Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Robots Rising: Here’s What Happens to All Those Truckers

 

Techno-pessimists tend to be underwhelmed by recent innovations, like the smartphone, as well as most upcoming ones, like driverless cars. Especially driverless cars, it seems. In “The Rise and Fall of American Growth,” economist Robert Gordon is dismissive of the productivity impact of all sorts of emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence and robotics. And he puts driverless cars right smack at the bottom: “This category of future progress is demoted to last place because it offers benefits that are minor compared to the innovation of the car itself or the improvements in safety that have created a ten-fold improvement in fatalities per vehicle mile since 1950.”

I don’t know how autonomous vehicles will affect measured productivity data. But they are going to be a pretty big deal, nonetheless. And I doubt too many analysts have thought through potential consequences as thoroughly as Benedict Evans of venture firm Andreessen Horowitz. His recent blog post, “Cars and second order consequences” is a must read on the subject. The first order consequences of electric — and they will be electric — autonomous vehicles are obvious. Fewer highway fatalities and a big drop in demand for gasoline, currently half of global oil production.

But what about the next order consequences? For instance, gas stations go away, but over half of US tobacco sales happen at gas stations, and they’re often an impulse purchase. Evans: “Car crashes kill 35k people a year in the USA, but tobacco kills 500k.” I wonder what happens to healthcare costs?

Anyway, lots in the post about road congestion, parking, municipal tax bases, housing costs, and where people choose to live. One other thing I wanted to highlight was the impact on jobs. What about all the truckers when their vehicles turn driverless? Evans:

There are something over 230,000 taxi and private car drivers in the USA and around 1.5m long-haul truck-drivers. The question of what happens to taxi and on-demand drivers has been discussed too widely and publicly for me to add anything here, but long-haul truck drivers have some interesting nuances (I’m here excluding local delivery drivers as they’re often needed for more than driving the truck itself and robotics is a whole other conversation). The average age of a long-haul driver is now 49, and around 90 thousand leave the industry every year, half though retirement. The industry thinks it has a shortage of around 50,000 drivers, and growing – people are leaving faster than they can be replaced. Truck driving can be an unhealthy, uncomfortable job with a difficult lifestyle. Hence, on these numbers, over half the current driver base will have left in ten years, around the time that most people think full, level 5 autonomy might be working. In the short term, level 4 autonomy makes truck-driving more attractive, since you can rest in the back of the truck until you’re needed instead of having to stop at mandated times. But on a 20-30 year view, which is really the timeline to think about this transition, effectively all current truck drivers will have quit anyway – you won’t replace them, but you won’t necessarily put anyone directly out of work – until you start looking at truck stops, which takes us right back to the convenience store discussion at the beginning of this piece. And meanwhile, truck-stop operators are already starting to think about the fundamentally different trucking patterns that might come from a shift in the logistics industry away from serving traditional retail and towards serving ecommerce (i.e Amazon).

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  1. Profile Photo Member

    James Pethokoukis: The first order consequences of electric — and they will be electric

    Okay, I’ll bite. Why electric? The current performance of electric vehicles doesn’t suggest to me that long haul trucking is an obvious application. Is this based on the assumption of orders of magnitude improvement in battery technology?

    • #1
    • April 5, 2017, at 1:13 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  2. James Gawron Thatcher
    James Gawron Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Isaac Smith (View Comment):

    James Pethokoukis: The first order consequences of electric — and they will be electric

    Okay, I’ll bite. Why electric? The current performance of electric vehicles doesn’t suggest to me that long haul trucking is an obvious application. Is this based on the assumption of orders of magnitude improvement in battery technology?

    Isaac,

    Back when I was selling process control we had a saying. Newtonian Mechanics that’s easy. Quantum Mechanics now that’s difficult but that’s what we get paid for. Money Mechanics huh! we haven’t got a clue. Is a debit or a credit like a photon or something?

    You see different people have different jobs and they sometimes speak a different language. JamesP speaks Money Mechanics. I don’t always grasp what he is talking about. Unfortunately, he doesn’t always grasp what I am talking about. I’m no techno-pessimist. I just know an extremely hard application when I see one. You’re pointing out an extremely high technical hurdle that electric cars must surmount first before they can even be considered. I might add to your fire that battery manufacturing is among the most environmentally dangerous mass productions in the world. With a panty waist EPA breathing down your back can you imagine what it would be like producing the batteries for a fleet of 100 million vehicles.

    I’m sure JamesP knows where to get the capital for his driverless electric vehicles. I certainly don’t want that job. JamesP thinks that the engineering/manufacturing problems will just go away if we all just believe really really hard.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #2
    • April 5, 2017, at 1:38 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  3. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    James, I think you made your point without the snark. Might you back that down a bit?

    • #3
    • April 5, 2017, at 2:07 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  4. Valiuth Member
    Valiuth Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Isaac Smith (View Comment):

    James Pethokoukis: The first order consequences of electric — and they will be electric

    Okay, I’ll bite. Why electric? The current performance of electric vehicles doesn’t suggest to me that long haul trucking is an obvious application. Is this based on the assumption of orders of magnitude improvement in battery technology?

    I thought he meant electric for city based car services. In urban environments electric cars might be economically viable, for long haul trucking though it doesn’t seems possible without radical improvements in battery technology, which frankly we shouldn’t count on. Still. An automated car fleet might still result in reduced gas consumption if for no other reason than the fact that millions of barrels of gas won’t be sitting idle in people’s parked cars, or under used gas stations. There are potentially numerous ways to increase efficiency on this front, given a different pattern usage of cars that automated vehicles would provide.

    • #4
    • April 5, 2017, at 2:23 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  5. James Gawron Thatcher
    James Gawron Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):
    James, I think you made your point without the snark. Might you back that down a bit?

    Bryan,

    When you are right you’re right. I’ll take the Tinkerbell video down. It is a snark super weapon that should only be employed on the most egregious occasions.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #5
    • April 5, 2017, at 2:35 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  6. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    James Gawron (View Comment):

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):
    James, I think you made your point without the snark. Might you back that down a bit?

    Bryan,

    When you are right you’re right. I’ll take the Tinkerbell video down. It is a snark super weapon that should only be employed on the most egregious occasions.

    Regards,

    Jim

    Good man!

    • #6
    • April 5, 2017, at 2:57 PM PDT
    • Like
  7. muckfire Member
    muckfire Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I dont think tobacco is an impulse purchase, the lotteries would take the biggest hit from less convenience store traffic. But speaking of tobacco, is there actually a true healthcare savings from further lowering smoking rates in our more and more socialized world? What are the “costs” from someone dying at 70 after a 2 year battle with lung cancer versus living another 15 or 20 years battling a multitude of other old age illnesses, taking dozens of high prices meds, and continuing to take social security?

    • #7
    • April 5, 2017, at 8:05 PM PDT
    • Like
  8. I Walton Member

    The discussion of all the unemployment and massive adjustment these new technologies will cause goes on and on and like all technological changes in the past we can’t really foresee what happens when nor how it changes which. We do know for certain that the economy and its people will have to adjust to whatever happens. So the entire focus should be on how to facilitate adjustment. Hint, it will have to do with getting the government, local state and federal out of the way, getting rid of teachers unions and allowing the market to sort these things out as only a well functioning market can.

    • #8
    • April 6, 2017, at 4:37 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  9. Old Bathos Moderator

    Hey, did all those farm workers kicked out of agricultural employment by Cyrus McCormack’s machines back in the 1800’s ever find work? Anybody know?

    • #9
    • April 6, 2017, at 5:51 AM PDT
    • Like
  10. Kozak Member
    Kozak Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Old Bathos (View Comment):
    Hey, did all those farm workers kicked out of agricultural employment by Cyrus McCormack’s machines back in the 1800’s ever find work? Anybody know?

    Farm laborers went to physical labor.

    Physical laborers went to intellectual labor.

    Whats left when the computers and robots can do most if not all of the intellectual tasks?

    Just because things have worked out in the past, doesn’t mean they will in the future.

    Not many trends can go on for ever.

    • #10
    • April 6, 2017, at 6:35 AM PDT
    • Like
  11. I Walton Member

    Kozak (View Comment):

    Old Bathos (View Comment):
    Hey, did all those farm workers kicked out of agricultural employment by Cyrus McCormack’s machines back in the 1800’s ever find work? Anybody know?

    Farm laborers went to physical labor.

    Physical laborers went to intellectual labor.

    Whats left when the computers and robots can do most if not all of the intellectual tasks?

    Just because things have worked out in the past, doesn’t mean they will in the future.

    Not many trends can go on for ever.

    They are not trends, they’re emergent systems that change constantly in ways we can’t foresee. Every new technology ends a number of trends and starts new ones that won’t last long either. There will always be useful things to do, and if they’re not useful they may be fun or healthy. The problem is always adjustment and almost certainly if we really get worried about robots we’ll do something that some interest will be able to use to slow down adjustment, which for them may be unwelcome challenges and change. We have to focus on adjustment which we know is the problem, not on things we can’t foresee and will get wrong if we try to change them.

    • #11
    • April 6, 2017, at 8:01 AM PDT
    • Like
  12. Old Bathos Moderator

    I think about the labor-intensive flint arrowhead/spear tip industry that thrived for about 50,000 years until those corporate high tech Bronze Age companies started using molds to crank out dozens of metal items at a time. One bronzeworker guy could probably make more arrowheads in a day that the flint worker could do in a month and with better quality.

    Sure, there were jobs created in the ore mines (for conquered peoples and slaves, mostly) but all those guys across the entire neolithic world who depended on their skill at making quality flint weaponry for both trade and personal use were now SOL. I wonder what they did? How many thousands of extended family businesses based on flint manufacture (and the women and kids who squeezed down into those ancient British flint mineshafts for all those years) were made destitute?

    Did the Hittites have an industrial policy for conquered neolithic peoples? Surely we could learn from the ancients how to navigate the impending automation crisis.

    • #12
    • April 6, 2017, at 8:58 AM PDT
    • Like
  13. Profile Photo Member

    Valiuth (View Comment):
    In urban environments electric cars might be economically viable, for long haul trucking though it doesn’t seems possible without radical improvements in battery technology

    I think that’s right. Call a taxi and it comes to you with five seats available because there’s no driver and no steering wheel. It roams the city within its 400 mile range and stops at charging stations between calls, pulling into the main station only when service is necessary. But I thought the OP was pretty focused on long haul trucking – and I just don’t see that using electric technology in the foreseeable future.

    Valiuth (View Comment):
    An automated car fleet might still result in reduced gas consumption if for no other reason than the fact that millions of barrels of gas won’t be sitting idle in people’s parked cars, or under used gas stations.

    Isn’t that really just a one-time shift? doesn’t really change consumption, just draws that resource out of the pipeline, as it were.

    • #13
    • April 6, 2017, at 9:17 AM PDT
    • Like
  14. Profile Photo Member

    I Walton (View Comment):
    Hint, it will have to do with getting the government, local state and federal out of the way, getting rid of teachers unions and allowing the market to sort these things out

    This is the key, though I’m not sure even I would give the teacher’s unions this much credit, still, I’m okay with blaming them for truck driver unemployment just on general principles.

    • #14
    • April 6, 2017, at 9:22 AM PDT
    • Like
  15. I Walton Member

    Isaac Smith (View Comment):

    I Walton (View Comment):
    Hint, it will have to do with getting the government, local state and federal out of the way, getting rid of teachers unions and allowing the market to sort these things out

    This is the key, though I’m not sure even I would give the teacher’s unions this much credit, still, I’m okay with blaming them for truck driver unemployment just on general principles.

    You’re right, but it’s not what they do it’s what they keep Congress and legislatures from doing, which is also to just get out of the way. I suppose they’re more symbol and excuse than cause. Were there a free for all we’d figure out how to train people including on the job for well below minimum wages, and the growing edge would figure out how to pull young workers out of the dying edge and train them while paying them less. Economists and politicians sit around wringing their hands even though we know it’s government barriers, rules, mandates and regulations and all the symbiotic relationships with large old companies and posturing politicians that keep us from sorting this stuff out.

    • #15
    • April 6, 2017, at 9:47 AM PDT
    • Like
  16. James Gawron Thatcher
    James Gawron Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Isaac Smith (View Comment):

    Valiuth (View Comment):
    In urban environments electric cars might be economically viable, for long haul trucking though it doesn’t seems possible without radical improvements in battery technology

    I think that’s right. Call a taxi and it comes to you with five seats available because there’s no driver and no steering wheel. It roams the city within its 400 mile range and stops at charging stations between calls, pulling into the main station only when service is necessary. But I thought the OP was pretty focused on long haul trucking – and I just don’t see that using electric technology in the foreseeable future.

    Valiuth (View Comment):
    An automated car fleet might still result in reduced gas consumption if for no other reason than the fact that millions of barrels of gas won’t be sitting idle in people’s parked cars, or under used gas stations.

    Isn’t that really just a one-time shift? doesn’t really change consumption, just draws that resource out of the pipeline, as it were.

    Isaac,

    I really like your analysis here. The OP thinking is classic of what was wrong in the environmental movement. There were always niche solar applications that used the best aspects of available technology. Unfortunately, the environmentalists were their own worst enemies. They always went for flashier applications that were more ego flattering but impossible to do. Whenever you tried to tell them it was like talking to a brick wall.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #16
    • April 6, 2017, at 10:11 AM PDT
    • Like
  17. iWe Reagan
    iWe Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Driverless trucks will be huge for the industry – doubling (or more) rig utilization. But they will surely use diesel, though the refueling/billing details are not worked out yet.

    • #17
    • April 6, 2017, at 11:23 AM PDT
    • Like
  18. James Lileks Contributor

    But what about the next order consequences? For instance, gas stations go away, 

    Why would they? They’re really milk-and-jerky stores that happen to sell gas. People will still need a place to get beer and smokes and bread, and in many communities the convenience store is the only place around, or is more, well, convenient.

    Gas stations don’t make their money on gas. If they could run the operation without the logistical and equipment complications gasoline sales demands, a few might be quite relieved.

    • #18
    • April 6, 2017, at 11:36 AM PDT
    • Like

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