Automation Will Restructure the Trucking Industry: Are You Ready?
In a recent blog, I talked about the impact of increased automation and robotics on jobs in the logistics industry. While jobs numbers attract the most attention both within the industry and in the popular press, the more significant and complicated issue relates to the impact on the structure of the logistics industry itself. A recent Brookings report by Joseph Kane and Adie Tomer sheds light on the complicated nature of this issue (Brookings: Automated Trucking).
Kane and Tomer make four important points about driverless vehicles in the trucking industry. First, the truck driver’s job is much more complicated than just driving a truck. At the very least, the job involves inspection, loading and unloading, and equipment maintenance. Most of these job elements are relatively low on their “degree of automation”—materially lower than the national average. Thus, the arrival of driverless trucks will create a new set of complimentary jobs both for the trucking companies as well as for warehouses and retailers. Third, these complimentary jobs will range from semiskilled (loading and unloading) to very technological (monitoring and repair of vehicles) in nature. Finally, since trucking is regulated at the national, state and local levels, it will take a considerable amount of time to standardize regulation to allow complete implementation of driverless trucks.
As I suggested in the earlier blog, logistics companies should plan and prepare for changes that driverless vehicles will bring. Certainly, the automotive industry is investing heavily in the development of such vehicles. GM reported last week that it planned to invest $14 million and hire over a thousand workers to establish a new center focused on self-driving cars. Similarly, Ford, Audi, BMW and the other major car manufacturers have announced similar plans. The prospects are attracting significant investments from the likes of Google and Uber.
Similar research for trucking is underway at companies like Embark and Otto. What is needed, however, is innovation that focuses on the unique challenges of the trucking industry. One such strategy is being developed by Starsky Robotics. This company is experimenting with the retrofitting of trucks with robotic controls to allow it to ease into driverless vehicles. They recently completed a 180-mile delivery with robotic control of 85% of the trip. Their goal is a system that would allow a single driver to monitor and control 10 to 30 trucks. Essentially, they are developing systems comparable to airliner autopilot systems where, on the typical domestic flight, only 5% of the flying is pilot controlled.
Planning and restructuring cannot end with just the driver. As Kane and Tomer note, driverless trucks will increase not decrease the need for skilled labor in the trucking industry. It will also demand new ways of connecting these functions that will require software and systems that have not yet been developed. If, as they note, only 60% of today’s workers in trucking are truckers, this percentage will plummet in the near future. The education and training industries must be prepared to educate the new workers. At the same time, however, the trucking companies must begin defining the new jobs and organizational structures that will accompany the driverless or semi-driverless truck.