Will A.I. Disrupt Truckers in the 2020s?
Supply-China bottlenecks will accelerate adoption of self-driving trucks
The Trucker Convoy has put the far right on the map in Canada.
Few jobs are as essentially and quintessentially American as the need for truck drivers. Our entire consumer economy depends on these hard working individuals. If you want to participate on a Poll about this, you can do so here. I’m trying to build attention to this debate.
Amid a labor shortage in trucking in some States and Countries, you’d think the prospects of trucking jobs are incredible in the 2020s, right?
However the robots are coming. The pandemic, inflation, labor shortages and supply-chain issues (along with wage inflation) are all incentives for logistics and long-haul trucking to be given to the Robots. 2022 is a special cocktail of factors that mean those pesky AV trucking startups are going to make big partnerships.
With massive supply-chain issues and trucker labor shortages, our supply chains need automation to fix them. Meanwhile, a truck convoy is currently protesting mandatory vaccine mandates for the Canadian / U.S. border crossing. They call themselves the Freedom Convoy 2022.
Whether you think the automation of truckers is good or bad is irreverent. Your political orientation is irrelevant. The fact remains logistics and trucking will soon become more and more automated. Just as in retail or restaurants or grocery delivery or tobo-taxis replacing gig-economy workers at Uber and Lyft. This is a society change that’s bigger than the jobs they disrupt.
This is technological disruption at a scale we haven’t witnessed in our lives in a Great Automation of society.
Truck Convoy is a Swan Song to an Outdated Profession
A convoy of anti-vaccine Canadian truckers and their supporters is making its way to the country’s capital, Ottawa. Oh Canada, truckers seem to be good supporters of the far right there too it seems, eh?
The problem? The labor shortage in the logistics and trucking industry is going to lead to significant spend on the automation of logistics and trucking. There are over 60 major automation of trucking companies already in development.
A company called TuSimple (ticker $TU) already trades on the stock market. TuSimple Holdings Inc., an autonomous technology company, develops autonomous technology specifically designed for semi-trucks in the United States and internationally. It intends to produce a line of purpose-built (Level 4) L4 autonomous semi-trucks for the North American market.
Logistics and Trucking Are Going to the Robots
Since I wrote my piece on this topic in 2019, the field has really accelerated. We seem to be in denial that some aspects of trucking will soon be automated. A chronic labor shortage will be the trigger. Self-driving technology is only getting better each year and trucking for autonomous vehicles is the first-adoption industry. Self-driving trucks and delivery robots will start to roll out in the next decade or two.
Wage inflation, supply-chain issues and truckers not following vaccine mandates, along with a significant labor shortage in the trucking industry mean the need for automation has never been greater. AV EVs will perhaps transform the future of logistics more in the next twenty years than in all its history put together.
In early January, 2022 TuSimple (Ticker: $TSP), the global autonomous driving technology company I mentioned, has expanded its ongoing partnership with NVIDIA to design and develop an advanced autonomous domain controller (ADC) specifically engineered for TuSimple's Level 4 autonomous trucking applications.
The ‘Freedom Convoy’ is nothing but a vehicle for the far right,” according to the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, a non-profit that monitors hate groups. I don’t know about the far right, but I got a trucker commenting on my new Twitter account, being critical of my ties to BigTech AI companies. Pretty offensive. if you ask me. As if I’m sponsored by companies to make future predictions.
Huge Labor Crisis in the Trucking Industry
The sad part is the writing has been on the wall for truckers for many years. As hospitality has struggled with even food shelves bare due to the supply-chain crisis, it’s become apparent that the human truckers are part of the problem. Labor shortages in parts of Europe have been very weak. However in the U.S. some have questioned if such a labor shortage is even real.
American Trucking Association’s Chief Economist Bob Costello said fleets are adjusting to continued tightness in the driver market by increasing pay and hiring newer drivers.
The industry needs to find an average of roughly 96,000 new drivers annually to keep pace with demand. If freight demand grows as it is projected to, the driver shortage could balloon to nearly 240,000 drivers by 2022, according to ATA data.
Not many young people want to be truck drivers, many of whom are retiring during the pandemic. So what does the reality look like on the ground? While the driver shortage is generally confined to only certain segments of the trucking industry, it is having real impacts in how fleets recruit and retain their drivers.
“Fleets in all segments of trucking have told us they are having a more difficult time finding qualified drivers than they were a year ago,” Costello added. “As a result, more fleets are considering hiring drivers straight out of driver training programs and nearly three-quarters of those we surveyed plan to increase pay or have already done so.” - American Trucking Associations Chief Economist Bob Costello.
Obviously these kinds of pressures on the labor shortage in some segments of trucking aren’t sustainable. Washington isn’t stupid, it will eventually have to give some of the tasks to robots that seem more than capable and up to certain aspects of the job.
Analysts and journalists appear to suggest that Trucking is likely to continue to see a shortage of professional drivers with the underlying causes showing no signs of stopping in 2022.
This suggests the automation of trucking could have a big year in 2022. Walmart and Silicon Valley start-up Gatik said that, since August, they’ve operated two autonomous box trucks, without a safety driver, on a 7-mile loop daily for 12 hours. These sorts of pilots are only going to improve as the automated warehouse gets smarter in major big-box retail stores.
The Holy Grail of Trucker Automation
“Taking the driver out is the holy grail of this technology.” Gatik CEO Gautam Narang, who founded the company in 2017, told CNBC.
Truckers are being besieged obviously by powers and events outside of their personal control. These blue collar workers are like unsung heroes of the American consumer based economy. But the times they are changing.
Think about it, all that you consume! Truck drivers move around 71% of the U.S. economy's products across the country. The thing is it’s not just long-haul shipments that will be impacted.
In the case of Walmart, the Gatik trucks are loaded with online grocery orders from a Walmart fulfillment center called a “dark store.” The orders are then taken to a nearby Walmart Neighborhood Market grocery store in Bentonville, Arkansas, where Walmart is headquartered.
Even in 2022 there is this bare shelves issue. If you’ve shopped at a supermarket lately, you would have noticed all of the bare shelves, depending on the demographic density of your region.
President Joe Biden pressed the ports to work around the clock to unpack containers, get them off the docks and send them out to the public. But even Biden knows we’ll need robots to help the supply-chain disruption correct itself. The Holy Grail of automation becomes the fix at scale that the world actually needs, otherwise a U.S. recession is highly likely.
We can receive all the goods from China and around the world, but if there are not enough truckers to deliver them to stores, we will continue to see empty shelves for a long time. That this continues to happen in 2022 is a very bad sign. Inflation and supply-chain disruption could get much worse also as Omicron BA.2 explodes into populations just relaxing their rules over the Omicron wave and considerable pandemic fatigue.
The automation of truck drivers highlights the social unrest we are witnessing in America today. White rural disenfranchised and relatively low skilled (relative to some white collar positions) Americans are upset with the way the world is being run. Truckers are a huge number of workers, just like Walmart or Amazon workers or Starbuck workers who now feel they need to unionize.