Heavy Truck Drivers – in Demand but for How Long?

by Ainoura Oussenbec

August 19, 2019

The Rogue Valley trucking industry has been dealing with long-haul driver shortages for decades. It is much easier to find drivers for local, light truck deliveries than for heavy and tractor-trailer trucks. These heavy trucks do long distance deliveries, and the drivers spend many days on the road, away from their families. Though the pay is much higher than for the light truck drivers, the work conditions make it challenging to attract enough qualified workers in the Rogue Valley and beyond.

Heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers operate a tractor-trailer combination or a truck with a capacity of at least 26,000 pounds Gross Vehicle Weight (GVW). They may also be required to unload trucks.

The wages for heavy and tractor-trailer drivers start at $16.26 per hour, and the average Rogue Valley wage is $22.90 per hour or $47,634 annually. By comparison, the average local wages for light truck or delivery service drivers were $35,085 annually.

There are 1,755 heavy truck drivers in the Rogue Valley. According to OED’s projections for 2017 to 2027, the number of heavy truck drivers is expected to increase by 11.9 percent, essentially the same as for all occupations combined. Rogue Community College in Grants Pass offers truck driver commercial training, which takes less than one year to complete.

Today, buzz and excitement surrounds the idea of self-driving vehicles, and many manufacturers are reportedly working on the new technology. The efforts are particularly concentrated in the technologies for self-driving trucks. The vision for long-haul self-driving trucks is that they are to take place on open roads and major highways. In and around populated areas, a human driver is supposed to take over and operate the truck manually.

Companies like Embark from San Francisco are already testing their trucks. Embark has tested between El Paso, Texas and Palm Springs, California. Other companies, such as TuSimple, based in China and California, are testing on-camera technology rather than the radar-based technology used in most automated trucks and cars at present. In this scenario, a Class A licensed driver is required in the vehicle at all times, as a “driver supervisor.” TuSimple trucks are being tested in Tuscon, Arizona, and have already driven 15,000 miles. A Swedish company, Einride, is already operating an electric truck on short stretches of rural roads, technically without a driver inside. However, this truck is supervised remotely by an operator who can take over the driving at any moment, so there is human oversight and control available at all times.

Many of the American companies involved in developing self-driving trucks envision having a driver in the cab. Too many things can go wrong on interstate roads out in the vast country. Truck drivers will have duties more like airplane pilots, overseeing all the technology and ready to take manual control when approaching populated areas.

Contrary to widespread belief, the American trucking industry does not expect to lose many trucking jobs due to emerging self-driving trucks. It may, in fact, be an opportunity to address the long-standing shortage of drivers. The advanced technology may actually help make the job more attractive, because the exhausting part of driving for many hours on end will no longer be an issue.

Even with all the looming concerns about safety and liability, according to Business Insider, “Tech leaders and financiers alike are confident that self-driving trucks will become the norm as early as the next decade.” In fact, many people believe we will see self-driving trucks before we see self-driving cars because the trucks will be operating on freeways only, not in busy cities.

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