countless industries started worrying that they would lose their jobs to overseas workers. After all, it’s generally much cheaper to employ people outside of America, and most companies are always looking for ways to save money. For some industries, outsourcing has become so engrained, businesses within that industry might not have a choice but to outsource work if they wish to stay competitive.
All of this to say, there is a new concern that’s been gaining traction over the past decade; these days, many workers are fearing they will be replaced by automation. As with outsourcing, significant cost reduction is a driving factor here. But automation brings further advantages including reduction in human error, improved safety, increased working capabilities, and more.
Of course, automation itself isn’t new. Automated systems have long replaced elevator operators, switchboard operators, bowling pinsetters, and more. But with today’s advanced machines and AI technology, a new wave of jobs is potentially at risk of being replaced.
One of the jobs that is often included in that list is the truck driver.
After all, automated trucks already exist. Numerous companies have tested and successfully hauled freight on open roads with zero assistance from a human driver. These trucks come decked out with sensors, cameras, radar devices, and more, all of which is controlled by an onboard AI-computer.
Yet despite that, we’re not as close to computer-controlled deliveries as some may have you believe. There is no question that automation and AI-driven tools provide significant benefits, and that they will continue to take a greater role in the truck industry, but it will be a while before truck drivers need to be concerned about losing out to a computer.
A Long Way to Go
While an automated truck can perform the basic description of a trucker’s job, they fall short in the details. Truckers do more than simply get behind the wheel and drive in a line. They interact with people at pickup and delivery spots. They ensure freight is loaded and secured. They inspect the vehicle before, during, and after drives.
The list goes on.
Many of these tasks simply can’t be performed by today’s technology. Though a computer may be able to detect an issue such as a flat tire or a loose connection to the trailer, they can’t fix it. An automated truck can react to other drivers and road conditions, but they’re not capable of responding to human directions and reactions.
For example, let’s say you’re going through a construction zone where there’s a worker guiding vehicles with gestures and a handheld sign. An automated truck would have trouble processing this. The same is true in an accident situation where there are cops directing traffic on the scene.
And there’s the simple fact that a self-driving truck can’t even fuel itself.
Even when it comes to driving, there are limitations. Automated trucks have performed well in open road tests. Once tests move to local deliveries and narrow urban areas, however, the results become much more inconsistent. Technology companies are aware of these shortcomings, which is why they’re focusing their efforts on long-haul drives right now.
Finally, while automation has potential to save money in the long run, it will certainly come with a heavy upfront cost as it become available. While large freight companies may be able to foot the bill, smaller trucking companies will likely be much slower to adopt.
When automation is brought up, it’s often seen as a replacement for workers. In the case of truck driving, however, it’s more likely to enhance rather than replace. With all of the things automated systems can’t do, not to mention public (and legal) concerns, a real person is needed to fill in the gaps.
A combined approach is much more realistic, and it could be very beneficial to both drivers and trucking companies.
With the quicker reactions and open-road control provided by an automated system, truck drivers could largely be hands-free during the drive. This could allow them to handle other needs, monitor the situation, and potentially get some rest. It wouldn’t be so different from a pilot whose main job is to handle the take-off and landing of the plane.
Leveraging AI technology to assist truck drivers could improve safety, lead to greater efficiency, and provide a better trucking experience for everyone involved.
There may come a day when automated technology is able to handle all of the duties of a truck driver, but that day is much further off than news headlines would have you believe. With the current tools we have and the growing need for more drivers, there has never been a better time to become a truck driver.