Last week, a self-driving truck delivered 50,000 cans of Budweiser from Loveland to Colorado Springs. This was obviously meant as a big FU to Coors, since the route “coincidentally” took all this frosty Bud right past Coors headquarters in Golden, Colorado. Most people, however, are interpreting this event as merely technological: it represents the dawn of the era of self-driving trucks. Tim Lee comments:
According to Otto’s blog post on the trip, “our professional driver was out of the driver’s seat for the entire 120-mile journey down I-25, monitoring the self-driving system from the sleeper berth in the back.”
But this doesn’t mean the nation’s truck drivers need to start working on their résumés. Technology like this may eventually displace human truck drivers, but the tech is several years away from causing mass unemployment. The key reason is that Otto’s self-driving technology is initially limited to highways. When the truck reaches ordinary city streets, it hands control over to a human driver to handle tricky traffic situations. This means that even after a truck is outfitted with Otto’s self-driving technology, it will still need a human driver in the truck.
Hmmm. “Several years” sounds ominously near-term, so truck drivers might want to start worrying about their jobs right now. Beyond that, there’s a way this could put truckers out of business well before that. Here’s how.
Pick a route that has a lot of truck traffic. Let’s say, Chicago to Cleveland. Outside of each city, you build a big truck depot and dispatch center. In Chicago, teamsters drive the trucks from the city out to the depot. Autopilots drive the trucks to the Cleveland depot, where a driver gets in and takes the truck to its destination. Rinse and repeat. The job of a truck driver is to drive back and forth from destinations in the city out to the depot, which they can do five or six times a day. Trucking firms save a ton of money even though the autopilot is designed for highway driving only.
Building the depots would be cheap and easy, since you don’t really need much there. It’s basically just a dispatch center. You could pretty easily have hundreds of them dotted across the country near all of our biggest cities. The only thing that would stop this from happening is the knowledge that they’ll only last a few years before they’re put out of business by fully automated trucks that can go from dock to dock with no human intervention. Either way, truck drivers are in big trouble.