Diane Burko, “USA COVID” (2020)

Who’s Driving Driverless Trucks?


Will Robotic Trucks Be “Sweatshops on Wheels”?
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In discussing the job market impact of autonomous trucks in “Will Robotic Trucks be ‘Sweatshops on Wheels?’ ” (Issues, Fall 2020), Steve Viscelli makes an important point: the free market is not a free-standing concept. Rather, the market is always shaped by institutions that, in turn, are shaped by society’s decisions.

It is an easy point to forget. In the United States we have come to assume that the free market forces firms to maximize shareholder value while downplaying the interests of employees and other stakeholders. As noted in a new MIT report, The Work of the Future, firms in other countries take a more balanced view that results in lower economic inequality while not sacrificing economic growth. To the contrary, the high level of US economic inequality including large numbers of low-wage jobs is arguably contributing to extensive political polarization and instability.

As Viscelli shows, the job market impact of autonomous trucks will be shaped by a number of administrative decisions: Will the truck be required to carry a safety driver for emergencies? For what part of nonemergency time will the safety driver be paid? By explaining these relationships in the case of autonomous trucks, Viscelli offers a way to think about automation and the economy that goes beyond too-simple concepts of the market and technological determinism.

Daniel Rose Professor of Urban Economics, Emeritus

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Faculty Affiliate, Strategy Area

Fuqua School of Business

Duke University

Steve Viscelli provides a thoughtful article, and we agree with his broad point that a phased approach to deploying self-driving trucks starting with human-guided autonomous convoying is the responsible, prudent, and safe path toward the future of freight. Also like Viscelli, we at Locomation, a leading developer of autonomous driving technology for semi-trucks, have always thought of self-driving trucks as not just a technology problem, but an ecosystem problem encompassing all the stakeholders including drivers, trucking companies, shippers, legislators, and the general public.

The automation of semi-trucks is not an if, but a when, where, and how question. Completely driverless self-driving trucks, even in the interstate segments only, require a very high safety bar to be cleared before wide-scale deployment, but we certainly expect them to reach this standard. In practice, human-guided autonomous convoying, where a human-controlled and supervised lead truck is followed by a self-driving truck in a convoy formation, is how self-driving trucks in the near future will be deployed in a safe and expedient manner.

A two-truck, two-driver autonomous convoy will be an improvement over today’s “team driving” and can deliver twice as much cargo twice as far and twice as fast using the same drivers and trucks, significantly improving driver and truck utilization. The drivers will drive the trucks manually through the surface streets and onto the highway. There, the autonomy will be engaged, turning the follower truck into a self-driving truck so the driver can sign off and rest. The lead driver will effectively be in charge of both trucks. The same autonomy system that drives the second truck will also help the lead driver, improving safety and driving comfort. The trucks will swap places at the end of a driver’s shift to keep the convoy going. As Viscelli points out, this approach will create high-skill, high-paying premium driving jobs.

As Viscelli depicts, a second application will be where a two-truck, one-driver autonomous convoy will operate on shorter hauls (roughly 500 miles round trip), where a driver delivers twice as much cargo and goes home every night.

The nation’s overall freight demand is expected to double in the next 25 years. That, combined with the inherently slow anticipated rollout pace for self-driving trucks, will give us ample time to proact, legislate, and prepare the workforce for the transportation jobs of tomorrow. Creating the future of transportation in a fair, sustainable, and efficient way is in our hands, but as Viscelli very eloquently laid down, we have to acknowledge this is a whole ecosystem challenge, not just technology or operations.

Chief Executive Office and Cofounder of Locomation

Cite this Article

“Who’s Driving Driverless Trucks?” Issues in Science and Technology 37, no. 2 (Winter 2021).

Vol. XXXVII, No. 2, Winter 2021