Economists and policymakers are becoming increasingly concerned about the effects of automation and artificial intelligence on employment—including whether some kinds of jobs will cease to exist at all. Trucking is often thought to be one of the first industries at substantial risk. The work is difficult, unsafe, and often deadly and high rates of driver turnover are a constant problem in the industry. As a result, autonomous trucks have become a site of tremendous technical innovation and investment—and some forecasters project that truck driving will be one of the first major industries to be targeted by AI-driven automation.
Technology-driven unemployment is a real threat, but robotic trucks are very unlikely to decimate the trucking profession in one sudden phase transition. The path to fully autonomous trucking is likely to be a gradual slope, not a steep cliff—a trajectory shaped not only by technical roadblocks, but by social, legal, and cultural factors. Truck drivers’ daily work consists of many complex tasks other than driving trucks—maintenance, inspections, talking to customers, safeguarding valuable goods—many of which are far more difficult to automate than highway driving. A host of new legal regimes across states will be required to ensure that the technology can be deployed safely. And widespread apprehension around autonomous vehicles (and autonomous trucks especially) will likely delay adoption. All of these factors will slow the degree at which autonomous trucks take to American highways.
Instead of thinking about a sudden wave of trucker unemployment, then, we should think about how AI will change what truckers’ work looks like over the long haul. There will still be human truckers for a long time to come—but this doesn’t mean that what it means to be a human trucker won’t change substantially. Rather than whole-cloth replacement of human truckers, autonomous technologies might require integration between human and machines over a long period of time, as truckers are required to coordinate their work—and themselves—with the technology.
There are several possible forms this integration might take.
Passing the Baton
One vision of the future imagines machines and humans as coworkers. In this model, people and machines “pass the baton” back and forth to one another, like runners in a relay: The worker completes the tasks to which she is best suited, and the machine does the same. For example, a robot might take responsibility for mundane or routine tasks, while the human handles things in exceptional circumstances, or steps in to take over when the robot’s capacities are exceeded.
Human/robot teams hold some promise both because they try to seize on the relative advantages of each—and because the model presumes that humans get to keep their jobs. In fact, some believe that human jobs might become more interesting and fulfilling under such a model, if robots can take on more of the “grunt work” that humans currently are tasked with completing.
The human/robot team is not an especially farfetched idea for trucking work. In fact, most of us encounter a version of this model every time we sit behind a steering wheel. Modern cars commonly offer some form of technological assistance to human drivers (sometimes called “advanced driver-assistance systems”). Adaptive cruise control is an example: When a human driver activates it, the car automatically adjusts its own speed to maintain a given driving distance from the cars in front of it.