Barreling through California’s Central Valley, his big rig’s 48-foot refrigerated trailer loaded with lettuce, peppers and tomatoes, Brett Goodroad acknowledged that he’s probably among the last generation of long-distance truckers.
At 38, he has been driving trucks since he was a teenager working on summer harvest crews in North Dakota. With a master’s degree in fine arts and a penchant for listening to classic books on the road, he doesn’t fit the standard trucker profile. But the aptly named Goodroad, who has put in more than a decade driving for Veritable Vegetable, an organic produce distributor, is an eloquent spokesman for his millions of comrades now traveling America’s highways.
“The end of our species is coming — it sounds like it should be a country song,” he said as he finished his regular five-day haul from San Francisco to New Mexico and back, his dog, Louis, riding shotgun. “I definitely see that truck drivers are going to be a relic of the past in the future.”
That future — one in which our vehicles, including trucks like his, will drive themselves — is fast approaching. Some experts say fleets of driverless vehicles will be on the road within two years.
Along with utopian forecasts of far fewer traffic accidents, cleaner air and cheaper transportation, there’s another sobering prediction: Self-driving vehicles could cost millions of people their jobs. Autonomous autos will also create new jobs, but those most likely to lose their livelihoods, including many truck drivers, may not easily find new occupations.
Some 3.8 million Americans work as motor vehicle operators, driving trucks, delivery vans, buses and taxis, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Truck driving is the most common occupation in 29 states and the second- or third-most common in most others. On top of that, an estimated 1 million people drive part time for Uber and Lyft in the U.S. Globally, more than 100 million people are estimated to work behind the wheel.
“This will be the biggest disruption in work and jobs that the country has ever experienced,” said Andy Stern, a labor expert and president emeritus of the Service Employees International Union. “It will happen relatively soon, and we are in denial and avoidance.”
Myriad industries and occupations depend on car and truck drivers as customers: insurance agents, parking meter attendants, truck stops, motels, parking lots, toll booths, garages, auto body shops. Some 4 million people work in trucking-related jobs other than driving, according to the American Trucking Association.
Most experts think autonomous cars eventually will end private car ownership, at least in cities and suburbs, with robot taxi services becoming the norm. That would render car dealers obsolete. U.S. dealerships employed 1.3 million people in 2016, according to the National Automobile Dealers Association.
Not everyone sees the autonomous future in apocalyptic terms.
Each technology upheaval throughout history — from the printing press to the Industrial Revolution to the automobile to the computer and Internet — has wiped out some traditional work but created new occupations, often ones not even imagined.
“The net impact of automation on employment has always been a positive, rather than a negative, economy-wide,” said John Paul MacDuffie, a management professor and director of the Wharton School’s program on vehicle and mobility innovation. “There’s no reason to expect that this time will be any different.”
Bank tellers, for example, were considered a threatened species with the advent of ATMs. Instead, the new machines made it easier for banks to open more far-flung branches, creating more teller jobs. Do-it-yourself tax software didn’t put accountants out of business.
“Luddites smashed looms 200 years ago because they thought they would do away with their craft,” said Rob Carter, chief information officer for FedEx, which operates 160,000 ground vehicles. “The reality is, work always evolves to adapt to technology.”
Airplanes already can fly themselves — but pilots still inhabit the cockpit, handling takeoffs, landings and any situations that arise, Carter said. He thinks the same will be true for trucks.
“Navigating the terminals and roads leading to interstates will require a lot of driver interaction for quite some time to come; drivers also have a lot of interaction with their cargo,” he said. “Once you get on the highway, where driving can be a monotonous task, we think automated vehicles have the potential to take over, improving safety and driver quality of life.”
FedEx is testing autonomous vehicles, including platooning technology, which allows several driverless trucks to follow a lead vehicle in close formation. Meanwhile, it has updated its current fleet with the latest driver-assistance features, such as adaptive cruise control, automatic braking, lane keeping, anti-rollover technology and alertness monitoring.
The American Trucking Association, the industry’s largest trade group, representing 37,000 trucking companies, says that freeing truckers to nap or relax during long highway stretches could make the work less stressful and attract young people to the profession, even as pickup and delivery routes off-highway still rely on drivers.
“I don’t think we’re talking about driver-less,” said Chris Spear, president of the association. “I think we’re talking about driver assist.”
If drivers are unshackled from the wheel, they could do order processing, inventory management, customer services and sales, according to a recent research report.
Similarly, ride-hail drivers might take on new responsibilities.
“We will definitely need drivers for the foreseeable future,” Peter Gigante, head of policy research at Lyft, said at a November conference. Eventually, a driver’s role could become one of aiding passengers who need extra assistance, such as seniors and children, he said. “The concerns (about job loss) are understood and valid, but I don’t think this is an immediate issue that requires big actions right now; we have a lot of time to understand what the role of the driver will be.”
So what are those roles?
Just as no one predicted that the horseless carriage would engender millions of jobs in everything from highway construction to drive-through fast-food chains, it’s hard to imagine what the advent of self-driving vehicles might spawn. But there are some inklings.
One obvious new profession: remote vehicle operators. At least initially, companies are likely to establish command centers, similar to those for air traffic control, to monitor fleets of robot vehicles and take over if a car gets stuck.
California, for one, is drafting rules that would require remote communications links for driverless cars. Silicon Valley startup Phantom Auto and a range of carmakers are hard at work on technology for remote command centers.
“The human operators could track cars on the road, click on one, and teleport into what the car sees,” said Karl Iagnemma, CEO and co-founder of NuTonomy, which runs robot taxis in Singapore and Boston. “It will be a technical job, with a unique set of skills, probably closest in spirit and practice to a drone operator.”
Of course, the country will still need people to manufacture and maintain vehicles.
Then there are more esoteric opportunities. A report from Intel predicts the rise of a new “passenger economy,” worth a jaw-dropping $7 trillion by 2050. The bulk of that revenue would derive from ride hailing and the freight industry.
Some $200 billion would consist of goods and services provided to people during their rides in robot taxis. Think manicures, massages, lattes, fast-casual meals, mobile health care, remote meetings, immersive digital entertainment. (Intel doesn’t mention it, but practitioners of the world’s oldest profession might ply their trade in self-driving cars as well.)
“We expect new opportunities to arise when cars become the most powerful mobile devices that we use, and we humans become riders instead of drivers,” said Doug Davis, Intel vice president and general manager of the automated driving solutions group.
For Ron Arth, the changes looming ahead have a familiar echo. His Oakland auto body shop, George V. Arth & Son, dates to 1877, when his great-grandfather, a blacksmith, bought a carriage manufactory. Arth & Son went from repairing and painting horse-drawn buggies to doing the same tasks for horseless carriages, and then modern automobiles.
His family-owned business has adapted to technology changes over the decades, he said, pointing to his grandfather’s original anvil, a few feet away from workers using a computer to diagnose a car’s problems. He believes it will continue to do so.
“It was a big deal back in the ’90s when we bought our first computer; now there are computers all over the shop,” Arth said. “The technology is screaming forward.”
Other benefits of robot cars could spread through the economy.
Families today spend about $9,000 a year on their vehicles, for expenses including car payments, insurance, gas and maintenance. Subscribing to a robot-car service for all of one’s transportation needs would probably be cheaper — say $4,000 a year, said Tony Seba, founder and principal of think tank Rethink X.
That $5,000-per-household boost in disposable income “would be the biggest spending boom in U.S. history,” he said. “It would benefit everyone, not just certain segments.”
On top of that, Seba estimates that transforming much of the time spent driving into useful work hours would spur a $1 trillion jump in productivity.
Huge savings, in both dollars and lives, also could occur if car accidents plummet. Every year, some 1.4 million people worldwide, including 40,000 in the U.S., die in car crashes, most caused by human error. Millions more are seriously injured.
People with disabilities also could see their economic potential rise with self-driving cars. “A large reason for unemployment among disabled people is lack of access to transport, especially in rural and suburban areas,” said Aaron Steinfeld, associate research professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute. Some 29 percent of disabled people say their transportation options are a limiting factor; with self-driving cars, that would be largely addressed.
Millions of people drive as part of their jobs but have a different primary function. They’re emergency medical technicians, security guards, repair people, construction workers, salespeople or home care aides, for instance. All those workers are expected to become more productive once their cars drive themselves, experts said.
While some experts think it could take decades to switch to all-robot cars, Rethink X’s Seba said it will occur with surprising speed.
“Technologies are always adopted on an S-curve,” Seba said. “The cell phone, the smartphone, the color TV: Once we got to the tipping point, adoption grew exponentially and happened in months or years, not decades. Autonomous cars are not things that will happen in a generation; they are things that will happen soon.”
Even as new occupations are created, however, today’s truck drivers still could struggle. U.S. truckers are overwhelmingly male (88 percent), lightly educated (only 7.6 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher), and middle-aged (median age of 46).
“Someone who’s been driving long-haul trucks can’t suddenly become an accountant,” said Walter Di Mantova, principal of consulting firm Liminal Futures.
Society will need to decide how to ease the challenge for potentially millions of displaced workers.
Former SEIU chief Stern, author of a book on universal basic income called “Raising the Floor,” thinks sweeping social policy changes will be needed.
One idea would be to give small owner-operators — who account for the majority of truck drivers — financing to retrofit their big rigs for autonomy. That could keep them in business, either putting the trucks to work for a larger fleet, or increasing the trucks’ time on the road.
In the long term, if jobs dwindle as automation disrupts other industries, from retail to customer service, universal basic income, in which all citizens receive a regular stipend from the government, could be a potential major solution, Stern said. But that would be as revolutionary as the new driverless future itself.
“We need to find a way to redistribute success. This would give people far more choices, protect our market economy and provide stability,” he said. “It’s a scary thing, and there aren’t any easy answers.”
“Slow down on your turns.” “Don’t forget to scan your mirrors, man.” “Don’t impede, encroach or intimidate.”
Two driving instructors peppered Donnie Piper with tips as he piloted a bus through west Oakland. In three days, he’d take his DMV test to get licensed as a bus driver.
A former steamfitter, Piper, 59, is among scores of students who each year come to the Academy of Truck Driving, a private school located at the Port of Oakland that prepares them to get commercial licenses for trucks or buses with a few weeks of classes and behind-the-wheel training.
“We’re helping people develop a lifelong career,” said Jennifer Walker-Kemp, who co-founded the school 18 years ago with her husband, a former truck driver. “They get hired almost immediately once they get their license.”
For now, there is plenty of work. Nationwide, there’s a shortage of truck drivers, especially for long-haul routes. Some 50,000 truck-driving jobs a year go begging for a simple reason: It’s hard to spend days on the road away from home and family. The industry will need to fill close to 900,000 jobs over the next decade as current drivers start to retire, the American Trucking Association projects.
“I don’t even call back recruiters about those over-the-road jobs,” said Johnny Johnson, the school’s job placement head, referring to the long hauls. “There are so many local jobs, and that’s what everyone wants.”
The school’s current cohort is largely in its 40s and 50s.
“Young people don’t want to drive trucks unless they had someone in their family who drove,” said Lavelle Allison, one of the instructors. “Most of our students are laid off or retired. Normally this is Plan B, not Plan A.”
The Oakland students don’t seem worried that self-driving trucks will take their jobs.
“I don’t think the technology will be there in our lifetime,” Arnold Higareda said.
“I love being out here,” Goodroad grinned as he navigated his rig along narrow country roads en route to a small family farm to pick up flats of lettuce. “People either get the road or they don’t — they love the romance of it, or they find it boring.”
His usual route is five days driving to New Mexico and back, followed by nine days off. He delivers food to co-ops and markets and picks up produce at farms in California’s Coachella, Imperial and Central valleys.
Sleeping in his cab’s berth four nights, he makes himself sandwiches from fixings he’s packed in the rig’s dorm-size fridge. In Taos, N.M., he treats himself to a motel room and a turkey burger. Every night he does 20 minutes of yoga to counteract the effects of sitting for hours on end. “This job can really beat people up,” he said.
Goodroad’s salary of $50,000 to $65,000, depending on the year, is tight in San Francisco, but it’s more than he’d make as an adjunct professor at most colleges. His driving schedule, meanwhile, gives him time to devote to his passion: painting big canvases he says occupy “a strange in-between place between abstraction and representation,” and bring him another $10,000 to $30,000 a year in sales. One was recently acquired by the Berkeley Art Museum for its permanent collection.
Driving has been his life, and he’s already nostalgic for the culture that will be lost.
“You have so many encounters on the road,” he said. “The solitude kind of abstracts you; you’re in your own head for hours. Every driver is affected differently; some get goofy, some get chatty, some quiet, some angry. The people you meet out here on the road; the things that happen; it’s like being at sea — Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’ romantic.”
Goodroad thinks he’ll find his way if truckers go the way of blacksmiths and switchboard operators. But he’s worried about his fellow drivers.
“For a lot of these guys, it will be tough,” he said. “The ordinary Joe who doesn’t have an education, the guy who has a hard time getting into any job, for them driving is an option to actually make OK money. I don’t know what they’ll do.”