September 14, 2023

Truck driver jobs at center of House hearing on automation

WASHINGTON — Losing jobs to technology is a big concern across many industries, and the issue was in the spotlight on Capitol Hill on Wednesday at a hearing on the future of autonomous trucking.

Speaking on behalf of the industry’s largest companies, the American Trucking Associations’ Chris Spear attempted to quell those fears by asserting that automation is needed to bring more drivers into the industry — not push them out.

“If we didn’t have a shortage [of drivers], we would be having a discussion about people losing their jobs,” Spear told members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s subcommittee on highways and transit. “That is not the case here. I can assure you, [job] displacement is a myth.”

Spear contended that innovation in autonomous trucking can help meet growing freight demand by making truck driving jobs less stressful by automating driving tasks.

“Innovation has a role to play there, and developing driver assist technologies into fully autonomous vehicles — we don’t view that as a threat,” he said. “We’re still going to have to meet that demand somehow, whether we add 1.2 million drivers over the next 10 years or supplement it with technology. Either way, I would look any driver in the eye and say I do not believe your job is at threat.”

Democratic lawmakers were not as convinced about the prospects for job creation versus job displacement, however. Subcommittee ranking member Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington’s nonvoting delegate in the House, cited academic studies concluding that long-haul trucking jobs, which many see as the first to be eliminated by driverless trucks, would not be made up in either quantity or quality by short-haul jobs. “They pay less, and drivers would need to relocate to find those jobs,” Norton said.

But Republicans, too, stated some major concerns over the effects of trucking automation — including on the trucker workforce.

“I’m not opposed to it, but I want to make sure the important role of human drivers is not lost because of that innovation,” said Mike Bost, R-Ill. “My big concern is the only ones who will have access [to automated trucks] are the mega trucking companies and/or those who can make the major investments, and that it will strangle the small trucking companies out of business.”

Bost, a former truck driver, said he is also concerned about safeguarding high-tech trucks against cyberthreats.

“We have enemies around the world that know how to tap into technology and can cause major concerns if we have a lot of [automated trucks] running up and down our roads,” Bost said. “We can’t guarantee what hackers might be able to get into and put autonomous trucks at risk to our people.”

Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., who represents a rural district, was skeptical about the ability of autonomous trucks to handle large commodities such as timber that would have to transition from unpaved forest roads onto the national highway system.

“We shouldn’t run too headlong, too fast into this autonomous situation. … It’s really seeking a solution to a problem that isn’t as huge as would be sold to us,” LaMalfa stressed.

A call for regulations

Industry and safety representatives at the hearing also urged Congress to pressure federal regulators on issuing rules addressing autonomous truck safety.

Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said that as the industry moves to more automation, regulators need to require proven technologies that have been in use for years, such as automatic emergency braking (AEB) and speed limiters. “We need DOT and Congress to make it happen,” she said.

Chris Urmson, co-founder and CEO of autonomous truck tech company Aurora Innovation, and Jeff Farrah, executive director of the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association, testified that the truck tech sector has been transparent about reporting incidents involving autonomous truck testing to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Farrah also wants to see the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration get more involved by issuing an AV trucking rulemaking. “There are certain open questions in the industry that we would like to see clarified that would give a lot of confidence so that our members can continue to make significant capital investments to make sure this technology moves forward in the U.S.”

Spear pushed for oversight at the federal level as well — but underscored that regulations should be based on performance standards.

“Don’t pick favorites,” Spear told lawmakers. “We have forward-leaning policies on speed limiters, ELDs, AEBs — but we want a performance standard that lets innovation thrive, and we want it to govern all 50 states. We don’t want a patchwork of rules that are confusing not only to innovation but to our industry’s ability to adopt them.”

Click for more FreightWaves articles by John Gallagher.


The second annual F3: Future of Freight Festival will be held in Chattanooga, “The Scenic City,” this November. F3 combines innovation and entertainment — featuring live demos, industry experts discussing freight market trends for 2024, afternoon networking events, and Grammy Award-winning musicians performing in the evenings amidst the cool Appalachian fall weather.

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