On Wednesday, June 3, NPR hosted a familiar debate: will computers and robots make the trucking profession obsolete?
“We’ve got cars that can drive themselves on roads in traffic without mishap,” said MIT Professor Andrew McAfee. “The accidents that Google just reported that happened with their autonomous cars, happened because other people rear ended them and swerved into them.
“Twenty or 40 years from now, I believe we will not need the labor of a lot of the people alive in order to have a very, very productive economy. In terms of the amount of human labor that you need to get the stuff out of the ground and off the farms and through the factories and into our homes and tables? Next to none.”
Of course, this is a theoretical argument about numbers and figures for many academics. But for the millions of Americans who drive trucks and lose sleep over fuel prices, the debate is all too real. In fact, transportation and shipping are two of the world’s largest industries, accounting for 6% of all economic activity worldwide.
If prospects for truckers seem grim, there’s a very bright silver lining. People have been ringing that particular alarm bell for more than a century, and at least one of Professor McAfee’s MIT colleagues strongly disagrees with his prediction.
“It’s hard to know how fast things will change,” said MIT economist David Autor. “The set of things that machines do not do like humans is innumerable.”
He also points out that everyone from the Luddites to Karl Marx, and countless other futurists both past and present have warned that human labor will become obsolete, and so far they’ve all been dead wrong.
Some shipping tasks are already done by machines, like controlling transportation costs with less-than-truckload freight brokerage, for example. LTL freight brokerage allows companies with the technology to quickly compare contract rates for shipping, giving larger companies with LTL freight brokerage an edge over the competition. Research shows that 80% of shippers overpay because they never compare prices.
And Autor says when automated services create more money, they inevitably stimulate the economy, creating more jobs somewhere else. In the future, as in the present, a mix of machine labor, human labor, and integrated transportation management software will probably remain the industry standard.