Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The economic impact of driverless trucks

For all the hype about the driverless cars - how they'll change the way we travel, revolutionize how our cities are designed, render public transportation completely obsolete* - I think that driverless trucks will have a greater overall economic impact. While driverless cars continue to be tested, driverless trucks are already moving freight:
Self-driving trucks are here. Otto, a self-driving truck startup that Uber acquired this summer, shipped a truckload of Anheuser-Busch beer across Colorado. According to Otto’s blog post on the trip, “our professional driver was out of the driver’s seat for the entire 120-mile journey down I-25, monitoring the self-driving system from the sleeper berth in the back.”

But this doesn’t mean the nation’s truck drivers need to start working on their résumés. Technology like this may eventually displace human truck drivers, but the tech is several years away from causing mass unemployment.

The key reason is that Otto’s self-driving technology is initially limited to highways. When the truck reaches ordinary city streets, it hands control over to a human driver to handle tricky traffic situations. This means that even after a truck is outfitted with Otto’s self-driving technology, it will still need a human driver in the truck.
As the article explains, this is probably good for truck drivers in the short term - by allowing the truck to drive itself on the highway, truckers can rest, thereby spending more time on the road without running afoul of federal regulations limiting the number of hours truckers can be behind the wheel.

At some point, however, driverless trucks will be able to navigate through city streets as well, thereby making the truck driver redundant. And this is where the effects on the economy will be seen. On one hand, driverless trucks will make goods much cheaper as they dramatically reduce the costs of transportation. On the other hand, they will put millions of truck drivers out of work, further eroding the nation's blue collar job base and creating significant socioeconomic disruption to an entire segment of the labor force. What good are cheaper products if you're unemployed and can't buy them?

(* For the record, I do not think that driverless cars will completely eliminate the need for public transportation. They might replace low-ridership buses serving rural and suburban areas, but along at least some high-volume urban corridors there will still be the need for vehicles that carry larger numbers of people than regular cars. There is simply a geometric limit to the number of cars a city street can accommodate.)

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