The US Trucking Industry Needs Drivers, but for How Long?

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For the first time since 2006, U.S. trucking companies and other industry stakeholders identified an increasingly large driver shortage as the biggest problem facing the industry. The American Trucking Associations (ATA) estimates the current shortfall at 48,000 drivers, with the total rising to 175,000 by 2025.

On its rise to the top, the driver shortage passed last year’s number one concern — electronic logging devices — and five other industry issues that were seen as more important in last year’s survey.

The data were reported Monday by the American Transport Research Institute and are based on 1,557 survey responses representing industry stakeholders in the United States, Mexico and Canada. Respondents were asked to list their top three concerns and weighted scores were assigned an index value based on the overall total scores. Slightly over half of respondents represent the carriers and more than a third represent commercial drivers.

A total of 39% of respondents listed the driver shortage as the top concern. The survey noted that more than a quarter of all drivers are 55 years of age and older. Over the next decade, a total of 890,000 drivers will be needed just to maintain the existing workforce.

Is it even conceivable that the industry can attract that many new drivers? Especially at an average income ranging between $35,000 to $45,000 for a job that requires drivers to spend days or weeks away from home and is physically punishing? That may not even be the worst part.

Last December the Obama White House published a report titled “Artificial Intelligence, Automation, and the Economy.” It is no longer available at the website, but an archived version is available.

According to the report, there were about 1.7 million U.S. heavy and semi-truck drivers in 2015. The study reported that between 1.34 million and all 1.7 million jobs are threatened by autonomous trucks. The report noted that the change “may take years or decades to occur because there will be a further lag between technological possibility and widespread adoption.”

In April, Goldman Sachs Economics Research said that as many as 3.1 million U.S. truck driving jobs (all sizes, not just big rigs) are at risk from self-driving trucks. That’s about 2% of all U.S. jobs.

Tesla, Uber and Germany’s Daimler are all working on self-driving big rigs. Daimler even took its vehicle for a test drive on the Autobahn in October 2015.

The trucking industry needs a relatively short-term fix like, say, offering higher pay. Over the longer term, as self-driving vehicles are added to their fleets, they’ll be able to balance those higher short-term costs with the savings they expect from having driverless vehicles.