Keep On Truckin’ Autonomously

Keep On Truckin, “Autonomously”, is going to happen, despite the auto-pilot failure of a Tesla vehicle this past May. An overlooked irony is that the other vehicle in this accident was a driver-operated tractor-trailer. That ill-fated truck could not possibly avoid the Tesla, since it is reported that the Model S slid under the rig.

In the near future, this truck might still have a “driver” i.e., someone in the cab minding the controls, but perhaps simultaneously watching a movie.  The trucking industry will be an early adopter of autonomous technology for a number of reasons. Some of these reasons are economic  and some of them are cultural.

Economic Reasons-  Keep On Truckin’

The economic reasons are vast because shipping is the linchpin of  commerce. Nearly 70 percent of  U.S. freight tonnage goes on trucks, says the ATA, an industry group. There are between 2.5 and 3 million trucks on the road that require some sort of Commercial Driver’s License and about 1.6 million of these are tractor-trailers, with 800,000 in use for long-haul operations. The demand for long-haul shipping seems to increase exponentially…a need created by a broader supply chain, warehousing, and Internet sales.

But, while freight needs amplify…  the supply of heavy duty Class-8 drivers is shrinking. There are many factors (read on to Cultural Reasons). In 2014, there was a shortage of 38,000 drivers, and today, it is estimated to be around 50,000.

Payscale.com reports that “median salary for tractor-trailer driver is $17.00 per hour, and the base salaries are augmented by overtime, signing bonuses and commissions.

So, with a people shortage and a vehicle advantage, the state of Nevada began in 2015, to license its first self-driving truck. In Texas, according to a NYT article, it is legal to drive across the state with no one at the wheel. The key to growth though is technology.  Earlier this year Google staff working on the autonomous car joined other robocar engineers to form a new company called Ottomotto. This Bay Area start-up is focused on ways to retrofit existing trucks and incrementally scale up to automation, with ideas like platooning.

The autonomous trucks are here, or almost. They keep on coming.

Cultural Reasons- Keep On Truckin’

The cultural reasons that favor autonomous truck driving have a lot to do with the rise, and demise of the Baby Boomer cohort. In the trucking industry today, the average driver age is 49, compared to age 42 for all U.S. workers. And, only 6% of drivers are female, compared to 47% in the workforce at large.

But, the key demographic is the rate of retirement by Boomer men. Retirements exceed new recruits and signups (often minorities) by a ratio of almost two to one.

The Baby Boomers are a generation that grew up with cars and the twentieth century will be identified  as the golden age of automotives. It is no wonder that the lure of the open road, and its images of freedom and independence encouraged many men to work here.

The lure of the open road and long distance travel also brought with it a ‘roady’ life- style. The CB radio, launched for truckers in the 1970s, and served like an internet that linked drivers on the road. Truckers are still interconnected by a vast array of road-side restaurants, motels, service bays, and rest areas designed to accommodate them and their big rigs.

Although these accommodations are going nowhere, the economy, for good or for bad, is.

Truckin’ for Millennials

It is well known that the Millennial generation does not “favor” automotive travel. The irony is that the truck most preferred by the Millennials seems to the ubiquitous, urban food truck- not the trucking of the open road!

The reason may be that younger generations now spend their extra time and their extra income “exploring” on the Internet, instead of the physical road. If the twentieth century was the age of automotives, the twenty-first is the era of digital information. Habits and tastes are changing.

Younger people do not seek to become truck drivers, despite the large number of jobs and the relatively high salary. Committing to this profession means spending a week or more on the road, away from home. Many long-distance truckers, at least up to now, have had a relatively unhealthy lifestyle, probably because they sit for many hours and do not exercise much. This may not go down well with a generation that prefers to travel by Uber and bicycle. But, some of the biggest drawbacks to becoming a driver are that there are rigorous weeks of training, and then continual surveillance of drug taking, alcohol consumption and alertness. Speed counts too, so there is intense pressure to hurry things up despite the paperwork.

Truckin’- 24/7

With all these drawbacks, there are two conclusions to be observed:

One, is that is not surprising that the Millennials shun long distance truck driving. After they played with Matchbox trucks as kids, they left them behind and the lure of the open road never caught on. Instead, their idea of a trucking adventure is frequenting a flotilla of food-trucks.

Second, returning to the original premise, it is not surprising that the autonomous trucks are going to be an integral part of future transportation. While more household drivers may still be fence-sitting about the pros and cons of automation after the autopilot accident, freight is larger, faster, and more clued in. One accident is not going to change the course of an industry that needs to be on the road 24/7.