We will still need drivers in the driverless future

truck driving down road
ShutterstockJaroslav Pachy sr

The world of transportation is undergoing an upheaval that rivals the mass adoption of automobiles over a century ago. Thankfully, with upheaval and transition comes great innovation, and the transportation sector is certainly experiencing a wealth of that right now. The transportation innovation grabbing headlines most consistently these days is, of course, the self-driving car. Autonomous vehicles are capable of completely revolutionizing (and, therefore, streamlining) the way we get around. However, it’s important to acknowledge that people are responsible for driving change that paves the way for new technologies.

I’m all for continued research and development in the AV space, but I do worry that the current conversation around the future of transportation is a little misguided. Traffic congestion in cities (and the noise pollution and emissions that come with it) continues to rise, and AVs currently don’t offer a convincing solution. Some version of the "automation stealing jobs" narrative tends to take center stage in any story about AVs, because why would we need human drivers when the cars can drive themselves? At the same time, a shortage of drivers is causing a great deal of economic anxiety in the transportation industry.

The current conversation around AVs misses something really important: In many cases, drivers (despite their job titles) do more than just drive.

In fact, in most non-consumer cases, actually driving the vehicle is the smallest part of a driver’s job. Delivery truck drivers, for example, spend 90 percent of their time on other package delivery tasks, so even if the vehicle is automated to transport them and their packages between drop off points, the delivery person still handles the brunt of the work. A shipping and freight driver is a logistics mastermind, basically an account manager, who must coordinate shipments and interface with clients. Drivers of vehicles such as concrete, garbage and similar trucks do skilled labor that the vehicle couldn’t possibly do on its own.

Automation itself isn’t inherently bad; it usually improves efficiency, which is a very good thing. We just need to be more thoughtful about how (and who) we automate. Instead of focusing on how we can automate away human drivers, we should be thinking about how we can automate away tasks to make their work more efficient.  

So, will there be autonomous cars in the future of transportation? Yes. Will there still be humans working in and alongside these vehicles in the future of transportation? Absolutely. We might just have to come up with a term other than "driver." "Pilot," perhaps? Or maybe "captain"? We’ve got some time to brainstorm.

While the AV-focused crowd wrings its hands over ethical responsibility and accident liability, not to mention the massive infrastructure overhaul that widespread adoption will require, we can work on other transportation technologies that will push the industry forward and complement the work of skilled drivers, such as electrification and connectivity.  

The increased efficiency electric vehicles bring to the table is already well established. No longer just the bug-shaped playthings of wealthy, eco-conscious types, EVs are being deployed in medium- and heavy-duty shipping and delivery fleets and in a number of cities’ public transportation systems. Trucks such as the ET-One, the eCascadia and yes, even the Tesla Semi are already cost-competitive in terms of total cost of ownership with the diesel guzzlers currently dominating the market. And aside from the obvious environmental benefits of EVs, their systems involve less wear and tear, making them longer-lasting and easier to maintain, which saves money in the long run.

Additionally, the development of connectivity in parallel to electrification is particularly important, as it eventually will become the link between a truck’s electric powertrain and autonomous system. In the meantime, connected trucking systems can be an EV’s link to the outside world by delivering diagnostics back to the yard, providing important safety updates and telling the truck how, where and when it needs to go to a charging station while on the road.

As with any major industry change, the EV revolution will not happen overnight; there are still major questions we need to answer: How do we establish adequate public charging infrastructure? And what’s California’s role in doing this compared to the federal government’s? If we reach our fully electric future, how should the grid evolve to support the massive amount of extra electricity needed in addition to its already overwhelming demand? People will be at the helm of each of these important decisions.

These may be complex questions for another day, but as long as we are cognizant of the problems we need to solve and are considering the people who will be affected by our solutions, we can come out the other side of the transportation transition to a better place — a more efficient and environmentally friendly place.