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By Chris Opfer
Fleets of unmanned heavy-duty trucks are on their way to highways around the globe. They’re set to revolutionize the freight transportation industry when they get there and may significantly change what it means to get behind the wheel of a big rig, if not eliminate the job altogether.
Scania AB expects before the end of the year to roll out a platoon of driverless trucks that follow a manned lead vehicle to transport freight between a pair of ports in Singapore. The move comes as companies including Volkswagen AG, Toyota Motor Corp., Daimler AG, Tesla Inc., Alphabet Inc.'s Waymo, United Parcel Service Inc., and Navistar International Corp. continue to invest in autonomous trucks that some expect to hit the road before driverless passenger cars. Many are also turning their attention to the technology for full convoys to navigate the open road with only one human operator.
“Platooning is the first step on our way to autonomous driving on public roads,” Andreas Renschler, chairman of Scania’s board of directors and a Volkswagen board member, said at a VW innovation event Oct. 11. “As soon as necessary regulations and standardizations are in place, we will be all set to scale what we have learned.”
The Scania platoon trucks use wireless, beacon-to-beacon technology to connect braking and safety systems and communicate with one another and the lead vehicle. Other automakers, such as Daimler, are looking instead to draw on cloud-based connections to allow human-operated trucks to link up and follow each other more closely while sharing information about road and traffic conditions.
Labor leaders are concerned about what the advancements mean for the some 1.8 million long-haul truckers in the U.S. alone. They want to pump the brakes a bit on the process and buy some more time as policy makers consider the wider ramifications of workplace automation.
“Right now it seems that workers in this new economy at best will be unintended consequences of automation and at worst will be casualties,” Doug Bloch, the political director for a Teamsters Joint Council in California, told Bloomberg BNA. “We are not against innovation, but our approach right now is to try to slow it down.”
Labor groups and others lobbied successfully—for now, at least—to keep freight trucks out of bills ( H.R. 3388, S. 1885) pending in Congress that would help fast-track self-driving passenger vehicles. That leaves much of the regulation for autonomous trucks to the states, where unions are pushing laws requiring the vehicles to have a human on board.
Officials at Scania, Daimler, UPS, Navistar, and elsewhere said there will still be some role for truck drivers. But the job itself is likely to change as the technology advances.
“From our perspective, we are still in the mindset that drivers are important and are not going away,” Dennis Mooney, a vice president at Navistar, told Bloomberg BNA. “We think the skill set will change over time, but it will be kind of like flying the planes that are now highly automated. You still need a pilot.”
The primary benefit of truck platooning is that it allows vehicles to follow more closely, a kind of drafting seen in auto racing that cuts down on wind drag and saves fuel. Supporters say automation may also eventually make highway driving safer by reducing the risk of human error. That could be a tough sell.
“It is going to be a very intimidating experience for the rest of the drivers on the road,” Consumer Federation of America spokesman Jack Gillis told Bloomberg BNA. “The notion of three, four, five semis cruising down the highway at 65 miles an hour in lockstep is very disconcerting.”
Labor cost considerations are also driving the automation rush.
“The driver usually represents somewhere around 40, 45 percent of the total cost for a transport company,” Scania CEO Henrik Henriksson said at the Volkswagen event. “So, of course, taking the driver out of the picture with autonomous vehicles will turn their business upside down.”
Henriksson later clarified that the shift to autonomous truck platoons won’t happen overnight.
“The drivers will be with us for a long time, and we need them,” he said. “The transformation to autonomous systems will be gradual in different industry verticals and in different geographic regions.”
Labor groups are working to keep drivers on board rigs. In California, where Peloton Technology Inc. is testing platoon trucks in partnership with UPS, the Teamsters helped push legislation requiring platoon trucks to be manned. Similar requirements are also in place in Texas, Oregon, and Nevada, where much of the testing is happening.
Union leaders acknowledge that those kinds of moves aren’t a long-term solution to automation-related job loss. But the leaders also aren’t sure what the actual solution should be.
“What we’ve been saying to folks on the Hill is that we think there are a lot unanswered questions from a labor perspective,” Larry Willis, president of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Division, told Bloomberg BNA. “There’s going to be a significant labor dislocation and downward pressure on wages. We need to think carefully about how to protect these workers.”
Much of the discussion in Congress and statehouses is about the need to further study the jobs impact and to debate policy responses.
“It’s a real thing and it’s something that we need to be cognizant of and having conversations about,” California Assemblymember Marc Berman (D) told Bloomberg BNA of possible technology-related job losses. Berman, whose district includes parts of Silicon Valley, sponsored the legislation to extend autonomous truck testing and keep drivers in the vehicles.
One solution offered by some liberal thinkers and debated in a couple of European countries is a universal basic income for citizens that would lessen the need for work. That idea, which faces significant funding hurdles and raises complicated questions about the value of a job, isn’t likely to see the light of day anytime soon stateside.
Meanwhile, there’s bipartisan support for bolstering training programs to prepare workers for the jobs of the future. But it’s still not clear exactly what skills they will need.
“People are offering up, in our opinion, very weak solutions for how to deal with the social and political crisis that could be caused by massive unemployment,” Bloch of the Teamsters Joint Council said. “I don’t know what the answers are, but I do know what some of the answers are not.”
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