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(Don’t) keep truckin’

| Tuesday, April 4, 2017

At time of writing, about 3.5 million men and women work as professional truck drivers in the United States. Combined, they move more than 10 billion tons of freight each year, with a combined estimated value of $671 billion. Whether you call it a big rig, a semi, a tractor trailer, or an eighteen-wheeler, the truck is a symbol of commerce and prosperity.

Despite the critical work they do every day, the clock is ticking for the American trucker. The automobile is getting automated; children born today may come to regard a driver’s license as a rarity, much like landlines in modern homes. In place of the truckers, a new generation of self-driving trucks is on the horizon. The economic incentive to developing this technology is obvious. Robots don’t need to eat or sleep; the extra uptime for these vehicles will by itself make the switch worth it for freight companies. Silicon-based truckers won’t get distracted, and can react at literal lightspeed. The cab of a self-driving car doesn’t even need air conditioning.

Some might say the technology isn’t there yet. After all, piloting a luxury car around San Francisco (which, according to all my Californian friends, has no weather) is hardly comparable to hauling an eighteen-wheeler up a Colorado Rockie in blizzard conditions. We have to remember though, that invention in general and software in particular has a way of sneaking up on the public. The GPS wasn’t released for civilian use until 1996. Look at all the applications it’s been put to since — everything from guiding road trips to catching Pokemon. Who knows where the technology will be in twenty years, or even ten?

The question then turns towards policy. While it may be good for trucking companies to ditch the human element, the aforementioned Connecticut’s worth of truckers will be out of work. Many will face the prospect of looking for work in a market that no longer values the skills they have so painstakingly developed. It’s easy to sympathize with these individuals — no one likes being condemned to economic irrelevance. The problem happens when their stories are co-opted by anti-technology activists as an excuse to suppress innovation.

When put in broader context, though, things look a bit rosier for the trucker. Working-class votes famously swung November’s election, and both parties are scrambling to secure this constituency for the next round. Prominent Republicans have expressed the desire to remake the GOP as a “worker’s party,” and Democrats are looking to capitalize on their historical strength with labor. Combined with the legendary influence of the Teamsters Union, we can expect to see strong agitation against self-driving long-haul trucks in the future.

The public’s limited ability to quantify risk means that the few collisions involving self-driving cars (even when the auto-auto is not at fault) get much more media play than the 90 people who die every day in human-driven car crashes. The associated fear of unfamiliar technology will add additional pressure on lawmakers to regulate self-driving trucks. Add in the electoral power of “economically anxious” truckers, and we could see the Luddites win this round. That’s a disturbing precedent — how many other jobs are slated for automation this century? Are we to turn away from these innovations to placate some blue-collar need for validation?

If the American freight sector is to stay economically relevant, it must embrace automation. It sounds nice to insulate millions of hard-working Americans in a “safe space” that will protect them from the inexorable march of progress. But long-term, top-down intervention will do nothing but hamper the progress of our economy, and create another bloc of employees dependent on de facto handouts.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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