Opinion: Wild ride ahead for truck drivers

By: Matt Wood

Let's polish the crystal ball to predict what a truck driver’s lot will be in 25 years’ time. To infinity and beyond…

Opinion: Wild ride ahead for truck drivers
Will robots take our jobs?


What will life for a truck driver look like in 2042?

Well, crystal ball gazing is an imprecise art but I’ll have a crack at it anyway. The trouble is that it’s pretty hard to keep up with the pace of technological change at the best of times.

It seems like not that long ago that my old Blackberry (four phones ago!) was pretty swish.

We are however at an unprecedented point in history.

Many tech commentators are saying that the impact of this automated-artificial intelligence-internet of things revolution will be as significant as the Industrial revolution of the 1800s.

And they may well be right.

However, the Industrial Revolution also caused widespread social chaos.

One good example was invention of the mechanical weaving loom in the spinning mills of England.

Previously hand weavers earned a good living and were in demand. It was a respected middle class profession. Almost overnight they found themselves jobless and living in poverty soon after.

So will the job of a truck driver still exist?

Or will the truck drivers of the 2020s be doomed to the fate of the displaced and impoverished weavers of the 1820s?

Contrary to current popular media scuttlebutt I actually believe that the job of a driver will still exist in 2042.

Why? Because security, because terrorism and because authorities the world over cannot keep up with hackers.

For example, earlier this year the Victorian speed camera network was hacked and nobody still knows who did it, how they did it or even why. And that’s just one example.

More recently an Australian Defence contractor was also cyber attacked by persons unknown.

Digital policing at this point in history is reactive rather than proactive. Generally an attack happens then the target responds. It’s hard to see anyone taking the risk of removing a driver from a heavy vehicle.

Autonomous pitfalls

Connectivity between vehicles and infrastructure will be the key to keeping everything on the straight and narrow.

Chances are most cars will be operating autonomously and will need to speak to the environment around them.

The current conversations about self-driving cars and autonomous taxis sound awfully convenient.

But who cleans the liquid mess out of an autonomous taxi that’s prowling the streets picking up and dropping off passengers on a Saturday night?

And how does an autonomous car deal with a bunch of drunk teenagers that surround it, laughing their heads off as the car tries to figure out where it can go?

These fuzzy factors would be pretty hard for an algorithm to deal with.

No doubt AI will continue to get smarter however at this point in time it’s hard to see digital systems accounting for political agendas or drunk idiots out having fun.

And when it comes to trucks, hijacking could also be an issue. It’s not hard to predict someone being able to bring a truck to a halt with another vehicle and stealing either the entire vehicle or the cargo inside. Or even just damaging it for kicks.

The rise of trucks as a tool of terror also raises concerns. The potential for an autonomous truck to be hacked or hijacked and used as weapon would be a real issue.

For all these reasons, and no doubt more, truck manufacturers like Daimler and Volvo are currently saying that they have no plans to take the driver out of the truck.

Just to keep things from being (or making sure that they are) confusing there are currently two different systems used to classify levels of automotive automation.

One is the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) and the other is the American National Highway Safety Administration (NHSA).

According to the SAE, level 5 automation is where a driver is not required. The NHSA equivalent is level 4. Trust ‘murica to go its own way.

This is all kind of sleep inducing but handy to know.

Those top levels of full automation will no doubt be found in agriculture, wharf and mining roles. Farmers are already eagerly embracing autonomous machinery and drone technology.

However, the job of a truck driver as we know it today will be dramatically different. The driver of the future will probably have a lot less contact with people on a day-to-day basis as a lot of warehousing will be automated.

A local driver may also be a drone pilot, delivering and picking up parcels from the back of a truck or van parked in the area.

Chances are that most trucks will indeed be able to drive themselves, much in the same way as a modern airliner can fly itself. The driver, like an airline pilot, will need to be present to take over in the case of an issue.

The role of a truck driver in the next few decades may well be vastly different though and require a whole bunch of new skill sets.

For example in long haul roles a driver may be required to carry out the sort of clerical duties that are currently handled back at the office while the truck is on the move.

An owner-driver may be able to invoice, email and take care of business on the move.

The main issue at the moment is the fear of the unknown and the breakneck pace of technological change. And this isn’t helped by some media commentary.

Some experts are forecasting that AI and autonomy will replace up to 80 percent of jobs before 2050. Basically any job that is task or process oriented can be automated.

Computer algorithms are already being used in finance. Theoretically all blue-collar work could eventually disappear along with a great deal of middle management.

Professor Toby Walsh, an AI scientist with Sydney University not only predicts that humans will not be allowed to drive by 2050 he also suggests that AI may also be hiring and firing human employees.

But high profile International Consulting firm McKinsey is taking a softer approach predicting that 50 percent of jobs are under threat of automation.

The interesting thing about this is that McKinsey has also found that 6 out of 10 jobs that currently exist can be automated by as much as 30 percent.

This indicates that it’s likely that some jobs won’t disappear; they may just merge with other roles.

And of course new jobs will emerge that just don’t exist right now. Even at this point in time there are jobs that didn’t exist a decade ago.

One thing is for certain; there will be a huge change in the way we work.

Fear factor

A climate of fear has emerged out of the commentary on automation. You don’t have to look far to find someone predicting the demise of blue-collar work and even a lot of middle management.

However, McKinsey predicts job displacement rather than job losses saying that by 2030 up to 400 million workers globally will have to move into other work.

At the same time this displacement is predicted to have more of an effect on large manufacturing economies like China than western economies.

As economies are still predicted to grow, so too will the freight task.

As a result I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that truck drivers will be more in demand than ever over the next couple of decades.

It seems that in 25 years, driving a truck will become less about driving and more about systems management and possibly clerical duties.

Regardless of how it plays out, one thing is for sure: the next two and a half decades are set to be a wild ride.

Strap yourselves in.

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