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A Farewell To Truckers: Automation Will Make Driving Jobs All But Obsolete

But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing: If the U.S. helps workers transition to more fulfilling and better-paying jobs, this labor-market shakeup could become an opportunity.

It may be a decade or more before we see fleets of self-driving trucks on the road–the regulatory picture is hard to predict–but the technology is already available. Daimler has tested an autonomous Freightliner vehicle on the long, straight highways of Nevada. And Uber, which last year bought Otto, a San Francisco truck automation startup, has auto-driven 50,000 cans of Budweiser along Colorado’s Interstate 25 (though Otto is now tangled up in a potentially devastating lawsuit between Google and Uber).

The technology works, and it won’t be too long before human drivers are affected. Last year, the Obama White House released a report that said 1.3 million to 1.7 million heavy truck drivers could eventually lose their jobs; that levels out to 80% to 100% of all truck-driving jobs. If you count drivers of service trucks, chauffeurs, taxi, and bus drivers as well, automated vehicles could displace as many as 3.1 million people, the report said. Driving is one of the most popular jobs in America: About 3% of the workforce does it for a living.

Who might be most touched by automation? According to a new analysis from the Center for Global Policy Solutions (CGPS), a Washington D.C. advocacy and consulting group, Mississippi, Wyoming, West Virginia, Idaho, and North Dakota have the highest percentages of drivers in their workforces (about 3.5%). California (432,000), Texas (353,000), New York (282,000), Florida (224,000), and Illinois (189,000) have the highest numbers of drivers. Most drivers have less than a bachelor’s degree (93.2%). And most are men (there are six times more men than women) and most are white (62%).

“More than 30 companies say they are just a few years away from introducing autonomous vehicles to the mass market,” the Center for Global Policy Solutions report says. “While it is unknown what the ultimate impact of autonomous vehicles will have on jobs, there is a possibility that there could be a relatively rapid transition.”

The CGPS report calls for new policies to deal with the fallout including unemployment insurance, a basic income paid through the Social Security system, dedicated subsidies and training programs for people displaced by automation, and guaranteed health care coverage; most drivers are paid on a contract basis and are therefore less likely to receive benefits like health insurance from their employer. With Donald Trump backing a new health care plan that will likely cut millions of Americans off from insurance, these policies feel almost unrealistically idealistic, but they’re important reminders of the kinds of protections policymakers should be advocating for in light of this inevitable labor market shakeup.

It’s not pleasant to think of millions people losing their jobs. But, as The Atlantic noted, driving for a living isn’t exactly a dream occupation: Drivers earn as little as $30,000 a year; they have to work long hours, sleep away from their families, and deal with traffic and loneliness. Automated vehicles cut out the need for human involvement in some of these inherently unpleasant tasks, and they also reduce the rate of accidents. The end of driving for a living could be a disaster for some people, but it could also be an opportunity for truck drivers to transition to better-paying and more fulfilling careers.

As The Atlantic notes:

“Rather than using government funds to get a commercial driver’s license, workers could be encouraged into fields where jobs will be in demand not just for a few years, but for much longer. It’s hard to know what those jobs are: The Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests that many of the jobs that will most grow between 2014 and 2024 will be in the healthcare field. But there will certainly be growth across sectors in computer-based jobs—coding schools are popping up across the Midwest, for example, helping people train for in-demand jobs in fields where developers are needed. Many of these jobs are better than trucking, in that they pay more and the lifestyle is not as demanding.”

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Co.Exist. He edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague and Brussels.

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