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Are There Really Productivity Gains with Driverless Trucks? Or Just Fewer Jobs?

Hello!? Is anybody in there?

In Australia, truck drivers who take loads to and from remote mining areas are being replaced by high-tech driverless trucks, a trend that mixed with other technologies could spell the end of the trucking industry.

Advancing technology is great, but as Tim Worstall points out in his piece on Forbes.com this is a dangerous development for the Teamsters.

Worstall provides background:

Mining company Rio Tinto has turned to driverless trucks to operate mines in Western Australia.

The multinational digger has just confirmed it has let the trucks roam free at the Nammuldi iron ore mine, a hole in the ground located in more or less the middle of nowhere, as the nearest town, Tom Price, is 60km away. Nammuldi and Tom Price’s climates are unrelentingly unpleasant. Workers are hard to come by and the cost of living is high. Even those hardy folk that do work on site often do so on a ‘fly-in, fly-out’ basis that sees them spend a fortnight or so on site before retreating to a more pleasant locale.

Bots of any sort are therefore a very sensible idea.

One of the world’s largest mining truck manufacturers, Komatsu, twigged to this a while ago and created an ‘Autonomous Haulage System’ dubbed ‘Frontrunner’ that sees its flagship 930E dump truck ‘driven’ by GPS.

Until recently, the folks working at the mine had been enjoying the benefits of working in a boom industry. Now, as companies look to cut costs drivers are becoming the first targets.

This case involves trucks driving in a remote, traffic-free corner of the world, but we must assume eventual development of the technology to add capability in city traffic. After all, Google is currently working on a driverless car project which has 300,000 miles under its belt.

Worstall discusses the probable intersection of the two technologies:

Google’s system is only working with cars at present. But it does indeed work in busy traffic, that much has been shown. It doesn’t take a genius to see that these two systems are going to intersect at some point: that it will be feasible, profitable and possible to run trucks on the usual city streets without drivers. And that’s really very different indeed.

For the usual purpose of a car is to transport someone from place to place. Whether they’re actually driving or the robot is, the whole point is still to have the person in the car. Yet this absolutely isn’t true for a truck. The driver is simply a cost that has to be dealt with: what we’re trying to do is get that essential delivery of pizza base, Twinkies or soft drinks from place to place. We only have a human along because we need the driver.

Like so many industries before it, trucking could be in the early stages of seeing machines replace people. But this is an instance where the productivity gains seem slight — it’s not as if the driverless truck can safely whiz around at 200mph — and the human losses seem massive. It’s a labor cost-cutting effort, point blank, and arguably a form of outsourcing where “the future” is the recipient of the jobs…


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