Robots could replace 1.7M U.S. truckers in next decade

Natalie Kitroeff
Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles — Trucking paid for Scott Spindola to take a road trip down the coast of Spain, climb halfway up Machu Picchu, and sample a Costa Rican beach for two weeks. The 44-year-old Los Angeles-area resident makes up to $70,000 a year, with overtime, hauling goods from the Port of Long Beach. He has full medical coverage and plans to drive until he retires.

But in a decade, his big rig may not have any need for him.

Carmaking giants and ride-sharing upstarts racing to put autonomous vehicles on the road are dead set on replacing drivers, including truckers. Trucks without human hands at the wheel could be on U.S. roads within a decade, analysts and industry executives say.

At risk is one of the most common jobs in many states, and one of the last remaining careers that offer middle-class pay to those without a college degree. There are 1.7 million truckers in the U.S., and another 1.7 million drivers of taxis, buses and delivery vehicles. That compares with 4.1 million construction workers.

While factory jobs have gushed out of the country over the last decade, trucking has grown and pay has risen. Truckers make $42,500 a year on average, putting them firmly in the middle class.

On Sept. 20, the Obama administration put its weight behind automated driving, for the first time releasing federal guidelines for the systems. About a dozen states already have created laws that allow for the testing of self-driving vehicles. But the federal government, through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, will ultimately have to set rules to safely accommodate 80,000-pound autonomous trucks on U.S. highways.

In doing so, the feds have placed a bet that driverless cars and trucks will save lives. But autonomous big rigs, taxis and Ubers also promise to lower the cost of travel and transporting goods.

Trucking will probably be the first type of driving to be fully automated — meaning there will be no one at the wheel. One reason is that long-haul big rigs spend most of their time on highways, which are the easiest roads to navigate without human intervention.

But there’s also a sweeter financial incentive for automating trucks. Trucking is a $700 billion industry, in which a third of costs are spent on compensating drivers.

“If you can get rid of the drivers, those people are out of jobs, but the cost of moving all those goods goes down significantly,” Kaplan said.

Otto, a self-driving truck company started by former Google engineers and executives, pitches its system as a source of new income for drivers who will be able to spend more time in vehicles that can drive solo as they rest. Uber bought the San Francisco company in August.

The startup retrofits trucks with kits allowing them to navigate freeways without a driver holding the wheel. For the last several months, at least one Volvo truck has been test-driving the system, with a person at the wheel, on Interstate 280 or on the 101 Freeway in California. The system works through a set of motion sensors; cameras; lidar, which uses laser light; and computer software to make driving decisions.

Several states are already laying the groundwork for a future with fewer truckers. In September, the Michigan state Senate approved a law allowing trucks to drive autonomously in “platoons,” in which two or more big rigs drive together and synchronize their movements. That bill follows laws in California, Florida and Utah that set regulations for testing truck platoons.

Wirelessly connected trucks made their European debut in April, when trucks from six major carmakers successfully drove in platoons through Sweden, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. Those convoys will be on American roads within a year, says Josh Switkes, chief executive of Silicon Valley-based Peloton, whose software links two semi-trailer trucks. The company has begun taking reservations for its system from freight fleets, and it plans to start delivering them “in volume” within a year.