Driverless trucks will take some getting used to, but that does not make them the Halloween demon that the Teamsters make them out to be.
In fact, few industries stand to gain as much from the implementation of driverless vehicle technology as freight and transportation, and specifically trucking: a $767 billion a year business that will benefit from automation by using less fuel and man-hours while hastening deliveries.
The path towards real-world implementation of self-driving technology in trucks is smoother than for cars, as they primarily operate on long straight highways with clear lane markers and signs and have far fewer interactions with pedestrians, bikes, or animals. Yet because of the Teamsters’ lobbying, trucking, at the moment, has been relegated to the back seat of this evolution.
The ultimate adoption of self-driving trucks is not seriously disputed by any of the major stakeholders. In fact, the industry is moving forward with the technology at least as quickly for trucks as for cars. Daimler (Mercedes-Benz), Otto (Uber), Alphabet’s Waymo, and Tesla are at various stages of development in the automated trucking technology. Daimler test drove automated trucks in Nevada in 2015, and Otto made a real-world truck delivery in 2016.
Automated trucks can transport goods more quickly. By way of example, hours-of-service rules require 10 hours off after driving 11 hours, making a trip from New York to Los Angeles take five days with a driver. The same trip can be made in 48 hours with an automated truck. This means goods, such as produce, that previously had to be flown could be trucked, resulting in substantial savings on fuel costs. There is additional fuel savings already demonstrated in real-world platooning trials, where a dozen or so driverless trucks convoy with a human driver in the lead.
The Teamsters therefore need to understand that the potential savings and increased profits of automated trucks all but guarantees the adoption of the technology. Their best move, if they want to hold on to as many jobs as possible, is to roll with the changes and find ways to join the evolution.
So far, however, the Teamsters have taken a different route.
At Teamsters General President James P. Hoffa’s urging, the US House Energy and Commerce Committee in July excluded trucks and vehicles weighing more than 10,000 lbs from inclusion in the SELF DRIVE Act (H.R. 3388), which sets up the federal regulatory framework for the widespread adoption of automated vehicles on our nation’s roadways; in September, the House approved the bill.
In October, Hoffa successfully lobbied the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation to exempt trucks and all other vehicles weighing more than 10,000 lbs from the AV Start Act (S. 1885) — the Senate’s corollary to H.R. 3388, which proposed bill was unanimously voted out of committee on Oct. 4. A floor vote on the Senate bill has yet to be scheduled, but is expected before the end of the year.
Upon passage of the AV Start Act out of the Senate Commerce Committee, Hoffa said: “It is vital that Congress ensures that any new technology is used to make transportation safer and more effective, not used to put workers at risk on the job or destroy livelihoods.”
Among those legislators pushing to keep trucking in the equation is Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who earlier this month strongly criticized the exclusion of commercial vehicles as undermining safety.
“Treating cars and trucks differently when it comes to federal pre-emption or the ability to test innovation and emerging technologies will hinder efforts to develop and adopt newer and safer technology,” Inhofe said.
Hacking, one of the concerns Hoffa highlights, is a great risk that needs to be managed. However, slowing the development of the technology is not the answer, and in light of overwhelming data showing driverless technology is dramatically safer than manned, the Teamsters’ lobbying efforts feel more like knee-jerk special-interest lobbying than long-term strategic thinking.
In summary, including trucks in federal regulatory framework is not the death knell for trucking jobs that the Teamsters portend. Most experts forecast that people will remain a part of the truck-driving equation, even with platooning and other driverless applications, as the foreseeable future will require drivers to navigate trucks from the highways to pick-up or delivery destinations over city streets. There is also a growing contingency that envisions the first and last mile being manually driven from a remote location.
In their eyes, the Teamsters won the battle this month. Although, unless they develop a long-term strategy of support and inclusion, they will lose the war.
John P. Swenson is a partner at the Scali Law Firm.