Early testers of autonomy in over-the-road trucking, Otto was acquired by Uber in 2016 — though...

Early testers of autonomy in over-the-road trucking, Otto was acquired by Uber in 2016 — though Uber shuttered the program two years later.

Despite substantial recent progress by the industry, new research from MIT contends that fully automated driving systems with no safety driver onboard will take at least a decade to deploy over large areas.

This transition will happen first in regions with favorable weather and infrastructure; winter climates and rural areas will experience still longer transitions.

The brief, “Autonomous Vehicles, Mobility, and Employment Policy: The Roads Ahead,” examines the future of autonomous vehicles. The brief contends that expansion will likely be gradual and will happen region-by-region in specific categories of transportation, resulting in wide variations in availability across the country.

Automated vehicles should be conceived as one element in a mobility mix, and as potential feeders for public transit rather than replacements for it, but unintended consequences such as increased congestion remain risks.

The crucial role of public transit for connecting workers to workplaces will endure: the future of work depends in large part on how people get to work, the brief states.

Trucking Impact

While many believe that increased automation will bring greater impacts to trucking than to passenger carrying vehicles, the impact on truck-driving jobs is not expected to be widespread in the short term.

“Truck drivers do more than just drive, and so human presence within even highly automated trucks would remain valuable for other reasons such as loading, unloading, and maintenance,” MIT writes in synopsizing the brief.

MIT recommends strengthening career pathways for drivers, increasing labor standards and worker protections, advancing public safety, creating good jobs via human-led truck platooning, and promoting safe and electric trucks.

“Policymakers can act now to prepare for and minimize disruptions to the millions of jobs in ground transportation and related industries that may come in the future, while also fostering greater economic opportunity and mitigating environmental impacts by building safe and accessible mobility systems.” MIT writes.

AV operations will benefit from improvements to infrastructure, MIT contends. Investing in local and national infrastructure and forming public-private partnerships will greatly ease integration of automated systems into urban mobility systems.

“Human workers will remain essential to the operation of these systems for the foreseeable future, in roles that are both old and new,” says John Leonard, task force member and MIT Professor of Mechanical and Ocean Engineering and coauthor of the study. “Ensuring a place for human workers in the automated mobility systems of the future is a key challenge for technologists and policy makers as we seek to improve mobility and safety, and thereby opportunity, for all.”

The research is part of the MIT Task Force on the Work of the Future, coauthored by Leonard, David Mindell, cochair of the MIT Task Force, founder/CEO of Humatics, and Erik Stayton, an MIT doctoral candidate in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society. 

The brief is part of a series of subject-specific research projects by MIT faculty that will help frame national discussion and policies about work, technology, and how we can create greater shared prosperity in the country.