For more than a year, a major shortage of truck drivers has contributed to supply-chain issues that in turn have led to empty grocery shelves and rising prices for just about all goods. [SPONSORED]

Some of that shortage was caused by issues over vaccination requirements or illnesses during the pandemic. For a time, there were also major issues getting trucking licenses. NBC Bay Area reports that many older drivers also retired in the last year and haven’t been replaced fast enough by younger drivers who are willing to work odd hours and spend weeks away from home.

Though this study has widespread, national implications for long-haul truckers, there is a likelihood that self-driving trucks could also impact San Francisco's top moving companies as they weigh the option to transition to a more automated proccess in the future.

That problem has been building gradually for about a decade and worsened rapidly in the pandemic. Now, the American Trucking Association estimates that driver shortage is at an all-time high, hitting an 80,000-person deficit in 2021 that's likely to climb to 160,000 by 2030.

“ATA estimates that over the next decade, the industry will have to recruit nearly 1,000,000 new drivers into the industry to replace retiring drivers, drivers that leave voluntarily (e.g., lifestyle) or involuntarily (e.g., driving records or failed drug test), as well as additional drivers needed for industry growth,” the Association said.

A new study from the University of Michigan says self-driving trucks could be the solution to the trucker shortage, replacing as many as 500,000 long-haul trucking jobs.

The researchers, Aniruddh Mohan and Parth Vaishnav, say the shift to automated trucking could impact up to 94% of long-haul trucking hours once that technology is fit to operate in all weather conditions. If the use of self-driving cars is limited to the Southern sub-belt states, where most companies are testing automated trucks at the moment (Arizona, eastward to South Carolina), that number drops to 10%.

Of the 80,000-person shortage we’re currently experiencing, the ATA estimates 61,000 of those are long-haulers. Bloomberg Green points out those jobs only pay about $47,000 a year and have a 12-month turnover. “In our imagination, we see these as middle-class jobs, but that hasn’t been the case for a while now,” Vaishnav told Bloomberg.

Short-hauling takes more skill and pays better. The switch to automated long-hauls, the University of Michigan publication says, would save companies money. Self-driving systems are also more fuel-efficient.

The main problem with the future of automation, the researchers figure, wouldn’t be the long stretches on the highway, but rather getting to that point. Mohan and Vaishnav think there may be a combination robot-human workforce, where people run the more complex portion of the driving route through urban areas, but self-driving technology takes over for long-haul portion down major highways.

The study finds the use of automation could take over so completely, it would wind up not only accounting for the truck driver shortage, but pushing people out of jobs. However, short-haul jobs would remain, and the rest of the gap may be filled by new jobs created by the need for people to fill the urban driving portion even for an automated model, the researchers believe.

So far, there’s no timeline for when we could start seeing automated long-haulers on the road. Many states are still working on regulations, and companies would have to redesign their cargo loading system, not to mention investing in a new, automated fleet.  

Photo: Photo by GettyImage / MikeMareen