Drivers

Autonomous heavy-duty trucks threaten jobs of nearly 1.7 million drivers, White House says

Delivery driver jobs would be at less risk, CEA forecast says.

By Mark B. Solomon

The proliferation of self-driving, or autonomous, tractor-trailers threaten the jobs of nearly 1.7 million commercial truck drivers, according to a study published late last month by the White House Council of Economic Advisers (CEA).

The study, released Dec. 20, said the jobs of between 1.34 million and 1.67 million truck drivers would be at risk due to the growing utilization of heavy-duty vehicles operated via artificial intelligence. That would equal 80 to 100 percent of all driver jobs listed in the CEA report, which is based on May 2015 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a unit of the Department of Labor. There are about 3.4 million commercial truck drivers currently operating in the U.S., according to various estimates.

The report also predicted that between 165,300 and 495,900 jobs held by light truck or delivery service drivers would be at risk because of autonomous vehicles. That represents between 20 and 60 percent of the CEA’s universe of 825,000 driver jobs. Fewer of those drivers are likely to be displaced, because they operate in more densely populated urban areas where the risk of pedestrian deaths or injuries would be greater if autonomous vehicles were used. In addition, many delivery drivers operate over short distances, so labor costs would be less of a factor.

CEA estimated that, on a net basis, the use of autonomous vehicles enabled by artificial intelligence would threaten between 2.2 million and 3.1 million full- and part-time driver jobs of all types; the figure includes approximately 364,000 self-employed individuals driving with ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft.

The Council emphasized that its calculations excluded the number or types of new jobs that may be created as a result of this potential transition. It added that any changes could take years or decades to materialize because of a broad lag between what it called “technological possibility” and widespread adoption.

During the past year or two, there has been an increasing amount of attention paid to the use of autonomous tractor-trailers on the nation’s roads and highways. Many are leery of massive vehicles with gross weights of up to 80,000 pounds barreling down a highway without drivers, and even supporters of the concept said that dedicated lanes would have to be built to accommodate the vehicles. Others have speculated that autonomous vehicle use will be phased in, with human drivers accompanying the vehicle, though not operating it unless in the event of an emergency.

If fully utilized, autonomous trucks could dramatically drive down labor costs while solving the persistent problem of finding qualified drivers to ease what experts believe will be an acute shortage of commercial drivers in the years to come.

Last February, CEA issued a report saying there is a more than an 80-percent chance that automation will replace American workers making less than $20 an hour, a figure under which many hourly warehouse and distribution center worker wages fall. However, the report said there is only a 30-percent chance that automation will replace workers making between $20 and $40 an hour, and virtually no chance of replacing workers making more than $40 an hour. The CEA report did not break out salary conditions in the logistics field.

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