Semi-trucks move 72.5% of American freight and the trucking industry is absolutely essential to our nation’s economy. As a result of this need and the ongoing driver shortage, earning a commercial driver’s license (CDL) gives you the opportunity to pursue a stable and rewarding career. In recent years, some have started to wonder whether driverless vehicles present a threat to this industry. While autonomous vehicles (AVs) are predicted to change certain aspects of trucking in the long term, they are unlikely to pose a significant threat to driver jobs in the near future.
Levels of Automation
In order to understand how AVs could affect the trucking industry, it’s important to understand the different levels of automation. The Society of Automobile Engineers (SAE) defines six levels of automation.
- Level 0 – No automation – At this level, the vehicle is fully manually controlled. The car may still include some technology to assist the driver, such as blind-spot alerts or automatic emergency braking, as long as these features do not control the vehicle.
- Level 1 – Driver assistance – Any features that provide steering or acceleration support to the driver fall under this level. Examples include adaptive cruise control or lane centering.
- Level 2 – Partial driving automation – If a car is using both steering and acceleration support features at the same time, it falls under level 2.
- Level 3 – Conditional driving automation – This is when a vehicle crosses the threshold from assistive features into what most people think of when they think of “self-driving” cars. However, AVs at this level can only operate autonomously in certain conditions, and the driver may need to take over manual control. This means drivers still need to remain alert when they are behind the well of a level 3 AV.
- Level 4 – High driving automation – Compared to level 3, these vehicles can operate without manual intervention in more circumstances. A human can take over in an emergency but otherwise, the car can drive itself.
- Level 5 – Full driving automation – A truly driverless vehicle is a level 5 AV. These do not require any human intervention and can drive everywhere in all conditions.
What Level of AVs Are Available?
Currently, many advanced fleet vehicles have level 2 automation features. Some companies have been pioneering level 4 automated trucks, although there have been limited runs of fully driverless vehicles. For the near future, there are no level 5 vehicles that can operate entirely without a driver as a backup.
What Does This Mean for Truckers?
Companies that are working on AVs for fleet applications currently still require drivers to act as supervisors for the vehicles while they are in operation. This means that although the job may not involve as much active driving as trucking currently, driver jobs are not actively threatened by current models of AVs. Instead, these vehicles act as a complement to more traditional semi-trucks on the road, and may actually be beneficial for helping the trucking industry keep up with increasing freight demands.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that even Level 4 vehicles are a long way from widespread adoption in the industry, and Level 5 vehicles are even further away from this. Experts believe it will be several decades before most truckers experience any changes due to driverless vehicles. Even then, they predict changes to the job responsibilities, but not necessarily a loss of driving jobs on a large scale.
Becoming a Trucker
The bottom line is that trucking is still a much-needed profession, and earning your CDL allows you to take advantage of opportunities within this industry.