The looming threat of mass-unemployment driven by automation has been grossly overstated: while it's true that "truck driver" is one of the most common jobs in America, the vast majority of truck drivers are not long-haul drivers, which are the drivers at risk of having their jobs automated out of existence.
What's more, the US Standard Occupational Survey conflates "truck drivers" with "driver/sales workers" -- meaning that the oft-cited figure of 3,000,000 US truck drivers is grossly inflated.
Truck drivers don't just drive trucks: they engage in a wide variety of non-driving, difficult-to-automate tasks: "checking vehicles, following safety procedures, inspecting loads, maintaining logs, and securing cargo"; as well as a variety of customer service roles and so on. Short-haul truckers have an even wider variety of tasks, navigating city streets and dealing with complex situations involving multiple vehicle types.
That said, trucking remains one of the most exploitative industries in America.
Several reasons account for our differing opinion. First, the number of truck drivers that can be potentially affected by automation is fewer than many have assumed, because of misunderstandings about the nature of the occupational classification system. Second, although the occupational designation of heavy and tractor-trailer truck driver makes the primary task of the job—driving—apparent, it is important to note a number of non-driving tasks required of truck drivers, many of which are less susceptible to automation. Third, and most important, the requirements of autonomous vehicle technology, combined with complex regulations over how trucks can operate in the United States, imply that certain segments of trucking will be easier to automate than others.
Though we speculate on the possible impact of autonomous trucking, a good deal of research remains to pinpoint potential impacts. We estimate that between 300,000 and 400,000 workers are currently employed as heavy truck drivers in the long-haul segment of trucking, the segment most likely to adopt level 4 automation. While level 4 automation will inevitably displace drivers, it will not come close to eliminating the need for all drivers. A careful general equilibrium analysis of the impact on labor must incorporate operational considerations, including the potential for a modal shift from rail to trucking, potential changes in the vehicles used for first- and last-mile transportation, the considerable amount of non-driving work currently performed by drivers, the past and current employment practices and institutions that affect labor hours and pay in trucking, as well as that gauge the impact the introduction of new technology into trucking and other industries will have on the supply of truck drivers.
Truck-Driving Jobs: Are They Headed for Rapid Elimination? [Maury Gittleman and Kristen Monaco/Sage Publications]
(via Science Daily)