The Truck Stops Here

Truckers got a win with the death of HB 2020, but as the hype around driverless trucks continues, environmental policy will be the least of their worries.

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Big-rig trucks barreling down the highway is about as Oregonian as evergreens and microbrews. It’s hard to imagine life in the state without them.

Eighty-eight percent of goods in Oregon are moved by truck, and 80% of communities in Oregon are only serviceable via truck. Which is why the large labor shortage in the trucking industry should be cause for alarm.

A 2018 study by the American Trucking Associations found the U.S. is short 50,000 truck drivers, a jump from 2016, when the shortage was 36,000. If trends continue, that shortage could climb to 174,000 by 2026.

The trucking industry in Oregon got a minor win as the cap-and-trade legislation HB 2020 suffered defeat in the Oregon Senate. The Oregon Trucking Association fought hard against the bill, claiming it could stomp on the throat of an ailing industry. While the bill appears dead (for now) the trucking industry has had little time to celebrate.

Earlier this year, Daimler Trucks North America announced the hiring hundreds of engineers to develop “Level 4” automated trucks at their Portland headquarters. For reference, a Level 4 automated vehicle means the truck would be able to pilot itself autonomously under certain conditions, one level below “Level 5” automation, which would require no human engagement whatsoever.

Oregon has 34,000 truck drivers on the road, making it the most common profession in the state. Many businesses along the highway depend on these people to spend money. Any technology that could reduce the number of truckers on the road, even marginally, could have a severe impact on both the drivers themselves, and roadside economies reliant on them.

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Daimler declined to comment on how these changes would affect the amount of truckers on the road. It is difficult to know how exactly these vehicles will reshape the economy. It’s possible these vehicles will always need operators of some kind. ATMs never put bank tellers out of business, after all.

Daimler did, however, focus on the environmental aspects of their new battery-powered commercial trucks. Daimler CEO Roger Nielsen, in an official statement announced  the creation of these vehicles would “use 100% renewable energy at the start of production and send zero waste to landfill.” Innocuous as the statement may sound, it’s a stark contrast against trucking organizations fighting tooth and nail to stop environmental legislation.

Oregon Trucking Association President Jana Jarvis isn’t concerned about driverless trucks putting truckers out of commission. “I don’t know what things are going to look like in 30 years, but right now in the industry what we are talking about it driver-assisted vehicles.”

For Jarvis, the biggest challenge facing the trucking industry isn’t automation; it’s the inability to reach young people out of high school.

“The average age of a truck driver is in the mid-fifties,” says Jarvis. “One of the barriers is that, to be an interstate driver, you need to be 21, so you have individuals in high school asking themselves, ‘hey, what do I want to do with my life, I might want to drive a truck, but I can’t do it until I’m 21.’ So we lose those folks.”

Jarvis has plans to change that, including legislative proposals allowing truckers out of high school to apprentice under more experienced drivers. Her organization continues to ramp up outreach to schools and workforce boards, with an added goal of attracting more diversity, and more women.

That means fighting the perception that truck driving is a vanishing industry, and that the career path doesn’t offer work-life balance.

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