Recent reporting by CNN suggests the possibility that 3.5 million truck drivers in the US could lose their jobs over the next decade as self-driving trucks make the jump from science fiction to fact. What will be the ramifications of this radical shift within the transportation logistics industry; and is the industry ready to accommodate such a transition?
Like so many other business challenges being solved by automation technology, the fate of the human truck driver is inexorably tied to larger dynamics in play across the broader economy. The trend toward automation is borne of a fundamental tenet – jobs requiring repetitive actions and a relatively low skill level are prime targets for replacement by robotic technologies. Those technologies continue to improve too. Just as the CB radio was rendered obsolete by wireless phones, the carbon-based truck driver is riding off into the sunset whether he realizes it or not.
From order management, to warehouse management, to transportation management and freight yard management – it seems the skids are already greased for the eventual exit of the carbon-based (human) truck driver. ___________________________________________________________________________________________
The manufacturing assembly line jobs upon which our fathers and grandfathers built their livelihoods in the 1950s and 1960s were prime targets for automation as the forces of globalization commoditized factory floor labor in the 1990s and 2000s. American firms found it more cost effective to replace these low-skilled, repetitive jobs with robots, which require neither wages nor benefits. The virtual decimation of factory jobs as a means of achieving economic security for the American worker was not met with enough resistance to save this career field. And this was a field in which there was an existing glut of candidates seeking jobs.
Now consider the American trucking industry and its perennial shortage of candidates seeking positions behind the wheel. The 3.5 million Americans earning their living on the road will surely protest the automation of their roles (and the elimination of their livelihoods). The rest of the American workforce will not likely mark this passing with any great sense of loss.
Moreover, most Americans would welcome encountering fewer tractor trailers on the nation’s roadways as another emerging automation technology – 3D printing – grows efficient enough to transform the nature of product manufacture and delivery. 3D printing promises to decentralize manufacturing and is projected to further reduce the nation’s dependency on long haul supply chain movements over the road.
What will the advent of driverless trucking mean to the operation of the transportation logistics industry? If past is prologue, the answer is pretty clear. Between the automation of manufacturing and the widespread adoption of automation technologies for logistics activities – from order management, to warehouse management, to transportation management and freight yard management – it seems the skids are already greased for the eventual exit of the carbon-based (human) truck driver.
As noted supply chain management has already baked future automation into its collective product development roadmap. All the “MS’s” or management systems software solutions – TMS, WMS, YMS, OMS and others – are already replacing manual processes with automated ones. The burgeoning “internet of things” is already tying warehouse automation to automatic shipment tendering and automated freight payment. It will inevitably tie driverless trucks to automated management systems and the entire supply chain, from order to fulfillment/delivery to settlement, will be achieved without the touch of human hands. It is not a matter of “if” as much as “when”.
Like so many other career fields that have grown obsolete, truck driving as a profession is driving quickly towards oblivion and workers facing this grim reality should get a jump on retraining now if they’ve learned anything from past examples of those displaced by automation technology.