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How embracing change may be essential to 'business as usual' for the trucking industry


Embracing change may be key to the trucking industry's future successes.

There are certain aspects of the trucking industry that have just about always "been that way." One of them is its status as a leader in the movement of goods. Nearly three-quarters of the goods transported domestically are carried not by air or by water, but by trucks, as the American Trucking Associations have long maintained. Economists don't expect this industry norm to change any time soon, even with the urgent driver shortage as it currently stands. In fact, if anything, the demand for trucking and hauling services has risen.

But the rate and overall intensity of demand is such that it may require change-averse truckers to be more comfortable with new approaches. One of which is the continued rollout of self-driving big rigs.

From UPS to Tesla to Google, an increasing number of household name organizations are investing in autonomous technologies for logistics operations. This past holiday season, for example, parcel giant UPS collaborated with an organization called Waymo to help expedite the pace at which customers could receive their purchases in light of the supply chain frustrations. The respective organizations did a trial run of the program by confining it solely to the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Road Show reported.

Additionally, a company called TuSimple, which specializes in autonomous trucking technologies, made its debut road trip this past December. As TechCrunch reported, the tractor-trailer drove fully autonomously from Tucson to Phoenix, which is the equivalent of roughly 80 miles.

Will drivers lose their jobs?
With the trucking industry employing around 8 million people altogether — and around 3.6 million drivers  — some workers may be reluctant to embrace self-driving vehicles, the fear being that it puts their job security at risk. Steve Viscelli, who authored the book "The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream," told CNET that the degree to which technology is being leveraged already has many truckers feeling like they're nothing more than "professional steering wheel holders." Autonomous trucking, the thinking goes, would make actual drivers less mission-critical to the industry's success. 

But supporters of a greater rollout of the technology say otherwise, noting that drivers are needed for safety assurance purposes as well as for the unloading and loading of vehicles, among other tasks. James Deck, vice president of government affairs for an autonomous vehicle specialty company, told FleetOwner that those who are new to the industry have nothing to worry about.

"You are going to be able to retire as a truck driver," Deck said. "The industry is so large that you have an estimated 80,000 driver shortage — and those are just the drivers we are short. How quickly can the OEMs start manufacturing automated trucks to fill the capacity we are short?"

He added that motor carriers who have an interest in autonomous vehicles still want to get the most out of the trucks that they currently have.

Depending on how the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration addresses this issue, along with where lawmakers come down on it for their states, logistics firms that invest in autonomous vehicles will have another resource they can use so trucking remains a national leader in shipping. Thus, drivers may need to be more willing to embrace change if the industry is to maintain its long-held status as the No. 1 freight transportation method.

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