What Happens When Human Truckers Are Replaced by AI? | Opinion

In December 2021, a semi-trailer truck eased out of a rail yard in Tucson, Arizona, and into traffic, then traveled 80 miles without incident to a distribution facility in Phoenix—all without a driver behind the wheel.

TuSimple, the San Diego tech company behind the journey, says the trip was its first fully autonomous run by a semi truck on open public roads without human intervention—something the company hopes will soon be routine. Other self-driving truck companies plan to launch autonomous freight programs and conduct "test runs" moving freight across Texas and the Southwest. Real estate developers with an eye on the future are starting to build autonomous truck ports into their plans. At a time of strained supply lines, that all looks good to shippers.

Autonomous trucking will offer big savings to transport companies, since driver costs account for about 40 percent of trucking expenses. It may be difficult to convince a leery public to share the road with enormous driverless rigs, but if the industry can handle that challenge, and if the whole project isn't shut down after the first fatal accident, everyone ought to win—except, of course, the truck drivers who will lose their jobs.

That is a prospect that ought to be concerning for everyone.

There are a lot of truckers; about two million people make a decent living hauling freight on America's highways. They won't disappear overnight, and many people will still be employed in the business. But driverless long-haul semis threaten to vaporize a lot of good jobs currently occupied primarily by American men with no post-secondary education.

Steve Viscelli, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, foresees a shift in the trucking industry from relatively high-paying jobs to lower-paid ones. The first to be laid off will be long-haul truckers who do little but drive, because their work can be automated more easily than drivers who also load and unload freight.

Those long-haul drivers are often older, better paid and more likely to be unionized than short-haul drivers. Delivery drivers, who are often independent contractors barely managing to pay their bills, will not be replaced by machines any time soon.

This shift will tend to push down living standards for people near the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, exacerbating inequality and the attendant social problems.

U.S. trucking
LAKE FOREST, ILLINOIS - JUNE 21: Semi trucks travel along I94 on June 21, 2019 near Lake forest, Illinois. The trucking industry in 2019 has experienced a drop in demand from 2018 and freight rates have fallen year over year for six months straight. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Economist Daron Acemoglu of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has been observing this trend and warning of the consequences. In testimony to a congressional committee in November 2021, he boiled down his findings:

Worker groups suffering larger task displacement—the ones employed in routine tasks that can be automated in industries undergoing rapid automation—have almost uniformly experienced large declines in their real wages. These groups include all demographic categories with less than a college degree. In contrast, groups that have not experienced much direct automation, including those with post-graduate degrees and women with college degrees, have seen their earnings increase rapidly over the last 40 years.

According to Acemoglu's research, automation accounts for 50 to 70 percent of erosion in wages for workers—10 times as much as the effects of offshoring.

Acemoglu and Boston University's Pascual Restrepo point to companies' increased use of "so-so technologies," forms of automation that replace workers without broadly increasing productivity—automatic telephone customer service, for example, and retail self-checkouts.

During the four decades after the Second World War, new technologies produced "productivity effects" that buoyed living standards across the board. Since 1987, though, new technologies have destroyed more jobs than they have created, pushing people at the bottom of the economic system further down, without comparable gains in productivity.

The challenge for policymakers is real and urgent.

What happens when more workers without college degrees find themselves sliding down the economic ladder, unable to pay their bills? Deaths of despair, from suicide, heart disease and substance abuse. The trend is also linked to an increase in support for authoritarian populism.

A growing number of economists are raising alarms and proposing solutions. Most important, perhaps, are changes to the tax codes that encourage employers to adopt technologies that displace workers—since in the United States, labor is taxed at a higher rate than capital.

Policymakers had better be paying attention and making plans. None of us should want to live in a world where hundreds of thousands of truckers are suddenly thrown out of work, facing greatly diminished economic prospects. It's a recipe for social disaster with consequences so widespread that they will inevitably affect those comfortable people whose jobs aren't threatened—yet—by automation.

Stephen Maher is a Harvard Nieman Fellow and a contributing author to the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) at CIGIonline.org.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.