There are 1.8 million heavy truck drivers and 800,000 light truck drivers in the US. Driving a truck is the most common occupation in 29 states, and a high-paying one relative to other jobs that require similar levels of education.
All of this makes the prospect of self-driving vehicles–which many manufactures say they expect to have on the road within the next five years–a focal point in the discussion about how automation will impact employment.
The relationship between trucking jobs and automation is more complicated than simply replacing drivers with vehicles that drive themselves, says Joseph Kane, a senior research analyst at the Brookings Institute. “Many truck drivers and many support workers, mechanics and other administrative workers, they will continue to play an enormous role in this industry,” he says. Work that doesn’t involve driving won’t be as easy for robots to take over.
As Kane and co-author Adie Tomer explained in a recent report:
Just as there are different types of doctors, there are different types of truck drivers – from heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers who focus on long-haul journeys to delivery truck drivers who carry lighter loads and navigate local streets. Not surprisingly, many of these drivers are not simply sitting behind the wheel all day on auto drive. They also inspect their freight loads, fix equipment, make deliveries, and perform other non-routinized tasks.
The work of those non-driving tasks may shift elsewhere when trucks drive themselves, but it won’t disappear.
In addition to driving jobs that include other types of tasks, there are also many trucking jobs that don’t include driving at all. About 40% of workers in the trucking industry aren’t truck drivers. “Even as automated trucks may alter the actual shipment of goods,” Kane and Tomer write, “these technologies are unlikely to supplant all of the various technical, financial, and logistical work activities in support of that movement.”
Like other technologies throughout history, automated vehicles will create new types of jobs. The task of unloading trucks or receiving packages, for instance, might shift to the people who are receiving the delivery. New types of workers may refuel and maintain trucks.
Kane and Tomer don’t say that jobs in trucking will remain unchanged or argue that automated cars don’t threaten any jobs, but rather argue that even as driving becomes automated, trucking won’t turn into a industry without job opportunities. “Rather than glossing over the potential labor impacts,” they write, “policymakers, employers, educators, and others should closely monitor these developments over time and link them to relevant workforce development efforts.”