The American trucking industry is in the midst of a true paradox. Few industries are expected to suffer as large a drop in employment opportunity as American over-the-road truckers, as self-driving technology is forecast to displace tens of thousands. The paradox is that the immediate forecast is for a severe shortage of drivers in this strong economic recovery. The scope of the issues is significant. There are approximately four million truck drivers in the United States.
One of the issues is demographics. It is estimated that the average age of the current OTR truck driver is north of 52 years. Gender is predominately male. Truckers are aging and retiring. The industry also has a significant challenge with very high turnover.
But let’s look at the challenge from a truly innovative perspective. Let’s accept the premise that self-driving long-haul trucks become a reality in the next decade as forecast. On the one hand, we could merely sit by and let the positions disappear, replaced by the self-driving designs. But there is an alternative.
It is likely that the cab of a future self-driving truck functions much like the cockpit of a modern commercial aircraft. In such an aircraft, the pilot is intensely engaged during takeoff and landing, when human intervention is critical. For the balance of the flight — indeed, for the majority of the flight — the autopilot functions automatically, ensuring compliance with flight safety standards and keeping the plane on course and on time. In many ways, I expect self-driving trucks will operate in the same fashion, with the “pilot” intensely engaged at the beginning and end and leaving significant flexibility over the vast majority of the trip.
Given this future, what if we thought of the truck cab not only as a driver space, but as a learning space? That is, we design the cab to have a desk and a platform for a computer and monitor along with a modem with 5G connectivity to the internet. In addition to the new vehicle investment, the trucking industry will need to make a strategy and cultural shift to take advantage of the opportunity.
Instead of approaching the “pilot” (driver) role as a vehicle controller, with the driver function being a largely dead-end job, we view it as the learning and development opportunity at the beginning of careers. Instead of anguishing over the shortage of older male drivers, the target audience becomes young workers who want to gain both working experience and employer-enabled learning.
In this new scenario, innovative truck companies invest in self-driving trucks designed to function as a classroom for the majority of time during an OTR trip. The young men and women are recruited with the message that by becoming a truck pilot (indeed, they will no longer be drivers), they will be able to study and learn anything they desire while being paid to pilot the self-driving fully-equipped learning space they are riding in. In this case, the OTR job opportunity would actually give the industry a recruiting advantage over industries not able to give new employees such a learning opportunity while being paid on the job.
An immediate and obvious objective might be that recruiting the young and facilitating their career migration to jobs outside the truck pilot role results in turnover. Indeed, young pilots studying pre-med while hauling west on I-80 are virtually certain to move on to their new careers within a few years. But let’s put that concern in perspective.
The current turnover in OTR trucking is estimated to be more than 100 percent. In the future world of self-driving trucks, let’s assume the young recruits are seeking new careers that take, say, three years to learn. Then an innovative trucking firm can retain a given young recruit for those three years while they learn. This cuts the average turnover from more than 100 percent to well under 50 percent with a much better prospect of having a steady and predictable new employee feeder stream.
The definition of innovation is “a new idea or method.” Reconstructing the cab of the future self-driving OTR truck to be a well-equipped learning space designed to serve the aspirations of the young is about as new an idea as I can think of at the moment.