"Now I could give my hand to another line of work, but my heart would always be behind the wheel." — from "Prisoner of the Highway" as performed by Ronnie Millsap
Literature, music and film has chronicled the independence and freedom associated with long distance trucking over the course of decades in American culture. Who hasn't sung along with Jerry Reed to "East Bound and Down" from Smokey and the Bandit? Heck, the late Burt Reynolds fashioned an immensely profitable cottage industry from extolling the virtues of the American trucker. Even cars were equipped with CB radios in the 1970s so we could all feel like part of the long-distance American caravan. You got your ears on, good buddy?
There’s an ongoing race occurring now in American trucking, but it’s not one that involves transporting beer from Texarkana to Atlanta. It’s a race to develop software and autonomous technology that will control the future of the driverless vehicle market.
It’s estimated that within 25 years autonomous technology will replace some 300,000 long distance drivers. So employers are attempting to recruit laborers into an industry that will soon be in need of fewer human hands. No wonder we are currently facing a serious shortage of truck drivers.
There are currently around 3.5 million Americans employed as truck drivers of some kind, making it one of our most ubiquitous professions. In fact, “truck driver” is the most common job description in the majority of U.S. states. Trucking is an important pillar of the U.S. economy. But one thing is certain: in the future, fewer jobs will be available in the trucking industry, and fewer good jobs will be found among those that do exist.
Autonomous driving technology is a threat to human employment in the performance of local deliveries as well. The U.S. Postal Service has reportedly experimented with driverless mail delivery trucks. Ultimately, package deliveries of all kinds will eventually be impacted. And of course many tech giants are currently experimenting with delivery drones, which will also replace human laborers.
Federal and state legislators are not yet completely convinced of the safety of driverless vehicles. Nor are we all. I am not quite ready to hop into a driverless taxi or step aboard an unmanned airplane. But sooner than later, we’ll all utilize unmanned transportation. Folks were once suspicious of unmanned elevators, but now we think nothing of stepping into one.
So, like the fate of the elevator operator, the future does not look good for human drivers. The tech or auto company that develops the first truly autonomous technology will be in a remarkably advantageous, winner-take-all position, and will claim a pole position much more profitable than any earned at the Indy 500. Gentleman, start your engines.
Margaret R. McDowell, ChFC, AIF, author of the syndicated economic column "Arbor Outlook," is the founder of Arbor Wealth Management, LLC, (850-608-6121 — www.arborwealth.net), a “fee-only” registered investment advisory firm located near Sandestin.