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Could driverless vehicles spell the end of the road for truck drivers?

The trucking industry has long faced a driver shortage, in part because of high risk, low pay and long hours. The rise of autonomous vehicles could alleviate that problem--but it could also eliminate jobs for a population of older men who lack college degrees and might have difficulty finding new work. Paul Solman explores the conundrum for our special Future of Work series.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    The idea of a future with self-driving cars sparks both fascination and concern.

    Just yesterday, Waymo announced the start of a self-driving car-sharing service in Phoenix. And, yes, the cars will still have a backup driver in case of problems.

    But the stakes are high for the U.S. trucking industry, too.

    And that's the focus of tonight's report in our series The Future of Work.

    On the one hand, the industry has long faced a driver shortage. On the other, self-driving trucks could threaten the jobs of truckers, many of whom are older men without college degrees.

    Economics correspondent Paul Solman explores whether driverless trucks could become kings of the road, part of our weekly look at economics, Making Sense.

  • Finn Murphy:

    I'm wondering if I missed my turn. What the hell am I going to do here?

  • Paul Solman:

    Longtime trucker Finn Murphy inadvertently showing me how tough a job a trucker's can be.

  • Finn Murphy:

    So, what I need to do is turn around before I get on a low bridge or some other nightmare that I don't want to get involved in.

  • Paul Solman:

    Despite such subtleties, though, says Murphy, the future of work on the road is just around the corner: the driverless truck.

  • Finn Murphy:

    I think it's imminent, yes. I think it's going to happen within the next three years or so, where you have a level-four autonomous vehicle, which means it doesn't need a human operator.

  • Paul Solman:

    Finn Murphy is a long-haul human operator, has been since he dropped out of college in the early '80s. He's now at the top of the trucking hierarchy, driver and mover of pricey cargo like art.

  • Finn Murphy:

    And then we all have nicknames, right? So movers were called bed buggers.

  • Paul Solman:

    Bed buggers?

  • Finn Murphy:

    Yes. And our trucks are called roach coaches, because it has people's stuff in it. And then, flatbed haulers, they're called skateboarders.

  • Paul Solman:

    Bed buggers like Murphy driving roach coaches, which haul high-end merchandise, can gross $200,000 a year. Skateboarders, on the other hand and other non-specialists in this increasingly deregulated, de-unionized industry, are paid $30,000 to $50,000.

  • Man:

    Companies are struggling to find qualified commercial truckers, who deliver 70 percent of all goods in this country.

  • Man:

    The American trucking association predicts a major shortage of drivers.

  • Paul Solman:

    Along with the many hazards — something like a quarter of all work-related fatalities are truckers — and endless hours away from home, paltry pay explains what's become a chronic trucker shortage.

    But we're still talking some two million trucking jobs in America, to be outcompeted completely by automation?

  • Finn Murphy:

    They have got their eyes on the prize. Get rid of drivers.

  • Paul Solman:

    But can programmers teach trucks to hook up the trailer, as a human can learn to do? Just about any human?

    Got to go all the way up?

  • Finn Murphy:

    All the way. Then we put on the red one.

  • Paul Solman:

    So this is lubrication?

  • Finn Murphy:

    That's — this is very high-tech lubrication.

  • Paul Solman:

    Connect the hoses and check the oil.

  • Finn Murphy:

    This truck right now, it's got about 800,000 miles on it.

  • Paul Solman:

    And you have got enough oil.

    Not to mention navigate rain, wind, sleet or snow, and pedestrians.

    That's why Finn Murphy's boss, Will Joyce, thinks humans are still in the driver's seat.

  • Will Joyce:

    Even if a truck had the capabilities for braking and guidance, which is fantastic — the more the better for safety — but you're always — you're still going to need an operator, like a train needs a conductor.

  • Paul Solman:

    But Murphy remains adamant.

  • Finn Murphy:

    I think they're in denial, because it's already here. You know, we have already logged 23 million miles. There are autonomous trucks on the road right now.

  • Paul Solman:

    There's Volvo's Vera, the truck by start-up Embark, with no one in sight, Google, Waymo, Daimler, the Inspiration.

    All seem to validate the trucker's lament, written and sung by econo-crooner Merle Hazard: no one even asleep at the wheel.

  • Merle Hazard:

    Chips and software call the shots now. Roads will be for driving bots now. Old-school highway cowboys lost the fight.

  • Paul Solman:

    And yet such visions may be a bit premature.

    From Bristol, Connecticut, we flew to Portland, Oregon, home of Daimler Trucks North America, one of the world's leading producers of semis, now at work on automating them.

    Three years ago in Nevada, Daimler showed off its Inspiration, the world's first road-licensed self-driving truck.

    Steve Nadig, Daimler's head engineer for mechatronics, showed us the newest freightliner model. It has all the latest sensors and doodads, but can it operate without a driver yet?

  • Steve Nadig:

    Absolutely not, not at this point.

  • Paul Solman:

    All right, so, when is that point going to be?

  • Steve Nadig:

    At this point, I cannot tell you. I can tell you what we're going to do, and we, Daimler Trucks, are going to take it step by step, safety by safety, use case by use case, to make sure that we're putting the safest truck on the road possible.

  • Paul Solman:

    What we're likely to see, Nadig says, at least in the short and medium term, is more automated features to make trucks safer and more fuel-efficient, automated transmission, of course, automated braking, autopilot for staying in the lane.

    But, look, they're also still working in wind tunnels like this on old-school stuff like aerodynamic styling to save fuel. And many of the newfangled features are already available on cars. For 80,000-pound, 53-foot-long 18-wheelers, there's still a long way to go.

    In the next three years, says Steve Nadig, the most we're likely to see is platooning, where, to decrease wind drag, while increasing safety, multiple trucks can be electronically linked together. And when might you or I actually pull up alongside an autonomous truck?

    Five years?

  • Steve Nadig:

    When we get to the point, I will tell you right before we get there.

  • Paul Solman:

    All right, 10 years?

  • Steve Nadig:

    Ten years? Yes, maybe, maybe not. I still think, when we look at that, we will still have a driver in the seat.

  • Paul Solman:

    But, as an engineer, I just assume that you believe that, ultimately, systems will be safer than people.

  • Steve Nadig:

    To be honest with you — I don't know if we can put this on PBS — I have had a lot of beer discussions over that, of, can a human being can ever be safer than a vehicle, or can a vehicle be safer than a human being?

  • Paul Solman:

    Where are you before you have too much beer?

  • Steve Nadig:

    Before I have had too much beer.

    So, we — I would tell you, at this point in my career, I haven't seen the evidence to take the driver out of the seat.

  • Paul Solman:

    And that seems to be the engineering consensus, autonomous trucks in 10, 20, maybe 30 years, but, even then, likely driving only the long stretches of open highway, where conditions are the easiest and demand for drivers is greatest, before handing off to human drivers for the last mile into cities, with their turns and twists, traffic lights and us.

    So, whew, right? Truckers can keep on trucking?

  • Steve Viscelli:

    The biggest threat to the truck drivers is not job loss in the near term.

  • Paul Solman:

    Sociologist Steve Viscelli wrote the book on trucking — a book, anyway — after driving a rig for six months himself. The biggest threat to truckers?

  • Steve Viscelli:

    The loss of job quality. In particular, as automated features come online, it's going to allow the industry to use less-skilled drivers, which will extend a long-term trend in trucking wages where drivers are earning less, working longer hours, staying out on the road for long periods of time.

    And automation could feed right into that, allowing the industry to use less skilled drivers.

  • Paul Solman:

    That doesn't leave Finn Murphy, our long-haul driver and student of history, with a lot of hope.

  • Finn Murphy:

    I mean, we have had this problem in civilization for millennia.

    The issue is, is, what does a society decide, if they have a role in helping these folks out? And if the average age is 55, these guys are going to be computer programmers, when they didn't finish high school? I doubt it.

    Whoa, look at these three pedestrians. Ladies, are you really doing this?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Paul Solman:

    Yes, that's kind of amazing.

  • Finn Murphy:

    Now, how is a machine going to deal — going to view that?

  • Paul Solman:

    Yes.

  • Finn Murphy:

    That's the big question.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Paul Solman:

    From Bristol, Connecticut, to Portland, Oregon, this is economics correspondent Paul Solman for the "PBS NewsHour."

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