Are driving skills about to be devalued?

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Updated Jun 5, 2015

All the news of autonomous driving this year has again shown how remarkably our industry can harness new technologies. The improved safety and fuel efficiency, if they live up to their promises, are indeed impressive.

Drivers have worried about losing jobs. However, the focus now is on Level 3 systems, requiring a driver behind the wheel to handle emergencies as well as maneuvers beyond staying in one lane. Furthermore, there are developments yet to come before we see a safe network of Level 3 vehicles: regulations, highway infrastructure and integration of autonomous technology in other vehicles. Add in the growing demand for drivers, and it appears there’s no need to worry about loss of driving jobs.

It’s sad to imagine that the long-haul driver could become more akin to Homer Simpson, whose job is to watch gauges at the power plant.It’s sad to imagine that the long-haul driver could become more akin to Homer Simpson, whose job is to watch gauges at the power plant.

Yet there’s a more subtle aspect of autonomous trucks that concerns drivers. That’s the humiliation that comes when a person’s critical job functions begin to get delegated to technology.

Part of the spin on the autonomous driving job environment is that it will reduce fatigue and provide free time to handle tasks such as booking loads or planning stops, via phone or email. But really, how much time on any given day is needed to handle communication? Or to “rest” when you aren’t allowed to sleep?

Our industry has spent years on the hard sell that safe driving is truly a skilled profession. Anyone having more than a passing familiarity with trucking knows that’s true.

Granted, the driver in a Level 3 truck needs solid skills for exiting the highway, parking and so on. Still, it’s sad to imagine a day when the long-haul driver becomes more akin to cartoon buffoon Homer Simpson, whose job is to watch gauges at the power plant, intervening only when problems arise. Level 3 regulations require that drivers stay awake, but once such trucks and four-wheelers become widespread, I’ll be surprised if we don’t hear countless tales of drivers nodding off from profound boredom.

A reader commenting online as “Hellbent” notes “the unwanted benefit. It will enable drivers to become even more distracted. That alone outweighs any safety benefit… Texting while driving will be much easier. Easy is not what we need.”

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The future for experienced drivers reminds me of a haunting English folk song, “The Old Miner.” It’s not necessarily about being pushed aside by technology, though it could be. The miner laments that the skills and passion for the job he’s shown over 40 years will somehow be lost when he’s gone.

Two-thirds of Overdrive’s readers have worked at least 25 years in trucking. Many of you dislike technology as limited as automatic transmissions, which make skills for shifting obsolete. So I imagine you’re not too excited about babysitting your dashboard, mile after endless mile, with no driving function to engage your mind, hands or feet.

Here’s an excerpt of what “The Old Miner” had to say about the pride he took in his work and his industry:

Oh who will load this crate on top?
And who will strain his bending back?
And who will work sweat and ache like hell,
Oh, dear God, when I go?
Oh, who will cry when the roof caves in,
When friends are lying all around?
And who will sing the miner’s hymn,
Oh dear God, when I go?
For forty years I’ve loved the mine.
For forty years I’ve worked down there.
Now who’ll replace this old miner when I’ve paid, God, my fare?

In this video, Rioghnach Connolly sings “The Old Miner” at a festival in Great Britain. An even better version, which you can sample on iTunes, was recorded by Silly Sisters.