Robots Could Replace 1.7 Million American Trucks in the Next Decade
Trucking paid for Scott Spindola to take a road trip down the coast of Spain, climb halfway up Machu Picchu and sample a Costa Rican beach for two weeks. The 44-year-old Los Angeles-area resident makes up to $70,000 a year, with overtime, hauling goods from the Port of Long Beach. He has full medical coverage and plans to drive until he retires. But in a decade, his big rig may not have any need for him.
Carmaking giants and ride-sharing upstarts racing to put autonomous vehicles on the road are dead set on replacing drivers, including truckers. Trucks without human hands at the wheel could be on U.S. roads within a decade, analysts and industry executives say. At risk is one of the most common jobs in many states, and one of the last remaining careers that offer middle-class pay to those without a college degree. There are 1.7 million truckers in the United States, and another 1.7 million drivers of taxis, buses and delivery vehicles. That compares with 4.1 million construction workers. While factory jobs have gushed out of the country over the past decade, trucking has grown and pay has risen.
Truckers make $42,500 a year on average, putting them firmly in the middle class. On Sept. 20, the Obama administration put its weight behind automated driving, for the first time releasing federal guidelines for the systems. About a dozen states already have created laws that allow for the testing of self-driving vehicles. But the federal government, through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, will ultimately have to set rules to safely accommodate 80,000-pound autonomous trucks on U.S. highways. In doing so, the feds have placed a bet that driverless cars and trucks will save lives. But autonomous big rigs, taxis and Ubers also promise to lower the cost of travel and transporting goods. It would also be the first time that machines take direct aim at an entire class of blue-collar work in America. Other workers — such as gardeners, home builders and trash collectors — could be next.