'Maybe I should be scared': We asked a 47-year-old truck driver what he thinks about self-driving cars

Dan McCreary, a truck driverDan McCreary, a truck driverCourtesy of Dan McCreary

  • Daniel McCreary is a 47-year-old truck driver who lives in Centreville, Maryland.
  • He's been in the trucking business for decades, and he currently hauls chicken feed for short distances throughout his workday - 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.
  • Automation and sinking trucker pay threatens America's millions of truckers.
  • Business Insider asked McCreary what he thinks about the current state of trucking and where he sees his livelihood going in the coming decades.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Rachel Premack: So first of all, I guess, what do you think about self-driving trucks and what sort of impact do you think that they'll have on your career, if any?

Dan McCreary: I'm 47. I think that - I don't know. My career's probably not going to see a whole lot of effect. Some people drive until maybe they're in their 70s. We'll see something at the end of that, but figuring out driving on the road and then traffic is tough, but I think it's the easy part.

For instance, I deliver chicken feed and it's a custom mill. We got to load it. It takes 10 minutes to load, 15 minutes to get where we're going, making it a 15-minute delivery and come back and do that eight or nine times a shift.

I think that's going to be very difficult to automate. I don't know. I think it's sort of like a snowball. As they catch one problem and get it fixed, they're going to be able to do the next two easier.

Read more: Andrew Yang is promising to save truck drivers from their demise - but truckers can't even agree if he's right about their future

I know we've got to be ready for change and just understand that there could be a day when all of a sudden it affects you out of the blue. And I think it will be like that. I think there's a lot of people going to be working at it, working at it, working at it. And then all of a sudden, either a regulatory barrier's going to drop or a technological barrier will be crossed.

One truck driver admits that self-driving trucks have benefits over a human driver - but a person is still going to be needed in many cases

RP: Obviously there are safety concerns with self-driving trucks, and the labor implications would be challenging for truckers. But what are some of the good parts about self-driving trucks?

McCreary: The easy thing for self-driving vehicles, if anything can be considered easy, is that once a particular company's program learns something, all the vehicles know it as opposed to with trucking, every new driver has to be trained from scratch. So, you bring a new truck online and the program is uploaded just like our computer engine management program's already uploaded.

I think that we could do a lot of this stuff safely. Tesla was saying that their cars were already safer than human drivers and I don't think that's a terribly outrageous claim. Just because people probably put it on Autopilot when it's doing the easy part, but getting on the on-ramp and riding the miles until you get to the next city and then you'd take it off Autopilot when you get off.

Dan McCrearyDan McCreary, truck driverCourtesy of Dan McCreary

Are you familiar with trucking in New York? They do triples up there.

RP: No, I am not as familiar about that ... I've done some ride alongs in New York for last-mile deliveries, but not with any trucking company per se. I did a ride along with UPS and Coca Cola. I imagine other companies do it a bit differently.

McCreary: The last-mile stuff you did is probably the complex stuff that's going to be the most difficult to automate, but if you drive to thruway in New York, you'll notice as you get onto the thruway, there's a whole lot of trailers parked off to the side. There's always a lot and there's a whole bunch of trailers. Well, in New York, they allow you to run three trailers hitched up on the New York thruway system.

So, they bring trailers to a drop lot. Then, the drivers come hook up.

You get a whole bunch of single drivers bring trailers in and drop them and then one guy comes in and he drives all the long miles, drops it at the drop lot on the other hand, and then the other guys come in and, again, do the last mile.

truck platooningTruck platooning is one way driverless trucks could take over the freeways. Platooning (as shown with these three Volvo tractors, pulling six total trailers) help reduce the reaction time for braking and enabling the vehicles to follow closer, automatically matching each other's speed and braking. Volvo tested this technology in collaboration with FedEx.Justin Kase Conder/AP Images for Volvo Trucks

RP: So is platooning where you see self-driving trucks starting out?

McCreary: I could see something like that working initially and fairly soon because that's the least complex. You've got less interactions with traffic coming across, everything's going your direction and generally at about the speed you're going.

But there's so much complexity. You've got a hitch, you've got to check your equipment, you've got to pull the hood over. There's a lot of things that can be automated, checking the oil, but actually walking around, checking the brake thickness and stuff like that, that's going to add a lot of cost and I don't think it would be where the initial big returns would be. I think they're still going to need truckers for those things.

There's a lot of unknown. We've had airplanes that could literally - a pilot could take them to the end of the runway and leave the autopilot on the takeoff role to the complete flight to the landing and until it drives off the end of the runway. We've had that since I was in the military in 1991 when I joined. It was in its infancy. It was early GPS and stuff like that, but they still have a pilot there because the most complex situations that happen most infrequently require one for now.

'I think that it's possible that some jobs will be displaced and fairly quickly'

RP: So, when do you think automation will hit trucking?

McCreary: This stuff happens in such big lumps. The snowball rolls and rolls and rolls and all of a sudden it's huge and we turn from horse and buggies to cars in a matter of, what, 10 years or 15 years. There's some precedent as to how this stuff will work in that certain technologies have really upended industry over the years.

Look at the Industrial Revolution. Look at the change over to cars in the early 1900s. The aviation industry, from not being able to fly to flying commercially within, what, 15 or 20 years.

And the people who were most affected by that simply had to find a new career. Nobody was making horse whips or buggy wheels. I don't know.

Dan McCreary and his familyDan McCreary and his familyCourtesy of Dan McCreary



McCreary: Every month we hear a new thing. We've got our self-driving vehicle that went 100 miles and it did this or did that. I think we've crossed some initial barrier.

Read more: Autonomous trucks are now moving UPS loads - and it shows that driverless trucks may be just a few years away from disrupting the $800 billion trucking industry

I think there's a lot of stuff that remains to be solved before we see a truck that can take off from Walmart's distribution center, drive through the city streets, get on the highway, go where it's going and drop at the next distribution center. But, I think there will still be a lot of truck driving jobs for a long time. I think that it's possible that some jobs will be displaced and fairly quickly.

It's such a complex thing. The environment is so complex. If we were starting a new system with vehicles that can talk to each other and every vehicle on the road could communicate with each other, you'd have a much simpler setup because you could speed up and reduce speed to ensure that there's no traffic backups or you could actually cross intersections without stopping at traffic lights and stuff like that.

But we're horseshoeing this stuff into a system with millions and millions of cars and trucks in all states of repair and serviceability.

Dan McCreary truckingA daily scene from Dan McCreary's work.Courtesy of Dan McCreary

Self-driving trucks have been proposed as a solution to the truck driver shortage - but not all truckers agree there's even a shortage

RP: We've heard a lot about the truck-driver shortage. The American Trucking Association is estimating a shortage of 160,000 truck drivers by 2028, if the current trends continue. So, wouldn't self-driving trucks be good in case of that shortage?

McCreary: It seems like they're more willing to spend money on equipment than they are on people. So it could alleviate some of the perceived crunch.

I'm sort of excited for the technology. I'm sort of excited to see what happens. I think things will will change. It'll be interesting to see. Driver pay has really lagged behind. There are a lot of trucking companies screaming about a truck driving shortage.

Read more: The federal government just confirmed what America's 1.8 million truck drivers have been saying for years: The truck-driver shortage doesn't really exist

If you look in 1980s, driver pay in today's dollars would be well over 100,000 and it's just not a common number today. There's already a shortage of drivers, which is sort of self-inflicted maybe. If you look at the companies like UPS or some of the Coca-Cola distributors, some of them pay really well. If you look at the ones that pay really well, they really don't have trouble getting or keeping drivers.

Dan McCrearyDan McCreary and his daughter pilot a boat.Courtesy of Dan McCreary

Read more: Walmart's company truck drivers are among the best-treated in the industry - and they're getting a pay raise next month

I don't think it's that I'm scared of it. I just think that if you don't acknowledge the reality of change and where you are in the process of change, that you're likely to be one of the ones left behind.

The trucking industry has not, unless you've been a union driver, been wanting to put you in a really good place for retirement.

And then I've had a kid who had a back surgery and we lost another one.

I've spent my whole retirement, so I could be working till I'm 70 or 75 and this could very well affect me in a big way. It's something that I've got to read about. I've got to stay on top of and you got to be ready for it or you're sticking your head in the sand I guess is what I'm saying.

In this July 22, 2019, trucks hauling shipping containers wait to unload at the Port of Oakland in Oakland, Calif. On Wednesday, Sept. 4, the Federal Reserve releases its latest 'Beige Book' survey of economic conditions. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)In this July 22, 2019, trucks hauling shipping containers wait to unload at the Port of Oakland in Oakland, Calif. On Wednesday, Sept. 4, the Federal Reserve releases its latest 'Beige Book' survey of economic conditions. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)Associated Press

It's fascinating to me. Maybe I should be scared. We've been trucking for ... My mom, my wife, my grandmother, all of them are like, "If you guys are so doggone smart, you could be businessmen, you could do this, you could do that. And all you do is truck."

And there's some truth to that. It may be that at some point we have to do something else because some of our jobs are replaced. I don't know. I know a lot. I guess what I don't know is how much I don't know about what they've accomplished. And we're flying drones now in combat. There's a lot of stuff we really have automated.

It's a reality that you can't ignore, and it could be obviously the Elon Musks of the world are very optimistic and they do have some breakthroughs sometimes that are very quick, but I think it's like the musician who practices 30 years and all of a sudden they're like, "Oh, he's an overnight success. He came from nowhere."

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