Does the Future of Trucking Include Trucking Jobs?
The era of professional truck driving has come to an end. Or, at least that is what you will think if you believed the headlines. Changes are coming to the transportation industry. Technology is taking over the world and automation is finding its way into everything.
Commercial drivers, trucking companies, and driving schools will eventually face drastic changes, but there is still time to start on a truck-driving career and use it as a springboard into a future career.
- 1 Does the Future of Trucking Include Trucking Jobs?
- 2 Technology Companies Want to Disrupt Cars and Trucks
- 3 What Makes a Self-Driving Vehicle?
- 4 Threat Analysis: Truck Drivers
- 4.1 New Jobs in Trucking and Beyond
- 4.2 Trucking Career Pivot
- 4.3 Salaries
- 4.4 Paths to New Trucking Industry Positions
- 5 Threat Analysis: Trucking Companies
- 6 Threat Analysis: Trucking Schools
- 7 Conclusions
Technology Companies Want to Disrupt Cars and Trucks
Sooner or later, driverless trucks for freight transportation will be the norm in North America. Some companies are already testing driverless vehicles. The good news for truckers is that the takeover is not happening yet and it will take many years to begin eliminating jobs.
The driving force behind the new threat to career truck drivers is coming from outside the transportation industry. The technology industry has been spreading new business models to any industry or profession where they see opportunities. The tech startups of Silicon Valley search for openings to disrupt complacent industries with radical thinking and digital technologies.
The autonomous trucks that are out there now are still experimental, and the tests only cover in limited scenarios. For example, in 2016, the Silicon Valley startup self-driving truck company, Otto made a highly publicized beer-run. The company’s demonstrator big-rig drove from Fort Collins, CO to Colorado Springs.
What Makes a Self-Driving Vehicle?
Automation for the road has many different issues that policy-makers and engineers have to consider. The U.S. Government’s Department of Transportation is developing policies to address the issues of driverless vehicles on the road. The DoT has adopted the definitions of the SAE International for vehicle automation.
Self-Driving Vehicle Definitions
|SAE Level||Examples||Prototyping||Deployment in Trucking|
|Level 0||Manual driving||Done||Done|
|Level 1||Lane control, collision avoidance radar||Done||Done|
|Level 2||Tesla autopilot, hands-free driving||Done||Early stages now|
|Level 3||Otto, Audi A8, Truck platooning||Early stages now||Within 5 years|
|Level 4||Single driver teams||3 years||7 – 10 years|
|Level 5||End-to-end driverless trucking||10 – 15 years||20 years or more|
Level 2 Autonomous Driving
Automation controls take over some aspects of operation while human driver monitors the journey. Level 2 is the current baseline level of development of the technology, at the time of writing; it is with us already in the form of self-driving systems that will take over on the highway.
This form of automation is not much more than a cruise control system that stays in lane and avoids collisions. Tesla’s Autopilot is roughly at this level of development, although the company optimistically hopes to install hardware that will support Level 5 systems when they become available.
Photo Credit: Robotics Trends
Level 3 Autonomous Driving
A system that can perform some functions without supervision but still requires humans to standby to take over if needed. Until regulations change, Level 3 may be state of the art for some time yet.
Once Otto’s truck hit the freeway, the driver engaged the autopilot and moved out of the driver seat. The upgrade was a kit that added sensors and control actuators that could run the truck on the open road. The kit attaches to any conventional tractor-trailer rig that has an automatic transmission.
Level 4 Autonomous Driving
Once Level 4 hits the road, semi-autonomous cargo vehicles will drive unassisted, but only in favorable conditions. While Level 4 self-driving trucks will navigate the highways successfully, they need drivers at the wheel to negotiate each end of the journey. The addition of change-out areas at freeway junctions will allow drivers to hop out of one truck and into another piloting to and from depots.
Level 5 Autonomous Driving
Self-driving commercial vehicles will ultimately be fully robotic; they will need no human interaction throughout the full range of driving conditions. At this point, vehicle fleets will likely be controlled remotely by data links; human supervisors will monitor the fleets from command centers. The jobs will be managerial, technical, and administrative.
Even with experimental self-driving trucks on the road, there will still be a long way to go before they enter general service. Given the safety concerns and any bugs that crop up in the technology, Level 5 is likely to be twenty years away or more.
Threat Analysis: Truck Drivers
In the short term, your future career in professional truck driving is not under threat; transportation companies need new drivers. With the commercial deployment of even level 2 systems still over the horizon, there is still time to build and enjoy your career.
If you are exploring the potential, you still have time to choose a career in trucking and get licensed. There is enough time to earn experience on the road to move up to the best jobs.
While the industry is turning to automation, it is suffering from a severe shortage of drivers that could reach 175,000 by 2024. Self-driving trucks might help to reduce the driver shortage, but it is not likely to reach Level 5 in general deployment by then.
A projected driver shortage for the mid-2020s means that trucking jobs will be available for the drivers that want them for years after that point. However, the shortage will also drive investment in self-driving trucks.
New Jobs in Trucking and Beyond
Long distance team driving will be the first to change. Driving teams may feel the shift first where company employed drivers begin to work with Level 4 autonomous vehicles. Trucks with these capabilities run smoothly out on the highway but still need guidance around local depots and traffic.
New driving practices may lead to a change of U.S. Federal regulations that restrict driving time, which means that drivers will not have to count time on automatic pilot against regulated hours.
Future Drivers Will Stay Closer to Home
Level 4 autonomy will still require someone in the cab to handle anything unexpected. Until trucks can negotiate the traffic and hazards of city driving automation will remain a thing for the open road, for highways and freeways. Self-driving cargo vehicles will need guidance to get onto the highway and then they need shepherding to the final destination. The driving jobs that are likely to be the longest-lived are:
- Intermodal trucking jobs where you spend time in traffic that has lots of hazards like signal lights and pedestrians
- Delivery driver where part of the job is customer account management and dispensing deliveries
- Terminal pilot drivers will pick up and drop off trucks at staging areas on the onramps of highways
Trucking Career Pivot
An employment history of hard work and have transportation industry experience will bring future opportunities for well-paid careers. The career change choices for truckers fall broadly into three categories: Sales and Marketing; Technology; Management and Administration.
Use Your People Skills in Sales & Marketing
If you are an experienced truck driver, you can transfer into a field that makes full use of your people skills. Truckers get the chance to work with many different people when they are out on the road, why not capitalize on that?
You may find that you have a taste for closing sales for industrial products and services, one that you can turn into a career. While selling is not for everyone, it is an excellent option for women and men whose primary qualification is the right set of people skills.
Take a Technical Turn
The future lies in the field of technology and transportation jobs that support automation. These are positions that require some level of certification. Whether it is a technical college, online course or coding academy. If you enjoy work that involves technology, to use your hands, troubleshoot code, or test circuits, this could be a particularly rewarding direction to take your career.
Go Into Management or Administration
Do you want to go into management? There will be plenty of opportunities for administrative work and climb the ladder to management. The higher you go, the more that you will need a bachelor’s degree. If you have experience as a self-employed driver, you will have management and entrepreneurial skills that give you a head start for management.
|Career Path||Salary Ranges||Training Requirement|
|Office Administration||$32K to $95K||HS Diploma|
|Software/Hardware Technician||$21K to $66K||2+ year tech. Cert.|
|Sales Representative||$30K to $108||HS Diploma|
|General Management||$34K to $101K||Bachelor’s Degree|
Paths to New Trucking Industry Positions
Fortunately, if you enter the trucking business now, you have the one thing that matters: Time. If you think ahead, you will have options to extend and change your career directions as the world changes with you.
As a newly licensed professional trucker, you learn your trade and gain experience in the logistics industry. If you think about what trucking is at its most fundamental level, quite simply, you are in the distribution business. You move goods from where they have been to where they are needed. That counts for much in the experience you accumulate along the way.
Presently, experienced truckers earn more for their knowledge. If the industry replaces your job description with robots, be prepared to apply that learning in roles that are not yet defined.
Threat Analysis: Trucking Companies
Photo Credit: Ken Goudy Collection
The arrival of self-driving trucks might be a revolution that works for conventional trucking companies, or it might work against them. Automation may reduce the cost of labor dramatically and help freight businesses to invest more efficiently, with robot trucks moving nearly non-stop, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
The trucking companies that move first might be the ones that consolidate their positions and take over the entire industry. Alternatively, the technology companies that have a penchant for disrupting industries with the latest devices might jump in and try to take over the sector.
Manufacturers and Vendors Pose a Significant Threat
The threat is that truck makers or Silicon Valley startups might set terms of service that essentially say, “you don’t own this.” Other companies have been using digital transformations to restrict parts and repairs to high-priced approved sources. If you attempt to own or lease software-intensive self-driving trucks, the cost of operations related to maintenance and repairs could be significantly higher.
Competition from Silicon Valley
The threat from outside tech companies comes from using technology in new ways that have not been part of traditional trucking practices. Such a situation might be if it makes the difference in the degree of driving autonomy you can get from big data tools that are outside the experience base of the trucking industry.
Technology companies can apply digital technology and the vast quantities of capital they can access and create a new way of running trucking. The final product might look like Otto trucks, conventional tractor-trailer rigs with conversion kits.
The advantage that makes a difference is the software that would gather data from moving trucks. Communication links would send the data to incredibly powerful data centers in real time. Analyzing the data could make automated trucking operations cut costs even further, in addition to reducing or eliminating driving jobs.
Collecting so much data might sound like science fiction, but it is what Information Technology companies do today in other industries. The data centers exist, and the communications channels are already in place. Trucking and logistics companies use data links to track trucks and to make the supply chain ever more efficient.
But the tech industry has its vulnerabilities too. Just because they come in with hype and piles of cash does not mean that they can back it up and deliver the results. Trucking companies that have many collective years of experience can adapt and compete if they have the confidence and the forward-looking insight.
Threat Analysis: Trucking Schools
The primary threat to trucking schools is the dependence on trucking companies and the need for new drivers. As drivers are presently in demand, the short-term outlook is good. When companies begin to augment their fleets with self-driving vehicles, they will not require training services.
Vocational institutes that offer truck driving as part of the course catalog can absorb changes and carry on. It is the dedicated trucking schools that face risks due to the evolution of the industry. In fact they face a double risk; first that there will be fewer jobs due to automation; second, because of the public perception of the change.
Schools can respond by acknowledging the changes and make the continuing opportunities clear. Also, schools that have focused on trucking can develop new specializations like training services for industrial equipment and certifications that support the automation of transportation.
Bloggers and the media like to proclaim the end of trucking, along with every other type of employment. There is still to be time left to have a rewarding career.
The technology for Level 5 self-driving trucking is still experimental. Once it is technically possible to set fifty ton vehicles free at highway speeds it will still take years to win public acceptance and roll out the equipment.
Geoff is a freelance writer with 20+ years of experience in driving trucks and buses, dispatching, supervising, and training commercial driving teams. His expertise is writing topics on the transportation and trucking industry, and information technology trends.