The Future and Automation in the Transportation Industry

With the growing threat of automation in the current job market, it is reasonable to grow suspicious of technology and its role in society. Automation of certain tasks is real, and although the time when automation will occur is important, how much of these tasks can be automated is more insightful.

Embark, a Silicon Valley startup that is developing self-driving truck technology, has successfully acquired trucking routes through Ryder and Electrolux. Alex Rodrigues, CEO of Embark, stated that Embark’s “automation is built specifically for the highway,” which means that Embark shares the load of work between riders (supervisors of the machine), trucks, and drivers. Riders sit behind the wheel and supervise trucks to keep both testing and delivery safe.

Thus, the entire route is not automated. Rodrigues said “[we] vary freight between the warehouses and the interstate. Embark’s trucks pick up at the edge of the interstate and from there the computer drives it.” With drivers taking loads to the edge of the highway and picking them up at the city limits of a destination drivers are still a component [1].

The floating question remains: when will automation occur? Well, before this change occurs, there must be conditions for it to occur. A clear limitation on automation is liability. Simply, what is the extent of liability in an accident involving an autonomous rig and another driver? Without laws specifying borders between the interactions of man and machine, there are no conditions for AI rigs on the road. Who will sue who (or what) at the accident? How will automation effect insurance policies and their rates? Should an AI rig cause an accident, would the driver(s) sue the company that uses the technology? Or would the driver(s) sue the company that made the technology [2]? These questions need answers before this tech deploys on a mass scale.

And with both laws and tech still in the works, the chances of automation actually affecting older drivers are dubious. It is more likely that by the time both the technology and the laws are in place, there will be a new generation of drivers. More specifically, technology will affect drivers in the millennial generation and forward [2].

Regardless of automation, trucker positions are here to stay. The trucking industry is not on the verge of losing its human component, rather, it is on the verge of changing the way it does business. At the rate of suburban growth, the likelihood of larger and more intricate city scapes increases the demand for drivers. The difference between a future of automation and the present state of trucking is that drivers will face more time maneuvering rigs in the city than the long haul: the potential ‘gig-based’ economy for drivers grows. 

How else would automation change the industry? Rodrigues said “If you allow a vehicle to operate 24/7, you completely change how supply chains need to be set up. [The] time to get things from one place to another that’s more than 11 hours away suddenly drops in half. For context, if you cut trip time from five days to two, we are now talking closer to airfreight speeds than what it presently takes a truck to cross the country. What are the ways this is going to change the industry? One of the things we might see is that a lot of air freight switches to trucks. That actually increased demand. You’re going to change the speed of things and you’re also going to change the layout of distribution centers” [3].

A change in the layout of distribution centers is a curious effect. Marcus Cooksey has written an article on a more efficient way for truckers to maneuver their routes. He suggests caching warehouses as a solution to fill driving positions. Long haul drivers could keep their long hauls, while drivers who want to spend time at home can create income by transporting freight from cache to hub. A distributor could create a caching warehouse at the outskirts of the city, and then a city driver would pick up the load and deliver the freight. Moreover, a distributor could actually create income through renting out spaces for various hubs in the city. This method keeps trucks on the road, makes distributors more money, and actually increases the flexibility for what it means to be a trucker [4]. This method requires no automation, yet this method is also suited for automation while keeping jobs in tact.

Although the trucking industry is full of empty seats now, and although automation may fill vacancies, these automated positions do not directly decrease the need for truckers. Trucking routes appear to shorten in the future, yet the need for skilled drivers remains.






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