Without action from policymakers, driverless trucks are projected to eliminate some of America’s best trucking jobs while also creating low-wage gig jobs, according to the first in-depth study of how autonomous trucks could be adopted by specific segments of the industry and affect wages and working conditions.
In Driverless?: Autonomous Trucks and the Future of the American Trucker, Dr. Steve Viscelli, a sociologist and trucking expert at the University of Pennsylvania, projects that under the adoption scenario that leading technology firms are working towards, autonomous trucks would primarily handle long-distance highway driving while human drivers navigate local streets. Specifically:
- Autonomous trucks could replace as many as 294,000 long-distance driving jobs.
- 83,000 of the best trucking jobs, with stable careers and average annual earnings between $60,000 and $70,000, would be at high risk of automation.
- Another 211,000 lesser-quality jobs would also be at risk. Their annual earnings average between $46,000 and $53,000 and workers suffer from exploitative labor practices and high turnover.
- While new local driving and delivery jobs (with humans at the wheel) would be created, data suggests these jobs could pay just half as much as those lost through automation. These workers are also likely to be misclassified as independent contractors, without basic benefits, labor protections, or the right to organize for better pay and conditions.
“This is the first study to both forecast potential scenarios for how autonomous trucks could be adopted by specific segments of the trucking industry, and what that could mean for the quality of trucking jobs,” said author Steve Viscelli.
“In contrast to earlier estimates that autonomous trucks would eliminate all 2.1 million trucking jobs, this approach tells a more nuanced story, where some jobs would be lost and others created, but with significant negative effects on wages, working conditions, and employment status.”
The report was jointly commissioned by the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education (Labor Center) and Working Partnerships USA, and is part of a broader multi-industry research project on the impact of new technologies on work supported by the Ford Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and the Open Society Foundations.
“This report makes clear that it’s time to move beyond robots apocalypse thinking,” said Annette Bernhardt, director of the Low-Wage Work Program at the UC Berkeley Labor Center.
“The real challenge of the next 20 years may be less about rampant job losses than about technology having the effect of degrading wages and working conditions and exacerbating already high levels of inequality.”
Driverless? identifies and analyzes six possible scenarios for how autonomous trucks could be introduced by industry, with different job and environmental impacts. The analysis was based on extensive background research and interviews with engineers, developers, trucking firms, and drivers about the direction the industry is heading.
“Right now, we’re on a path where tech developers and big companies decide what technologies get introduced, while workers and the public bear the cost of those choices,” said Derecka Mehrens, executive director of Working Partnerships USA.
“If we want innovation to benefit all of us, we need a more balanced approach: one where workers and the public play an active role in guiding innovation, and those who profit from new technology also take responsibility for its impacts.”
The report proposes new policies to ensure that advances in autonomous driving technology benefit workers, the environment, and the public, including:
- Establishing a multi-stakeholder Trucking Innovation and Jobs Council to develop a shared innovation agenda, create career pathways, and support displaced workers.
- Laying the foundation for a 21st century freight industry by addressing the exploitative labor practices that currently prevail in the industry segments that are projected to grow.
- Promoting innovation with social and environmental benefits, such as electric local trucks and human-drone highway platoons.
Working Partnerships USA is a community organization bringing together the power of grassroots organizing and public policy innovation to drive the movement for a just economy. Based in Silicon Valley, it tackles the root causes of inequality and poverty by leading collaborative campaigns for quality jobs, healthy communities, equitable growth and vibrant democracy. WPUSA builds the capacity of workers, low-income neighborhoods and communities of color to lead and govern.
The UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education (Labor Center) is a public service project of the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment (IRLE) at UC Berkeley. IRLE connects world-class research with policy to improve workers’ lives, communities, and society. Since 1964, the Labor Center has produced research, trainings, and curricula that deepen understanding of employment conditions and develop diverse new generations of leaders.
Here’s How Trucking Could Look with Automation and Proactive Public Policy
The way we move goods is going to change dramatically in the coming decades, but how new technologies make their way onto our roads - who benefits, who may be left behind, the impact on our environment - will be shaped by the response of governments, businesses, and workers across the industry.
Effective public policy can ensure that trucking evolves into a productive, high-road industry. Policymakers, collaborating with workers and industry leaders, have an opportunity to tackle some of our biggest challenges: creating good, family-supporting jobs, improving road safety, and reducing traffic congestion and carbon emissions.
What might an alternative, shared innovation agenda look like for the adoption of autonomous trucks?
This report identifies an adoption scenario with good outcomes for workers, job quality, and public health and safety: human-led platooning, coupled with clean electric local trucks.