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The Answer to the Driver Problem (Shortage) 

Yellow, green and red semi-trailer trucks

Is it Otto, or Auto?

Wow, as if things weren’t looking a little gloomy already, I just received a copy of a research study conducted by the Executive Office of The President of United States titled Artificial Intelligence, Automation and the Economy.

If you’re a geek like me, this is a thrilling read.  You can get your very own copy here.

The study brings together several disparate ideas and trends that I have studied, discussed and written about for the past several years.  Right here on this blog, you have already seen articles about safety and defensive driving, the introduction of various newfangled technologies in the name of risk mitigation and the relentless driver problem in America.

However, I’m concerned with more than safety in trucking.  At our core, we are students of the human condition and we spend most of our time creating educational materials and training programs.  So we also have an interest in artificial intelligence and machine learning. At this point, you may think these subjects don’t belong in this blog, but I suggest to you that they do. They portend a major upheaval to our economy and society.  Among several predictions about the influence of artificial intelligence, the study declares that automated trucks will soon displace more than one million professional truck drivers.

I’ve been in and around trucking for more than 40 years.  I have a deep love for trucks filled with safe, professional drivers.  I’ve made sizable investments into Avatar Management Services, Inc., AvatarFleet, LLC and other transportation safety services companies, all formed to make the world a safer place.  Even so, I started preaching this same message three years ago.  In fact, I spoke at the American Trucking Associations Management Conference & Exhibition in San Diego in 2014 declaring that fully automated trucks would be operating in America within ten years.  There were one hundred people in the room and, other than the two millennials, they scoffed at me.  Fast forward three years and we have pilot programs underway in three states with automated trucks.  More will soon follow.

I am not a Luddite.  I can see several benefits of automation.  However, we live in a society where the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer.  Displacing a million truck drivers with automated trucks will simply exacerbate the situation.  The social implications of this trend are far scarier than the impact this will have on your company.

Machine learning is advancing by the hour, not by the day.  Machines can read, hear, see, think and learn without being programmed to do so.  They are getting better at balance and novel, human-like movement.  Within certain limits, machines can do most tasks better, faster and more reliably than a human.  Unlike a truck driver, they don’t:

  • need to sleep-ever
  • need a steady paycheck
  • need health care
  • complain
  • speed
  • take too many risks.

Gee, they sound wonderful, can I convert my fleet tomorrow? 

Hold on.  What happens to our species when the jobs disappear?  What happens when a machine:

  1. Takes your order at the restaurant?
  2. Makes, packages and delivers your food?
  3. Greets you at Walmart and checks you out when you leave?
  4. Does your taxes?
  5. Treats your illnesses?
  6. Mows your lawn?
  7. Drives a truck?
  8. Teaches your kids?

In general terms, there will be no jobs. How will we earn money to feed and clothe ourselves?  How will wealth be distributed so all people will be able to survive?  If all the wealth goes to the 1/10th of one percent of the rich population who own the machines, what happens?  Society will quickly break down.  Mad Max and Blade Runner are starting to look all too possible.

If you find yourself questioning the legitimacy of these predictions and concerns, save this article.  We’ll come back and revisit it from time to time.  I hope it all turns out and I’ll happily apologize for being Chicken Little. But if I’m right and you benefit from a little foresight, please drop me a little thank-you note.


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