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Robots already are doing much of the work in supply chains, from picking orders in warehouses to stocking items on shelves. The trend is expanding out to other stages of the chain too, as the technology supporting self-driving vehicles is being added to the trucks that carry products across the country.

Although driverless vehicles for consumer use seem to have stalled somewhat, their use in the freight and logistics industry is growing. The reason is the easier task associated with driving long, straight distances, mostly on highways. That is, rather than needing to make multiple turns and stops to run errands, as might be required of a passenger car, long-haul trucks just need to get on the interstate and head down the road. The supporting technology is sufficient to keep them in their lanes and avoid other vehicles in the area. Thus, the market for these trucks is growing rapidly.

The way the fleets will grow remains a matter of some debate though. Some observers predict that the greatest growth opportunities will come from remote controlled vehicles, while others anticipate that human operators still will need to sit in the cabs of the trucks, in case of emergency and to handle the local last leg of the trip, at least for the foreseeable future. One start-up company instead envisions groups of autonomous trucks travelling together, like a peloton in bicycle racing, so that they can obtain benefits from drafting off one another.

Ultimately though, the goal appears to be fully autonomous trucks performing the delivery step that long-haul drivers currently fulfill. That outcome would mean a radical transformation in the job market, considering that an estimated 3.5 million people currently work as truck drivers. The potential for vast job losses makes the discussion a political and ethical one as well. However, the trucking industry is highly fragmented, such that it encompasses thousands of relatively small companies. This status makes it difficult to establish labor unions that might protect the drivers’ jobs.

Furthermore, in the push for ever more efficient supply chains, technologies that reduce labor costs nearly always win. Thus the future seems likely to feature a lot more empty truck cabs, as well as a lot of people looking for a different job.

Discussion Question:

  1. Who are the key stakeholders involved in the transformation to driverless trucking? Analyze the effects of this transformation on each pertinent stakeholder group.

Source: Tomio Geron, “Driverless Trucks Are Barreling Ahead,” The Wall Street Journal, July 27, 2017

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