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Andrew Yang is promising to save truck drivers from their demise — but truckers can’t even agree if he’s right about their future

Andrew Yang is promising to save truck drivers from their demise — but truckers can’t even agree if he’s right about their future

Andrew Yang wants to give every adult American $1,000 a month. And, he argues, there's no group that would need that boon more than America's 1.8 million truck drivers.

Full automation of trucking is expected to net $125 billion in savings from labor costs and fuel efficiencies. But that windfall won't go to truck drivers.

"There are different ways that that money is going to get channeled, but one thing is clear is that right now former truck drivers will see very little of that, because it's not like there will be severance packages," Yang told Business Insider. 87% of truckers are non-unionized, most are small mom-and-pop operators that own a few trucks that they've taken out massive loans to procure."

Even without the threat of automation, truckers are already struggling. A Business Insider analysis showed that median wages for truck drivers have decreased 21% on average since 1980. In some areas, they've declined as much as 50%.

Read more: Truck driver salaries have fallen by as much as 50% since the 1970s — and experts say a little-known law explains why

America's $800 billion trucking industry was deregulated in 1980. Since then, the cost of transportation sank, but truckers' pay, prestige, and working conditions have tumbled.

Shayanne Gal/Business Insider, "Driverless?: Autonomous Trucks and the Future of the American Trucker" by Steve Viscelli

Automated trucks are expected to drive similar cost savings as hundreds of thousands of jobs are eliminated. And even the truckers who keep their jobs after automation is implemented will see their working conditions and pay slump.

Centreville, Maryland-based Daniel McCreary, who is 47, says his job hauling chicken feed back and forth for nearly a dozen times a shift won't be at risk during his lifetime. Still, he's monitoring recent developments with some fear.

"I think it's sort of like a snowball — as they catch the problem and get it fixed, they're going to be able to do the next two easier," McCreary told Business Insider. "You gotta be ready for change and just understand that, you know, there could be a day when all of a sudden that affects you, you know, out of the blue."

But most truck drivers don't believe robots will put them out of work

Robots may replace as many as 800 million workers by 2030; they've already displaced key blue-collar jobs across the US.

Still, the majority of truck drivers don't agree with Yang that they're next. Dozens of them have told Business Insider over the past year that their jobs are too complicated to be automated.

"When a computer truck can haul 40 tons over The Rockies, on four inches of snowpack and a 60 mph crosswind in a blizzard, I'll be impressed," Bill Gillen, who has been a truck driver for 42 years, told Business Insider. "We may have self-driving trucks, but just like how jets are flown by computer, a pilot is still required to be at the controls."

Because of that, truckers like Michael Fisher aren't worried.

"My feeling about self-driving trucks are that it will never really work — too dangerous and not enough accountability," he told Business Insider. "I do not feel at all threatened by them."

Elsewhere in the world of logistics, executives aren't making plans for autonomous vehicles. Around 60% of warehouse directors, managers, and senior executives do not have plans for incorporating driverless vehicles into their facilities, according to the WERC 2019 DC Measures Study. That percentage didn't change from the 2018 survey of warehousing executives.

Read more: Silicon Valley believes driverless trucks and drones will quickly transform how we get things — but truckers and warehouse workers disagree

This pushback isn't throwing Yang off his path.

"I'm actually not that concerned with trying to convince truckers that automation's going to be a problem," he said. "I want to actually solve the problem. If a trucker is just happily doing his job, thinking that everything's going to be hunky dory, that's probably a good thing.

"It's not necessarily the case that we need to try and activate every trucker to become an expert in automation," he added. "My job is to win the White House and then solve the truckers' problem before it becomes a society-wide or industry-wide problem."

Entrepreneur Andrew Yang launched his presidential campaign in 2017. In that time, he's gone from unknown to No. 6 in the polls, besting big-name politicians and winning endorsements from folks like Elon Musk, largely thanks to his support of the universal basic income (UBI).

Hollis Johnson/Business Insider

One facet truckers and Yang alike highlighted is that there's a variety of trucking jobs — and some are far more susceptible to automation than others.

Last-mile deliveries — where packages are delivered to consumers at their homes — and complicated moves involving hazardous or expensive materials aren't likely to be automated in the coming decades. That fact gives some truckers comfort.

"As a flatbedder, I know my job wouldn't be replaced by a self-driving truck probably not in my lifetime," Denise, a 30-year-old truck driver who wanted to keep her last name private, told Business Insider. "I can't imagine a plausible way a machine would be able to secure cargo to the deck or tarp it down.

"I think it could be possible for a self-driving truck to take over the driving portion of my job and get me to the receiver, but I would have to be there to untarp or unstrap the load," she added.

Still, a growing group of truckers are starting to worry

A growing group of truckers, though, are starting to sound the alarms on self-driving truckers. They're still the minority of truck drivers, but their ranks are growing. A group of them protested in Jefferson City, Missouri in August, and a larger caravan will descend upon D.C. on Oct. 4.

"We are facing annihilation," trucker Bill Bogar, the protest organizer, told Transportation Nation at the protest. "Autonomous trucks are right on top of us right now.

"This is going to be the devastation of millions of jobs across the country," he added. "It's very disturbing."

Brian Ward, a 40-year-old truck driver based in Arkansas, told Business Insider that he sees full automation happening in 10 to 15 years. "Some truck drivers are scared but not enough," he said.

Andrew Yang did a ride along with a truck driver in Feb. 2019.

Andrew Yang for President 2020/YouTube

One reason truckers aren't as frightened as they might be is because the average driver is around 50 to 55 years old.

"The truckers worried about this will not live long enough to see it happen," Gillen said. "It is so far off in the future."

But recent headlines have forced some drivers to see that automation is coming within their lifetimes. Disproving expert forecasts that the technology and regulatory side were still half-baked, the sector has made several key advances in the past few months:

  • UPS announced in Aug. it was acquiring a minority stake in self-driving startup TuSimple, and is moving regular loads in Arizona with a safety driver and engineer. USPS also hauls mail with TuSimple trucks.
  • TuSimple said it would release its first fully autonomous truck in the market by 2023. TuSimple currently moves revenue-generating driverless loads in Arizona and Texas.
  • Amazon is using driverless Embark trucks to move freight.
  • In June, Starsky began operating truly driverless semi-trucks on the Florida turnpike.
  • Daimler Trucks and Torc Robotics said in Sept. that they would begin testing autonomous trucks in southwest Virginia.
  • Tesla CEO Elon Musk said the company's semi-autonomous big rig will be in production by late 2020.

But they're not all aware of Yang — or agree with him

Truck drivers are a key, though underserved, voter demographic. Pres. Donald Trump stumped to truckers, though the largely conservative group of workers is now distancing themselves from the president as his trade war disrupts their ability to make a living.

Read more: Truckers voted for Trump in droves. Now they say his trade war is 'killing' their ability to make a living.

That makes Yang's move to hop on ride alongs with truckers and monitor industry developments closely a prudent one. And, judging by the spate of trucking YouTubers who have talked about Yang on their channels, it's paying off. There's even a driver who has raised nearly $10,000 to put a "Yang 2020" wrap on his trailer.

Some truckers are starting to worry about their future. Could Yang be the answer?

Hollis Johnson/Business Insider

As for McCreary, the truck driver who says his chicken feed job should be safe from automation, he's not a fan of Yang. The self-professed Ronald Reagan fan said Yang's UBI platform favors billionaires— not the working class.

"The wages haven't kept up for the increase in productivity or the increase in income that these companies are seeing," McCreary said. "If you're hiring less people but you're paying them more money, it's going to cost you a little bit more — you know, you may have to get a 60 foot yacht instead of a hundred-foot yacht or something like that, but your guys are going to be able to actually afford to live. I think it's an easy solution that's less of a solution than it seems to be and more of a way to shift big pieces of the pie towards the companies."

Still, as the 47-year-old monitors the world of self-driving truck advances, he's getting more and more uncomfortable — and unsure what the solution for his fellow truckers is. "It's fascinating to me," he said. "But maybe I should be scared."

Do you work in the trucking industry? Do you have an opinion on autonomous trucking or the 2020 election? Contact the reporter at [email protected]