Tech companies and car manufacturers are working rapidly to bring the world of driverless cars - one with fewer accidents, traffic jams and less pollution - into reality for U.S. roads. And the industry where the promise of autonomous cars is perhaps shining the brightest is in trucking, where computer-controlled trucks can more easily navigate long trips down highways over complex city streets.
Over the past several years, there's been an emergence of start-ups and others looking to implement full-scale autonomous trucking operations on North American roads, with pilot programs in the American Sun Belt, including in Texas, Florida and Arizona, where more welcoming weather makes the region an ideal testing ground.
Alphabet's self-driving truck venture Waymo Via last month announced it is teaming up with truck fleet operator C.H. Robinson - which has a network of nearly 200,000 shippers and carriers and data on more than 3 million trucking routes - to deliver freight between Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston using automated trucks.
The idea is autonomous trucks could remedy a host of problems the trucking industry is currently facing: driver shortages, increasing vehicle prices, fuel price volatility, performance limitations and safety concerns.
But an autonomous solution will likely come at the cost of hundreds of thousands of American jobs, according to new research from the University of Michigan and Carnegie Mellon University, which looked at the potential effects of driverless trucks on the long-haul trucking market.
"Historically, trucking has been a sort of fast way to the middle class if you have a high school education, and we've been reading more and more that that was not the case. We spoke to a couple of companies that were working on trucking automation who seemed fairly confident that on the highway at least, the technology was fairly mature and worked," Parth Vaishnav, assistant professor of sustainable systems at the University of Michigan and co-author of the study, told Changing America.
Researchers worked to understand how automation might replace human operator hours in a set of scenarios, including only in sunny states, in the spring and summer months, for trips more than 500 miles and around the country. The study focused on a "transfer hub" model, in which a human driver would handle the short, more complex, trip from a factory or distribution center to a truck port where the load is switched to an automated vehicle that would complete the highway leg of the route. The same process would take place at the end of the route.
The study found that if such a system were put in place nationwide, 94 percent of human operator hours may be affected, which could account for as many as 500,000 jobs.
In a situation where automation is restricted only to Sun Belt states, as rough weather poses a challenge to automation, about 10 percent of worker operator hours will be affected. If automation is deployed nationwide only during the spring and summer months, about half the nation's trucking hours could go driverless.
"I think the most surprising thing there was that everyone we spoke to basically said 'yeah, this can be done,'" Vaishnav said.
"There weren't a lot of truck drivers who said, 'no, actually we do a lot of other things that cannot be automated, even on the highway.' All of them said that yes, you can automate it. So we found that pretty surprising."
It is certainly not clear how widespread implementation of autonomous trucks will affect the industry. Some have predicted automation could wipe out trucking jobs across the board, while others have argued those estimates are greatly exaggerated.
Others argue automation will be an overall good for the industry, as long-haul driving is a tedious job that keeps truckers away from their families for up to weeks at a time and has a turnover rate of 100 percent. Currently, the industry is experiencing a shortage of more than 60,000 workers and those numbers are expected to increase in the coming years.
But still, while the technology is advancing, there are still many hurdles to developing a completely safe and viable autonomous freight industry.
Aniruddh Mohan, a PhD candidate in the department of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University and co-author of the study, said widespread implementation will depend on how successful pilot programs in the Sun Belt are in the coming years, but warned any lapse in safety could slow down progress.
"One thing to keep in mind, just as we saw with the passenger vehicle automation race, the moment you even have one accident, that could really set the industry back," Mohan said.
"So I think it remains to be seen how quickly this develops."
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