DAYTON, Ohio — Self-driving vehicles are expected to revolutionize transportation when they hit the roads in the future, but the technology could threaten thousands of jobs in communities across the nation, experts said.
Elected leaders and development officials have worked to promote and rebrand the Dayton region as a logistics hub that offers prime geography, workers, low operating costs and distribution networks.
But the rise of autonomous vehicles could result in job losses for millions of professional drivers in the United States, according to some analysts, and it’s unclear if they will create significant numbers of new jobs.
The trucking industry faces big changes as self-driving technology becomes more available and mature, and its fate could be similar to the farming industry, which employed far more people before advancements in machinery and equipment, said Raul Ordonez, professor with the University of Dayton’s department of electrical and computer engineering.
“On one hand, many of those jobs involving driving a truck, in my mind, will likely disappear,” Ordonez said. “But on the other hand, one could think there’s some positive results from (the technology), either in some sense of society becoming more productive and better off at large. But for the individuals affected, of course” it’s hard.
However, some industry experts and business leaders say it’s too early to know how self-driving vehicles will change the trucking and transportation industries, and widespread implementation of the technology is still far down the road.
“If somebody wanted to start in this profession and they are 23 years old, I would say, ‘Go for it,’ because they are going to work their entire life,” said Kevin Burch, president of Dayton-based Jet Express and chairman of the American Trucking Associations.
Self-driving vehicles are expected to make motor vehicle travel easier, more convenient and safer.
Automated vehicles — which do not require drivers to constantly monitor the road — are expected to reduce traffic crashes and fatalities because sensors on the vehicles will process dangers and hazards on the roads quicker and more efficiently than humans can, experts say.
Motor vehicle crashes are one of the leading causes of death for people in the first half of their life, killing more than 1,000 people last year in Ohio.
More than two-thirds of Dayton workers have commutes 15 minutes or longer each way. For consumers, driverless cars are expected to allow them to work, read a book or a mobile device or rest as the automobiles handle the driving.
But some analysts and researchers have issued dire warnings about how self-driving vehicles could disrupt large, traditional industries.
This month, economists with the U.S. Commerce Department issued a report estimating that about one in nine workers — 15.5 million in total — are employed in occupations that could be affected by the introduction of automated vehicles.
The workers most likely to be displaced by self-driving vehicles are those whose occupations primarily involve the transportation of goods and people, the report states. There are more than 3.5 million of these workers.
When autonomous vehicle saturation peaks, U.S. drivers could lose 300,000 jobs a year, according to a Goldman Sachs report in May highlighted by CNBC.
These forecasts are especially relevant to the Dayton region, since local leaders have worked to make it into a hotbed of logistics.
Logistics and distribution had a $2.5 billion economic impact on this region that is responsible for more than 19,000 jobs, according to a January 2016 report commissioned by the Dayton Area Logistics Association.
But predictions that self-driving vehicles will mostly replace professional truck drivers any time in the foreseeable future are premature and likely overstated, according to some trucking experts.
Trucks increasingly will have sophisticated “driver assist” technology that should help professional truckers do their jobs more safely and easily, similar to airplane pilots who are assisted by autopilot modes, said Burch, with the American Trucking Associations.
But fully autonomous commercial trucks are not expected anytime soon, and the trucking industry will adapt and evolve just as it has in the past as vehicles and semitrailers grew in size and technological capabilities, Burch said.
“There’s a difference between driverless and driver assist, and you’re still going to need someone in that driver’s seat, just his role will be different,” he said.
The American Trucking Association forecasts that the trucking industry will need 910,000 new drivers in the next decade to replace an aging workforce, and the industry remains a promising career path with new technologies, Burch said.
The public is likely to be more comfortable accepting self-driving passenger vehicles than they are large commercial trucks that do not have human drivers because crashes with big rigs can be more catastrophic and deadly, said Phil Parker, president and CEO of the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce.
A recent AAA survey found that 78 percent of motorists would be afraid to ride in a self-driving vehicle. Just 10 percent of respondents said they would feel safer by sharing the road with driverless vehicles.
Autonomous vehicles potentially could eliminate jobs in the logistics and distribution industries, but it’s premature to make predictions about such a young and underdeveloped technology, Parker said.
“There are many people who are not satisfied with the idea that there would be these huge rigs out on our highways that will not have human beings driving if negative issues occur,” he said.
But it could be easier for commercial trucks to adopt autonomous technology before passenger vehicles, because big rigs travel mostly on highways, said Ordonez, the UD professor.
Highways are generally more predictable roadways that would be easier for senors and computers to process and navigate than city roads, which have pedestrians, traffic lights, bicyclists and other elements, he said.
But it’s important to note that there are multiple levels of autonomy, Ordonez said, and autonomous technology likely will be integrated into motor vehicle transportation gradually, in stages, which should help with the public’s acceptance of it.
“I think it’s farther away than we think and farther away than the auto industry wants to portray it,” he said.
Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley said it took roughly 100 years for agriculture to become automated and about 50 for manufacturing to become automated.
She predicts it will take about 25 years for transportation to reach autonomy.
But Whaley said workers will be needed to develop, build and monitor autonomous technology. She said Ohio is a leader in robotics, citing a new Brookings study that found that one in five robots in the nation are in Michigan and the Buckeye State.
Cornelius Frolik writes for the Dayton Daily News.