Tesla Truck May Threaten Careers

Tesla Truck May Threaten Careers

In the midst of all the political turmoil around us, inventor Elon Musk has introduced a battery-powered semi truck that he says can drive itself.

The Tesla Semi received a small amount of attention when it was introduced last week. Musk says it should be ready for sale in 2019, that it will cost more than today’s diesel-powered semis, but that it will be so much cheaper to operate than today’s trucks that it will pay for itself in two years.

That all sounds good, but here’s the kicker: Musk says that one way to really save money is to run a convoy of electric trucks with a human driver in the first cab and all the others just following electronically.

While we might consider that to be some improbably futuristic thinking, other news reports last week suggested the mighty FoxConn corporation, which will get $3 billion in your tax dollars to build a plant near Milwaukee, wants the interstate highways leading to its new plant to have dedicated lanes for driverless vehicles.

The driverless truck is an idea that seems to be descending on us far more rapidly than most of us ever anticipated.

And that’s going to have some social implications we ought to start thinking about now.

It’s another blow to the non-college educated blue collar types.

Truck driving is one of those iconic professions that undergird the working class. It is celebrated in country music. It is sustained by one of the few really powerful labor unions left in existence.

To be sure, driving truck is not as romantic an idea as it once was. When I was growing up, drivers were called “Knights of the Road.” The whole idea of driving was one of independence and opportunity.

That’s not so true anymore. Satellite communications and electronic tracking strip the drivers of much of that vaunted independence. Corporations have found ways to keep salaries relatively low. Driving school tuition is not cheap.

Still, if you don’t want to go to college (many drivers are college-educated, but that’s not a pre-requirement) and if you don’t want to be confined to an office and if you hate computers, driving truck is still a job to which you can aspire.

And it is now another job threatened by technology.

Not every semi will end up being driven by a computer. But, if driving truck turns out to be a new equivalent of mining coal – a job that still exists but not for many – then another part of the American dream disappears.

One reason that Donald Trump is president is that too many Americans see their personal dreams disappearing.

The driverless trucks are coming whether we like them or not. But we should start thinking about what they will mean to our economy and to our social fabric.