The following editorial appears on Bloomberg View:
For generations, the open road has provided good jobs for Americans, whether truckers, novelists or country-music lyricists. Soon it may be crowded with some less sympathetic protagonists: self-driving robots.
Trucks with some degree of automation are already plying ore mines, hauling freight and making beer runs. Investment is pouring into the industry. As Congress debates a new law to promote self-driving technology, however, it may exempt big commercial vehicles in the hope of saving trucking jobs. That won't work. But it might succeed in holding back innovation and growth.
For starters, automation doesn't only replace jobs. It can lead to faster employment growth, as the combination of human and robot labor improves productivity. Many of the automated systems now in development allow trucks to drive themselves on highways but require a person to take over on urban streets or when things go wrong.
This suggests that trucking jobs are less likely to disappear than to morph into tech-and-logistics work -- requiring new skills, but also offering better pay and working conditions.
For an industry with high turnover, long hours, low wages, a persistent labor shortage and often-burdensome terms of employment, that should be an appealing prospect.
Down the road, as technology improves, the benefits may become even more pronounced. Given that most accidents result from human error, more autonomy should reduce the 350,000 crashes involving large trucks on American roads each year. That should drive down insurance premiums, reduce repair costs and -- not least -- save lives.
Self-driving big-rigs also wouldn't be subject to rules limiting driving hours, meaning they could deliver products faster and more predictably.
Given how integral trucking is to the US economy -- delivering some 70 per cent of goods and producing US$700 billion (NZ$963b) in revenue a year -- that could be transformative.
A final advantage is environmental. Automated trucks can move in herds -- "platoons," in the idiom -- with a lead vehicle setting the pace and others trailing in a coordinated caravan. Wireless communication allows them to follow each other quite closely, thus reducing wind drag and congestion. Such convoys can improve fuel economy by up to 10 per cent for the trailing trucks, which means savings of perhaps US$8,000 (NZ$11,000) per truck per year.
It's no wonder that competition to develop such technology is surging. In California alone, 40 companies now have permits to test self-driving gear. They're up against ambitious automakers and tech firms from around the world. Although Congress may impede American companies in this competition, it won't stop the technology's advance.
Nor should it want to. A better approach is to help displaced truckers learn new skills, find other work and otherwise adjust to a new economic reality.
There's no shortage of ideas for doing so. Improve apprenticeship programs. Reform community colleges so they retain more students. Expand wage subsidies, retraining loans, and incentives for workers to move where the jobs are.
Imposing such remedies won't be easy. But the work should start now, while the disruptions are in view and there's time to adapt. To paraphrase a trucking enthusiast from a simpler era: There's a long way to go, short time to get there.