Image for article titled Trucking remade the world. Now the world is remaking trucking

How technology is outrunning the law

There have long been regulations for truck drivers and the companies that employ them, but historically they have been focused on labor concerns. Millions have funneled into lobbyist coffers from the trucking industry to try and push against more red tape. Autonomous trucks could either create an opportunity or a catastrophe for it—the legal framework today is still unclear. What’s more, there’s disagreement over what the safety guidelines for driverless vehicles should be. Critics of self-driving vehicles argue that having the cars on public roads is simply not worth the risk. Firms trying to develop driverless technology claim that there’s no replacement for being able to test products in real-life conditions and that the long-term safety gains could be world-altering.

Some states, like Arizona, California, Florida, and Nevada have taken the lead in allowing autonomous testing on private and public roads, but the national framework is patchy at best. While American regulators are stalling, it’s possible that governments in Europe and Asia, could embrace automated trucking. Here’s looking at you, China.


About 4,000 Americans a year die in trucking-related collisions, the vast majority of which involve human error. Of those deaths, 66% are people in passenger vehicles, 17% are truck occupants, and 16% are pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcyclists.

The jobs question

So, the federal government, among others, has assumed that self-driving trucks are inevitable. But the big question is, what will automation of trucking mean for jobs?

There’s a scenario in which truckers could come out like bank tellers—relatively the same in number, but performing very different functions. There’s another scenario in which they come out like switchboard operators, which for anyone under the age of 35 who doesn’t watch old movies, were the people who physically connected people’s phone calls with wires.

On either end of that spectrum, the future will require tremendous retraining of a huge workforce. And right now, there isn’t much evidence that efforts are underway to take this seriously. This could be where community colleges come in, as a low-cost, accessible way for blue collar workers to retrain.

There could also be unintended winners like gas station attendants. Self-driving trucks may not be able to refill or plug into a charger themselves, let alone perform their own maintenance checks. A job that has been automated out of existence except in two states that mandate attendants (shoutout to Oregon and New Jersey!) could become indispensable.

Sen. Wesley Jones, trucking hero

Image for article titled Trucking remade the world. Now the world is remaking trucking

In 1920, the senior senator from the great state of Washington, Wesley Jones, introduced the Merchant Marine Act (aka the Jones Act), a bill that laid down some rules about shipping within the US (ostensibly for national-security reasons). It said that ships carrying cargo from one American port to another must be US-flagged, built in the US, owned by US citizens, and crewed by US citizens or permanent residents. In other words, like very few ships that exist today. As a result of this legislation, freight that travels up and down the coasts (where a not insignificant number of people live), cannot be carried by ship—even though doing so would be cheaper and better for the environment. And what steps in the gap to move all that material that ships cannot? Trucks.


The combined weight of everything moved by a truck in the US in a year is 10.5 billion pounds.

And then there’s Amazon

The gorilla of a company has used several trucking companies as subcontractors, but there are whispers that it is working to create its own private fleet and has already started poaching good drivers. It’s unclear what role automation will play in Amazon’s own fleet, but given Jeff Bezos’s penchant for AI, it’s likely this will be more Space Age than Smokey and the Bandit. (This is the same company that has wanted to deliver goods by drone, after all.)

One could argue that Amazon is a friend of trucking in that more goods are being moved around than ever thanks to the part it’s playing in encouraging people to buy stuff online, but it also could be seen as a complete foe if it obliterates the trucking industry and replaces drivers with bots overnight. As trucking economists have noted, Amazon is also using data to make its supply chain more efficient in ways that many older companies could have implemented decades ago. Amazon is also reducing the emphasis on long haul trucking by building out a network of distribution centers closer to big, urban areas so medium- and short-haul drivers can make shorter (and speedier) deliveries. The Amazon effect on trucking could mean smaller trucks and a new or different role for 18-wheelers.

The last-mile problem

It’s one thing for an 18-wheel semi to cruise autonomously down the interstate; it’s another for that truck to navigate city streets or a construction site where the main entrance is blocked by a cement truck, and you have to look for the guy in the orange vest to wave you into the side lot.

You can see how automation may run up against certain limits. What this means is that the chain of vehicles used to deliver goods may well have to change. An autonomous semi may pull into a local distribution center, where parcels are loaded onto smaller vehicles still piloted by humans. Eventually, even those vehicles may become autonomous or, if Jeff Bezos has his way, airborne.

📬 Sign up for the Daily Brief

Our free, fast, and fun briefing on the global economy, delivered every weekday morning.