Arkansas, like much of the nation, is enjoying a resurgent economy, but the state isn’t reaping the full benefits because there is a serious workforce problem. This is especially evident in the commercial trucking industry, which is central to many of Arkansas’ largest businesses, including Wal-Mart, J.B. Hunt Transport Services, and Tyson Foods. There is ample demand for truckers, but there are simply too few drivers. This trend appears poised to continue. As it does, the price of shipping will subsequently continue surging, and retail customers will feel the sharp pain of those increases.

Unless this matter is remedied, Arkansas’ businesses and consumers will face tough decisions. Fortunately, technology-driven solutions exist, including highly-automated vehicles(HAVs), but it will require the state and private enterprise working together to implement the answer.

Leading transport companies and businesses that rely on shipping have long bemoaned the paucity of Arkansas’ commercial truck drivers, but their complaints are growing louder as the situation worsens. While this is a major issue in Arkansas, this dilemma isn’t unique to the Natural State. It is a national problem.

The commercial trucking workforce is growing older and isn’t replenishing its ranks at the necessary rates. In fact, across the nation, over 400,000 truckers are expected retire over the next decade, but the industry will need 900,000 more in the next 10 years just to keep up with demand. It seems highly improbable that these needs will be met. Rather, data suggests that the trucker gap will grow. In 2016, there was a driver shortage of around 36,000, but last year, that number climbed to 51,000.

Efforts have been made to address the lack of truckers. Arkansas reduced the minimum age for intrastate commercial drivers from 21 to 18, and companies are offering higher wages to entice prospective employees. In fact, one Minnesota trucking company is paying drivers $80,000 a year. Despite these endeavors, efforts have fallen short. There simply aren’t enough people willing to take on the grueling work that includes long hours, driving an average of 101,000 miles annually, and for many, spending over 200 nights a year away from home.

It’s clear that the status quo cannot be maintained without much higher consumer prices and shipping disruptions. In the absence of a new, larger generation of commercial truck drivers, industries must look to innovative technologies to solve their needs.

HAVs are the emerging technology that can cure Arkansas’ malady. HAVs are particularly attractive for several reasons, including their safety benefits. 94 percent of vehicular accidents are due to human error, but HAVs can mitigate many of these hazards because they don’t drive drunk, fall asleep at the wheel, or text and drive.

Unlike other cutting-edge technologies, HAVs can be deployed immediately on the existing infrastructure, and highly-automated semi-trucks are already in use and traversing the roads. HAV pioneer Waymo has already deployed a fleet of such big rigs in Atlanta, GA. Local companies could use these similar vehicles to compensate for the lack of truckers.

Arkansas has already passed legislation permitting HAVs on the roads, but the state needs to be dedicated to a permissive regulatory environment. Further, private companies need to invest in HAVs, but they should also consider adopting Uber’s suggested reorientation of the shipping paradigm.

Uber’s roadmap includes both highly-automated semis and traditional truck drivers. However, normal roles would change slightly. Uber’s vision is to allow HAVs to efficiently handle more of the long-distance interstate hauling. These highly-automated big-rigs would pick up and deliver freight to distribution hubs across the country. Meanwhile, CDL holders would be responsible for trickier, local driving. They would transport goods from warehouses to transfer hubs or from the hubs to points of delivery. This would help reduce the number and duration of truckers’ long trips, which will make their jobs safer and less stressful. Perhaps best of all, research suggests that this wouldn’t be a job-killer. In fact, there would be a net gain of trucking jobs.

Despite valiant attempts, Arkansas and local businesses have yet to implement a solution to the trucking crisis, but they have at their disposal an obvious answer. Highly-automated big-rigs can help fill the workforce void, while contributing to safer roads, benefiting truckers, and preserving their current jobs. In the end, once the shortage is addressed by efficiently-run HAVs, shipping prices will decline, and the savings will be passed onto consumers. A safer, more affordable future is a win-win for Arkansans.

Image credit: 5m3photos