Long haul truckers move a lot of America’s goods. You see the eighteen wheelers on the Interstates and you know those guys, and ladies, have been driving hours every day to get their load from point A to point B over distances of up to 3,500 miles. Often, when you are outside of a major metropolitan area on an Interstate, 75% of the traffic is long haul trucks. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there are 1.5 million long haul truckers on the road today, expected to go over 1.8 million by 2020. There are about 200,000 job openings nationwide for long haul truckers right now.
Why aren’t unemployed or underemployed folk flocking to these jobs? The median annual wage is almost $38,000, with some long haul truckers making more than $58,000 a year. That’s not bad for a job that does not require even a high school diploma. One hurdle is getting a CDL (commercial driver’s license). It can take eight weeks and $6,000 to earn one. Then the job is not for everyone. Many drive by themselves most of the time, and they often live for weeks at a time in the back of their truck in a space the size of a closet.
But I believe we are coming to the end of the long haul trucker. I predict that in ten years there will be virtually no long haul truckers, except for moving vans. Why? The first place autonomous vehicles will really take off is in long haul trucking.
We are in the very early stages of autonomous vehicles that can safely get themselves to a destination with no human intervention. Remember how long it took before there was reliable air travel. The first scheduled fixed wing air service started in January 1914, flying from St. Petersburg to Tampa, Florida, ten years after the Wright Brothers flight in December, 1903. That might not have been considered reliable transportation by everyone. We are almost to that stage with autonomous vehicles. The first real demonstration of an autonomous vehicle in the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge. At this point, four states and two cities allow autonomous vehicles on the highway (Nevada, Florida, California, Michigan, Washington DC, and Coeur d’Alene, Idaho). There are still lots of hurdles to overcome, including cost, liability laws, and public confidence before autonomous cars are common.
The lack of confidence is caused by just thinking about all the things that can go wrong in an urban environment: children playing, pedestrians, bicycles, and manned cars going through red lights, making strange turns, trying to park, or just being distracted. Over a recent six-month period, Google’s self-driving cars have gotten into four accidents in California where there were only 48 autonomous cars. Google claims that the autonomous vehicles were not the cause of any of them. If we ever get to Google’s end point of no drivers in any car at anytime, then in theory there would not be any accidents, and certainly a whole lot less than there are today. Getting there will not be easy.
But back to the long haul trucker. Almost the entire route is on the Interstate. Most of the distractions and dangers are removed by the design of the Interstate itself. No red lights, pedestrians, bicycles, cross traffic, parking, …. The first autonomous vehicle license plate for a self-driving big rig went to a Freightliner “Inspiration Truck” in Nevada. It still requires a driver to handle turns at red lights and parking, so there must be a person in the cab.
But I view that as a short-term situation. I believe that within five years there will be thousands of autonomous big rigs on the Interstates, each pulling up to three trailers, and driving 24 hours a day at 65 to 75 miles per hour depending on the specific stretch of highway. No drivers, no one in the cab, and in fact no cab at all. Local truckers will take the trailers to a special lot near an Interstate on ramp, where an autonomous truck will be assigned to take that trailer to another special lot outside the destination city. There, another local trucker will pick up the trailer and drive the last ten to fifty miles.
In ten years there will only be autonomous long haul trucks on the Interstates. Near major metropolitan areas, those trucks will be shunted to the far left lane leaving the rights lanes for cars to jockey for space and exits without the trucks being the way. Imagine a line of trucks, each with up to three trailers, zooming long I80 south of Chicago at 70 mph and about 10 feet apart. When another long-haul truck pulls on the Interstate, the line of trucks will make space for the new truck.
The benefits to the trucking companies are obvious: no drivers to pay, no down time for the truck due to required rest breaks, and safer highways. The trucks will also be lighter, not having to have a cab with comfortable seats, air conditioning and heating, driver safety engineering and expensive manual controls. It will also be almost impossible to hijack an autonomous long-haul truck.
How do you back it up to pick up trailers, move it into a service bay for maintenance, or move it off the highway in an emergency? There’s an app for that. Someone can walk beside the truck for close in maneuvering using a tablet. The trick will be so that it only works when the person is close and has the “keys” to the truck.
But not moving vans. They will, I believe, still have actual drivers, if for no reason other than the families like to see a familiar face when the moving van pulls up to their new house.
The last word:
The impact will be on more than the over one million long haul truckers. Major truck stops along the Interstate will see their business change from servicing drivers to the rare servicing of an autonomous truck with a problem. It won’t be selling fuel: the trucks will be filled up before the journey with enough fuel to get to the destination point. You should expect to see many of these truck stops go out of business.
Along with the adult stores that also serve the truckers along the Interstates, like the Lion’s Den chain of 40 shops along the Midwest Interstates, some with gas stations.
Keep your sense of humor.