State's push for driverless technology leaves truckers, bus drivers fearing job security

ABC 6/FOX 28 is examining the impact to the state's commercial vehicle industry, as well as jobs that could hang in the balance. (WSYX/WTTE)

COLUMBUS, Ohio (WSYX/WTTE) -- The state of Ohio is at the forefront of driverless technology. The state has already spent millions of dollars on research. ABC 6/FOX 28 is examining the impact to the state's commercial vehicle industry, as well as jobs that could hang in the balance.

The city of Columbus is in the midst of a massive $50 million study examining the benefits of autonomous vehicles. As a part of another state project, a stretch of US Route 33 just outside of the city has been turned into a test track of sorts for driverless cars and trucks. But with these advancements come a few concerns.

ABC 6/FOX 28 spoke with Anthony Thomas, who said that he is pretty excited about getting into the trucking industry and so is his driving instructor.

"He makes it easy and he makes it fun actually," said Thomas.

"I love to see those guys that are where I was and come in and actually make it through this," said instructor Brandon Lewis.

After a bit more than a month of intense training, both class and road instruction Thomas is now a step closer to a full-time job in the commercial trucking industry.

"I'm going to be able to take care of my family a little better and have less stress with bills and things. As soon as I get my CDL, it's a go. So I'm looking forward to it," Thomas said

Richard Crockett, president of Capital Transportation Academy told FOX28 that the trucking industry is booming, especially in the state of Ohio.

"Our students have real-time access to all of the training materials that they would need. Because of this demand, what is happening is people are seeing there's opportunity in trucking," said Crockett.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are more than 70,000 heavy-truck drivers statewide. It's been noted that 60 percent of the nation's population lives within a day’s drive of Ohio. Trucking jobs could be literally life-changing for some people. The average salary for a trucker is in the $40,000 range, according to the latest numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The good paycheck and benefits allows truckers the opportunity to take care of their families.

"I think it's very beneficial, if it's something you want to do," said Thomas.

However, with a growing focus on driverless vehicles, there is a widening concern over the future. That includes those well-paying trucking jobs.

"I think there has been a lot of talk about it in the industry and obviously a lot of our drivers out there driving have had a lot of discussion about it too," said Thomas Balzer, head of the Ohio Trucking Association.

Balzer said there is a sense of nervousness about what the future holds.

"Obviously the threat of a completely autonomous fleet of vehicles is something that's always in the back of their head," said Balzer.

Right now, the state of Ohio is at the center of discussion when it comes to new technology surrounding autonomous vehicles, pumping millions of dollars into research. ABC 6/FOX 28 was on hand in January of 2018 as Governor John Kasich signed an executive order accelerating the state's investment into smart mobility. Governor Kasich is a major advocate of making Ohio a key testing ground for these vehicles. However, Kasich does acknowledge the fears of some.

"These are real people. This is not something that can brushed over," said Kasich.

The governor addressed the concerns regarding what could happen to drivers if autonomous rigs were to become mainstream. The governor stressed that training and education for current and future workers is of the utmost importance.

"I don't think anybody should panic, but what I've been concerned about is our education system beginning to respond to what might be coming," Kasich said.

The city of Columbus is also a major player in the research of driverless technology. Brandi Braun, the city's deputy innovation officer, is a part of the team coordinating the "Smart City Challenge." The US Department of Transportation program is providing $40 million in funding toward developing a transportation system incorporating self-driving and connected vehicles.

"Advancements in technology and automotive technologies are happening at a much more rapid pace. So we want to make sure we're prepared to really drive what the future looks like. We are on the forefront of testing new technologies, new mobility solutions to see how they can be used to improve the lives of our residents," said Braun.

However, the union representing drivers with the Central Ohio Transit Authority have been outspoken in their worry about the possibility of self-driving buses. Union president Andrew Jordan told said that not only could these vehicles pose a danger on the roads, but he thinks they could lead to job losses as well. His focus is on the more than 650 bus operators who could be impacted.

"We have always said that we are not against technology. We want to grow with the technology. We just don't want to be replaced. There seems to be no real plan on how this thing will roll out," said Jordan.

Braun on the other hand is pointing to the positive possibilities.

"While innovation and technology may disrupt some jobs, we believe it's going to create other jobs and we want to be able we have a work force that can take on this new paradigm and new opportunities that will be created because of that," Braun said.

OSU professor Levent Guvenc is working to bring these autonomous vehicles for conception to reality. He said the work at the university's automated-driving lab is nonstop.

"Basically, before we go on the road we want to check everything for reasons of safety. We don't have to go outside. We can actually test everything here. We have high accuracy GPS," said Guvenc.

Researchers are not only testing safety, but the feasibility of these vehicles being used on roads and highways each and every day.

Experts in the commercial vehicle industry like Balzer still caution that any change won't happen overnight. He doesn't see drivers becoming obsolete anytime soon.

"I think that's one thing everybody needs to keep in the back of their mind when they talk about the driverless vehicle is that, that is one aspect of their job. But we'll still need drivers to do the things they do on a day-to-day basis," said Balzer.

Thomas and Lewis are holding out hope this is just the start of a long career.

"One thing about it, trucking is not going away. It's going to be around for a long time," said Thomas.

"If they get into the trucking, that means robots don't have to replace us. That means we have humans, more people we have in this to stay in trucking," Lewis said.

Despite fears of what the future holds due to advances in technology, the trucking industry is currently seeing major growth in job opportunities. In fact, experts said the industry as a whole is actually in need of about 50,000 long-haul truckers nationwide. Governor Kasich also said it's important that workers go directly to their employers and ask about those training and education opportunities. Kasich believes that is the best way to be prepare for the change in technology when it comes.

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