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How Will Self-Driving Trucks Change Our Lives (and Jobs)?

Topics: Current Events

If you’re a truck driver, the short answer is “a lot.” But even if you’re not a Jerry Reed-type, you’ll still feel the winds of change coming off a semi with nobody behind the wheel. Just this fall, Anheuser-Busch Inbev sponsored the first test of a self-driving semi-truck in Colorado, with great success. So, why does this affect you, even if you’re not a truck driver (or looking to get “Eastbound and Down“)?

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1. It’s Not Just About Trucks

There have been plenty of self-driving car tests, too … with varied results. Google has been testing self-driving cars since 2009, always with a real person riding in the front seat “just in case,” but they’re not riding solo anymore. Tesla has launched an “autopilot” feature in all of its cars as of October, with a few high-profile crashes in the headlines.

And it’s not just about the personal car, either. Uber and Lyft are doing tests of driverless taxis, and in some cities you might even be picked up by an autonomously driven vehicle. In Pittsburgh, for example, Uber rolled out some self-driven cars back in August (still in test-mode, with a human babysitter up front). So far, they’ve been amusing riders, but are getting stymied by double-parked cars. (Just like George Costanza.)

2. Sometimes It’s About Gas

Just like how using the cruise-control feature can help you save gas by not constantly going up and down in speed, having an autonomous car or truck can save gasoline, too. Companies with a self-driving fleet could save because the “driver” won’t be making very human (but very inefficient) mistakes.

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Driverless cabs will likely be two things: small and electric. Small, because most taxi rides only involve one passenger, so you can get by with a tiny vehicle and no driver’s seat. And electric, because when it comes to efficient vehicles that’s where the most cost savings are.

A 2015 study by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory noted in National Geographic found that “an autonomous or self-driving electric cab in 2030 could emit up to 94 percent fewer emissions per mile than a conventional gasoline car of today, and it could be far cheaper than taxis with drivers.”

And of course, more small, electric cars on the streets means less gasoline burning, and fewer greenhouse gases going up into the atmosphere. Though, naturally, not everyone agrees on the energy savings (or possible costs). But, if Uber, Lyft, and just plain taxi companies can save on vehicle sizes and gas costs, then you bet they will.

3. Sometimes It’s About Jobs (and Humans Who Cost a Lot)

A TechCrunch article from April points out that not only can driverless trucks get around the time limits on human drivers who can only stay awake (legally) and behind the wheel for 11 hours at a time, but they also save thousands per trip in human overhead costs: “Shipping a full truckload from L.A. to New York costs around $4,500 today, with labor representing 75 percent of that cost.”

With almost a literal flip of the switch, companies can cut expenses in salary, healthcare, etc., as well as increase productivity to heights not seen since wheels were first carved from stumps.

So when you see that driverless car (or truck) coming your way, that’s progress coming down the road — efficient, cost-saving progress (just as soon as they figure out how to drive on snow). Whether or not the savings get passed down to the consumers remains to be seen. One thing is likely: truck drivers and taxi drivers out there will need to dust off their resumes. Progress isn’t always good news for workers.

Tell Us What You Think

Self-driving trucks and cars — good idea or bad idea? We want to hear from you. Tell us your thoughts in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter.

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