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Bill Morneau is Wrong: Despite the promise of automation, drivers will be needed for years to come

Posted: November 9, 2016 by John G. Smith

Federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau appears to believe drivers are an endangered species.

The observation came during a broad-ranging talk about the changing nature of employment. He referred to the “job churn” that Canadians increasingly face because of precarious, short-term work. Morneau is right about that. But when referencing advances in automation, he also concluded that jobs like truck drivers will be displaced. That’s where he’s dead wrong.

Recent demonstrations of autonomous vehicles have undeniably turned heads, showing exactly what a series of well-placed sensors can accomplish. In the days following Morneau’s comments, San Francisco-based Otto even delivered 55,000 cans of Budweiser using its autonomous technology. Much of that trip was steered and controlled using retrofitted cameras to detect lanes, radar to detect obstacles, and GPS to pinpoint locations. It was, in the words of the Uber-owned company, the “first delivery by self-driving truck.”

The fact overlooked by our finance minister and many others is that autonomous vehicles, including the Otto equipment, isn’t entirely automated. Drivers are at the controls during different stages in the journeys.

Eager marketing teams have been quick to apply “autonomous” labels to trucks that can control their own speed, direction and braking. For their part, industry lobbyists have attempted to soften that language by introducing a “semi-autonomous” phrase to reinforce the fact that drivers still have a role to play. Maybe it’s time that we describe “autonomous” technology as what it is – the next, logical evolution in cruise control.

Stay with me here. The idea of a car controlling its own speed would have been absurd when the first “auto pilot” was offered in a 1958 Chrysler Imperial. Today’s next-generation cruise controls will select the most fuel-efficient gears based on GPS coordinates or data from pre-traveled routes. Using the readings from bumper-mounted radar and windshield-mounted camera, Bendix Wingman Fusion will even offer warnings and actually apply the brakes if following distances shrink too much. I recently experienced this first hand in a truck equipped with Volvo Active Driver Assist. (See page ….)

Once you introduce steering controls, the “autonomous” vehicle becomes a reality.

The advantages are not limited to avoiding collisions. A recent demonstration by Transport Canada reinforced how technology can digitally connect a tightly packed group of trucks to enhance aerodynamics and improve fuel economy. The North American Council of Freight Efficiency has suggested that a following distance of 40 to 50 feet can boost fuel economy by 4%. It’s hard to pass up savings like that.

But the role of platooning is no different than embracing B-trains, Long Combination Vehicles, or triples in the name of productivity. Even if trucks to the rear are run on some form of auto pilot, a driver will still be needed to take the wheel during other stages of the journey.

Suggesting that driving jobs are endangered is even a little insulting. It fails to recognize that duties involve more than gearing and steering. Whether the work involves equipment inspections, monitoring freight, or interacting with customers, there is plenty to do when not holding the steering wheel.

Trains still have conductors, even though they follow set tracks. Jets still have pilots, even when much of the flying time is on auto pilot. As for the future truck? Same thing.

If anything, the demand for well-trained drivers is on the rise. A recent update to the Understanding the Truck Driver Supply and Demand Gap study, completed by CPCS transportation consultants, concludes Canada will be short 34,000 drivers by 2024. The shortage could swell to 48,000 drivers based on different trends which affect labor productivity. Like many trades, the trucking industry is facing a demographic cliff, as it races to replace retiring drivers with the next generation of employees. And there will be plenty for them to do.

Given Morneau’s mandate to support he national economy, the federal government would be well advised to plan for more opportunities in trades like trucking. They promise the jobs of the future.

 

 

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