Truck Driver Shortage: When Will Autonomous Trucks Fill the Gap?

Not that long ago, San Francisco-based Embark announced its first cross-country trip by a self-driving truck. Along with Uber, Tu Simple, and Starsky Robotics, Embark is working on the autopilot technology for long-haul trucks. Self-driving trucks will result in disruption; the question is “When?”

Given that the economic benefits are enormous, the self-driving revolution is inevitable. As with previous industrial transformations, the widespread application of self-driving technology will have a considerable impact but not for at least 10 years.

Certain essential breakthroughs must occur prior to self-driving trucks impacting the industry, specifically the following criteria must all be met:

  • Technology development moves from research to mainstream.
  • Regulatory schemes reach consensus across all agencies.
  • Mass production becomes cost effective.

Core truck vehicle technology needs another 3+ years to move out of the testing mode

In the tech community there is general consensus that self-driving car (not truck) availability is at least 4 years in the future. So, if cars are fully autonomous in 3 to 5 years, what about trucks?

Self-driving trucks that can operate intercity may take longer to develop. Even though the technology for cars is partially applicable to trucks, 18-wheelers are more complex to operate and thus require additional systems. Given added complexities, it is reasonable to assume that fully self-driving trucks will come a few years after cars. However, earlier adoption may start on highways only.

Regulations will defer the implementation

The makers of self-driving cars already work with regulators and have launched some local experiments. Just recently, two accidents involving autopilot tech were all over the news. Not surprisingly, due to safety concerns, federal agencies are taking a step-by-step approach in allowing tests of the technology. Beyond communication protocols, until the accident liability legal standard is established and the insurance model is adapted or replaced, the regulatory framework will not be complete. Even after the technology is ready, regulatory conditions must also be complete to ensure investors in these vehicles will be able to fully utilize them. This step will likely add another 1 to 2 years to the long road ahead of self-driving technology.

It will take time to replace most fleets with autonomous trucks

There are two reasons why even after the technology was ready for widespread adoption it would take at least another 5 years to start affecting the truck driver employment: manufacturing speed and the truck driver shortage.

For the past several years the annual sales of Class 8 have been around 200k vehicles; assume the self-driving truck production capacity more or less equals current Class 8 demand. In 5 to 7 years from now, the United States will need about 2.7m long-haul drivers. Given that autonomous trucks can be utilized twice as much as human drivers, you need to manufacture about 1.3 to 1.5 million self-driving trucks to replace all human drivers. It will take at least 5 years to manufacture that many trucks assuming equivalent production capacity. International demand, availability of parts, changing over manufacturing plants, will all impact the ramp of self-driving truck delivery; therefore it is very ambitious to assume such a high pace.

In addition, the first couple of years of production won’t affect the actual driver employment rates, rather the new trucks will fill the gap from the forecast truck driver shortage. By 2022 the deficit of skilled and licensed truck drivers will reach 240,000 drivers. Using current production estimates for self-driving trucks, initial production is likely to be consumed just meeting the truck driver deficit. Thus, in the first couple years beyond the regulatory implementation, there will be no considerable impact on truck driver employment rates.

With the potential to reduce operation costs, address the upcoming truck driving employment gap, and improve safety, this automation is sure to disrupt the industry. However, despite all the current hype on the self-driving truck takeover, it’s essential to remain realistic about technology this advanced.

The above argument is the critical path to affecting the employment assuming the transition doesn’t meet any roadblocks or issues. However, of course, there will be complications and 10 years is the minimum number of years until autonomous trucks start affecting employment; it will likely take longer.

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