AMHERST, Mass. — Last year, trucks moved 73%—11.5 billion tons—of the freight in the U.S., making trucks—and truckers—crucial to the U.S. economy. With automation in trucking projected to grow 22% over the next 10 years, a team of University of Massachusetts Amherst researchers has received a grant to explore how automation will affect the role of American long-haul truckers.
An interdisciplinary group of researchers led by Shannon Roberts, associate professor of mechanical and industrial engineering, has been awarded nearly $2 million over four years by the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Future of Work Program.
“We know that when automation is introduced into trucks it changes the role of a trucker,” says Roberts. “The question we are asking is: how do we examine and improve upon the future of work in long-haul trucking not by focusing on technology development, but rather by focusing on the trucker?”
Co-PI Laurel Smith-Doerr, sociology, appreciates the leadership of Shannon Roberts in developing this project’s unique contribution and notes: “Unlike other research projects on the future of work in long haul trucking that assume driverless automation, our interdisciplinary, NSF-funded project centers the driver in the process of imagining the future of work in trucking.”
Roberts says the role that technology plays and the needs of truckers have to be carefully balanced. “Let’s focus on taking the best of both worlds to make sure they work together seamlessly. In the end, that will reap the greatest benefit.”
Automation has many benefits, like fewer crashes and better efficiency, but that doesn’t mean the human should be removed from the equation entirely. “Technology is good at handling consistent situations with predictable, rational people,” Roberts explains. “But humans are not predictable, rational beings. Because of this, technology will not be able to react to everything that might happen on the road. It’s impossible. We will need a person in the truck.”
At the same time, automation can’t make workers feel expendable. “People take pride in what they do,” she says. “We don’t want to take everything out of that job such that people are unsatisfied and unhappy. Many people get into trucking as a means to move into the middle-class lifestyle with a high school diploma or a GED. It’s a means of betterment for a large chunk of the population.”
Roberts adds that there’s a significant equity factor to consider as well. She sees how automation can also help relieve the ongoing trucker shortage by making the field more accessible to people who are underrepresented in the field—veterans, women and minorities.
Ultimately, these questions converge on a topic she calls the human-truck symbiosis. “How do we take advantage of all the things that people are good at doing, and all the things that technology is good at doing to make sure we have a system that works really well?” Roberts asks.
With such a complex landscape, it takes an equally interdisciplinary team to evaluate it from all angles. Other PIs include Henry Renski, regional planning; and Shlomo Zilberstein, computer science; as well as Michael Knodler, civil engineering; and Robin Riessman, UMass Transportation Center, as senior personnel.
Some of the methods the team plans to use to collect the information include ride-alongs with truckers, participatory design with truckers and workforce development analysis. “We’re working with this workforce. That is, truckers,” Roberts adds. “One of the things that will make this project successful is our stakeholders.”
Shannon Roberts email@example.com
Julia Westbrook firstname.lastname@example.org 413-545-0149