A study conducted by the U.S. Department of Transportation earlier this year revealed the vast uncertainty regarding the impact on the labor force due to the increasing shift towards automated driving.

The study, “Driving Automation Systems in Long-Haul Trucking and Bus Transit: Preliminary Analysis of Potential Workforce Impacts,” was conducted in coordination with the Department of Labor (DOL), Department of Commerce (DOC), and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

The study provides an in-depth analysis of the introduction of driving automation systems to long-haul professional driving jobs. The future impact on truckers’ job responsibilities, wages, and quality of life once self-driving trucks become more incorporated into the industry was found to be highly uncertain, however the report presents predictions based on existing data on driving automation technology, labor markets, human factors, and other workforce considerations.

The adoption of driving automation is expected to follow the general contours of this historical experience. However, this report finds that there is vast uncertainty about the more specific questions of how and when driving automation may be adopted in the long-haul trucking and transit bus industry segments, and what the associated impacts on the professional driving workforce may be.

According to SAE International terminology, the transition to automatic trucking can be referred to by these levels:

Levels of Automation

0-No Automation: The full-time performance by the human driver of all aspects of the dynamic driving task, even when enhanced by warning or intervention systems.

1-Driver Assistance: The driving mode-specific execution by a driver assistance system of either steering or acceleration/deceleration using information about the driving environment and with the expectation that the human driver perform all remaining aspects of the dynamic driving task.

2-Partial Automation: The driving mode-specific execution by one or more driver assistance systems of both steering or acceleration/ deceleration using information about the driving environment and with the expectation that the human driver perform all remaining aspects of the dynamic driving task.

3-Conditional Automation: The driving mode-specific performance by an automated driving system of all aspects of the dynamic driving task with the expectation that the human driver will respond appropriately to a request to intervene.

4-High Automation: The driving mode-specific performance by an automated driving system of all aspects of the dynamic driving task, even if a human driver does not respond appropriately to a request to intervene.

5-Full Automation: The full-time performance by an automated driving system of all aspects of the dynamic driving task under all roadway and environmental conditions that can be managed by a human driver.

Will automated driving affect my job?

The adoption of automation technologies has been linked to job displacement in the past, leaving many truckers wondering if automated driving will put them out of a job.

According to the report, the impact on the workforce will vary depending on the level of the driving automation system. The systems that assist the human driver versus those that replace the driver will have differing repercussions. Drivers will still be required in vehicles that have Levels 1, 2, or 3 technologies, but the introduction of Levels 4 or 5 may completely eliminate the need for an in-cab driver.

Although there are approximately two million heavy truck and tractor-trailer drivers in the U.S., the size of the current long-haul workforce most likely to be impacted by the potential adoption of Level 4 or 5 automation in the coming decades is approximately 300,000 to 500,000 jobs

In the long term, the adoption of Levels 4 or 5 may lead to lower freight costs and productivity improvements, but also to periods of transitional unemployment for some affected workers.

When will I start to see automated trucks at my company?

Most emerging technologies require time to become established within industries. The introduction of driving automation systems is expected to be a gradual process and the timeline for the development and widespread adoption of Level 4 or 5 automation was not found to be imminent.

According to the report, there are two contributing factors to the timeline: the time required to test designs and models of new technologies on the market, and the overall rate of fleet renewal.

Based off information of past technology deployment, the report concluded that nine years for a total long-haul fleet to be replaced with newly purchased vehicles is a reasonable expectation.

Manufacturing capacity may also impact the pace of adoption of new driving automation systems.

Based off the current structure of truck sales, new forms of driving automation would likely first be adopted by the large trucking firms. Smaller trucking firms are likely to begin adopting driving automation when they become available on the secondhand market. Their adoption rate is expected to lag behind larger companies and some may never incorporate automated driving since it could be incompatible with the owner-operator business model.

Should I be worried about my current position?

The estimated number of current long-haul heavy truck and tractor-trailer drivers is not an accurate forecast of the number of future workers who may be affected, since the trucking industry is likely to experience growth and change during the period before Level 4 driving automation becomes available.

Given the older age profile associated with truck drivers, 48 according to the report, it was concluded that it’s reasonable to expect that many in the current workforce will retire or move on to another job by the time Level 4 or 5 driving automation achieves mainstream adoption.

According to the report, another factor to consider when assessing workforce impacts is the distinction between today’s workers and future workers. Younger drivers may be able to anticipate the drop in demand for trucking jobs and adjust accordingly. This combined with retiring truckers and existing job turnover may counteract job losses.

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