There's a lot of excitement surrounding the concept of autonomous driving, but there's also a lot of fear. On top of skepticism about security and safety, there's public concern that autonomous commercial trucks are going to put truck drivers out of work. For many truckers, truck driving is the only career they have in their adult life and some of them are reasonably concerned that the only job they know could cease to exist in the near future.
I recently spoke with Chuck Price, the vice president of product for TuSimple, a startup that is developing technologies for self-driving trucks. I asked Price what he'd tell someone concerned about safety and widespread job-loss as they relate to the autonomous technology his company is working on.
“We’re driving in the near-term with supervising drivers in the vehicle so this is not a matter of something coming out next month that will 'steal jobs',” said Price on the topic of potential job loss for human truckers. “We actually have drivers in vehicles supervising for a significant period of time until we are assured we can do this with higher levels of safety than you can do with a human driver.”
“In terms of job loss, I don’t think it’s quite the same situation as factory automation coming in and eliminating jobs. I think jobs are going to transition. Drivers are going to be provided with much safer tools to work with. As autonomous vehicles become more mainstream, the job of the driver is going to change. I think we’re going to see drivers move to more local operation, more supervisory operation, and there are going to be some high-level jobs that are very appropriate for drivers to take. It’s going to create opportunities for drivers that could, in many ways, be more interesting than their existing jobs.”
“In terms of safety, that is the number one criteria. We’re building a product that is first; safe, and we won’t release a product that hasn’t satisfied that requirement,” said Price. “It’s certainly our belief, and I think this shared across the autonomous vehicle community, you crash one truck and you hurt the entire industry. We’re being extremely cautious.” Indeed, whenever a semi-autonomous car gets in an accident, it’s all over the headlines and renews public skepticism of the whole idea of letting a robot take the wheel.
Chuck Price has an optimistic and realistic outlook on the real possibility of autonomous trucks bringing about unemployment for truck drivers all over the world. Even when self-driving trucks do start to become mainstream, every truck driver isn’t going to lose their job overnight. Yes, the day may likely come when we don't need humans behind the wheel of big rigs anymore, but it will likely be a long transition.