While automated trucks may someday ferry freight across America, that has not happened yet and it's likely at least a few -- if not more -- years away from reality. And, while there are other ways to move materials including trains and airplanes, trucks move 71% of all U.S. freight, according to the American Trucking Associations (ATA).
The problem is that, according to ATA statistics as reported by Fortune, the trucking industry has 63,000 fewer drivers than it needs. That shortage is expected to increase to 176,000 by 2026. That's a problem that could slow down shipments, drive prices up, and perhaps even undermine the growing digital economy.
Advanced Training Systems CEO John Kearney believes the industry needs to make major changes to meet current and growing shipping needs. He shared his thoughts on the future of trucking -- and whether self-driving trucks are the answer -- in an email interview with The Motley Fool.
Turnover is a problem
One of the biggest problems in the freight industry is that truck drivers turn over each year. In fact, the ATA reports that the annualized turnover rate is 94%. Kearney, whose company offers virtual training solutions for drivers, believes that the shortage of drivers actually contributes to burnout and people leaving the field.
"The nature of the job is driving high turnover rates with long-haul truckers spending lengthy periods of time away from their families, along with federal regulations requiring electronic logging that's cutting back hours on the road and a decrease in pay," he wrote.
Basically, the lack of drivers creates more work for those who are still in the field. The amount any one driver can drive is regulated, however. Still, as Kearney explained trucking can be a grueling profession that makes it hard to live a normal life.
"We need to redefine what it means to work in this profession and make sure drivers are being treated well and get compensated fairly," he wrote.
Are self-driving trucks the answer?
"New technology is driving innovations in every major industry within the U.S economy and the trucking industry is no exception," Kearney wrote. "As the trucking industry attempts to keep up with the rising demand for truck drivers, autonomous trucking can help us meet those demands."
That does not mean he expects traditional drivers to disappear anytime soon. "The truck operator/driver field will continue to employ the tech savvy professional operators of these vehicles for their entire working career," he added.
It's a cycle
In many ways the trucking field is going through an evolution similar to what's happening in retail. Automation and robots are capable of taking some -- maybe even a lot -- of jobs. That's an expensive proposition that some retailers are investing in because they are having trouble (or foresee having trouble) filling open positions.
In the short-term, worker shortages force wages higher. Truck drivers actually saw the second-highest wage increase in July at 6.3%, according to data from Glassdoor. Cashier was not far behind at 5.4%.
If you take a longer-range view, however, if wages keep rising it eventually makes sense to pursue automated solutions. That's proven technology in some retail areas (self-checkout and robot warehouse picking has been in use for years). In trucking, it's an emerging field, but it's one that the industry may need to embrace along with a commitment to improving conditions for human drivers in order to keep them in the field longer.