What We Don’t Know About Automated Trucking

I wrote a piece recently about what Democrats can do to bolster their platform. The first step was “Buy a gun” which I expected to be the most incendiary part of it. Instead, the thing I’m getting the most consistent feedback about is a relatively minor point I made about automated trucking.

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Here’s the crux: self-driving cars are on the horizon, and right now shipping companies are already investing heavily in automated trucks. I’ve read about estimates of $168 billion in annual savings for the industry by replacing human drivers with robots. This is a problem because Truck Driver is the number one job in something like 29 states.

People think this is an overstated concern, that nobody is going to want a huge truck without at least one human in it, that it will probably take longer than ten years to really come around. All of that may be true, yes, but that would still mean a reduction in the truck-driver workforce happening sooner or later. But let’s look about three steps farther into the future. I think that self-driving trucks are going to end up completely human-less, and here’s why: Every technology starts out looking like the thing it replaces, but it won’t stay there for long. The first emails looked like memos. The first cars looked literally like horseless carriages. But soon they optimized for their own technological strengths and weaknesses.

How does this apply to trucking? We don’t actually know, but we can make some educated guesses. Labor costs are by far the limiting factor in trucking right now. Human beings need to eat and sleep and go to the hospital and see their families. They operate best in the daylight, which means trucks have to compete with normal traffic. And they make mistakes, which means insuring them and insuring their contents. Modern trucking is optimized to handle the fact that humans operate these things. So what happens when you take away the humans. What becomes the new limiting factor?

My guess is size. Largeness is an inefficiency. Trucking companies have to pay extra taxes because giant trucks are rough on roads. Trucks have to avoid certain routes because they’re too tall or weigh too much. Delivery docks have a huge footprint for warehousing. Trucks are large because that makes the most sense if you need to limit labor costs. But if you could replace a single cargo-container-sized truck with five or six pallet-sized trucks, would you?

I would. Smaller trucks would be easier to replace, easier to upgrade, and easier to empty out if they broke down. They spread out the liability if something gets destroyed. They increase warehouse efficiencies, since you now have a smaller space to fill before considering a single task complete. They’ll be much more efficient in cities where traffic is thicker and streets are more difficult to navigate. The only potential drawback I can really see is around fuel consumption, since you would have a fleet of five to six times as many vehicles. However, modern trucks get around six miles per gallon of gas. Could you get smaller trucks up to around thirty? I bet you could, or you could come close.

Smaller trucks would also get rid of the stigma around making sure you have a human in the vehicle. People are a lot less afraid of automated smaller vehicles than larger ones. And if trucking companies stand to save hundreds of billions in labor costs, you can bet they’ll be able to carve out a few million for lobbyists to keep laws favorable to them.

So yeah, I think this is coming, and I think we need to figure out now what the jobs of the future are going to look like. Because in a decade, maybe two, the number one job in most of the country — geographically speaking , anyway— is going to fade away.