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Fully Autonomous Trucks ‘Decades’ Away: Panel

Fully autonomous trucks replacing certain segments of drivers is certainly is a possibility, but not for the foreseeable future – and definitely not over the next few years as some aggressive forecasts predict – according to the Trucking: The First Frontier panel at the Future of the Automobile symposium presented last week at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.

In fact, as reported by Truck.com, many panelists believe automation will attract entrants in the near turn and open up new transportation jobs in the future.

“Everywhere I go I hear people talking about a robot apocalypse, about 4 million transportation workers losing their jobs in the next five to 20 years,” said Doug Bloch, political director for Teamsters Joint Council 7.

However, he said it’s equally possible technology not only makes life easier and safer but also adds jobs in the transport sector.

“Since the first person rubbed two rocks together to create fire we have been evolving, and I think right now we have an opportunity to evolve our relationship to technology,” Bloch said.

What might slow the spread of new technology is the desire to maintain or improve service levels, Paul Rosa, senior vice president of procurement and fleet planning for Penske Truck Leasing.

Just how that relationship evolves and how fast new technology comes online are harder to predict.

“We know where we’re headed. We see where we’re going. The question is how fast will we get there,” said. That won’t happen without serious — and lengthy — testing and development.

The panelists agreed that in the short term the trucking industry is not primed for major layoffs based on the imminent arrival of autonomous vehicles but is instead facing a driver shortage.

“There is a shortage of drivers period in the industry, and it is going to continue to accelerate and get worse over the next three years,” Rosa said.

Industry observers see autonomous vehicle operation as the key to solving the driver shortage. Given the immediate driver shortfall and the length of time before full autonomous vehicle operation becomes commonplace, though, it is unlikely that new technology will have much or any effect on short-term employment.

Until trucks with complete autopilot capability are developed and approved for the open roads, “we’re going to still need to add drivers for many, many years, at least two to three decades,” Rosa said.

At the same time, Bloch said that new transportation and logistics technologies might offer new job opportunities. He said younger members of his union have concerns about the future, but they are also keeping an open mind about the new technology.

“They see it coming. There is anxiety, but there is also excitement about how this technology might make their jobs better, might make them safer, might increase their earning power,” Bloch said.

As to when autonomous trucks might be a serious force in the fleet business, Rosa suggested the timeframe might be more distant than some observers believe.

Completely robotic trucks are still “15, 20, 30 years away,” Rosa said.

That generally coincides with a recent Center for Automotive Research study that said self-driving vehicles fitting the highest levels of autonomous operation will account for less than 4 percent of new- vehicle sales by 2030. The Ann Arbor, Mich., organization said they could reach 55 percent by 2040 however.

Full Truck.com story here

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