When it comes to automation, a University of Phoenix commercial sticks out in the mind of the Texas Truckers Association President and CEO John Esparza: a woman working on an assembly line surrounded by her coworkers. 

Over time, her coworkers dwindle in number as they lose their jobs. But she goes to school to update her skills as her industry changes. Eventually, she is the lone supervisor of a warehouse surrounded by floor-to-ceiling IT servers.

“I think that’s the fear,” John Esparza said. “I think that’s extreme. There’s still so much work to do and so much opportunity for automation.”

Fort Worth is moving into the fast lane of a future with autonomous trucking and drone delivery, Hillwood President Mike Berry said. 

Hillwood is working with the San Diego-based company TuSimple to bring self-driving trucking to the Alliance area. The 10,000-square-foot trucking facility is on Eagle Parkway near the Alliance Airport. 

TuSimple is an autonomous trucking company based in San Diego, California. It opened a facility in Alliance this year as part of the TuSimple Autonomous Freight Network. Courtesy: Hillwood

The trucks are level four autonomous, meaning they still have a supervisor to accompany them on their route. Autonomous trucking is more efficient as it speeds up shipping times. It also eliminates Hours of Service rules set by the U.S. Department of Transportation that limit how long a trucker can drive.

Nearby in Alliance, Hillwood is working with Bell APT-70 drones to bring autonomous aircraft shipping to the Mobility Innovation Zone. The first test flight in February sent an aircraft four miles from Alliance Airport to Pecan Square.

“If you’re able to deliver products with autonomous vehicles, meaning a computer, not a human, you don’t have to worry about exposure to COVID,” Berry said. “That’s just one reason. You’re more efficient, you’re more productive.”

As it moves toward its autonomy goals, Hillwood wants to ensure it invests in human capital, Berry said. Autonomous companies will require a human workforce to code and repair artificial intelligence and machine learning systems. 

“If we don’t train our workforce, these companies won’t be able to grow, and they’ll go somewhere else,” Berry said. “We’re focused on building this economy, not someone else’s. So it starts with education and building a pipeline for the long term.”

Corporate residents in the Alliance area. Courtesy Hillwood

With three tier-one research institutions nearby — the University of Texas at Arlington, the University of North Texas and the University of Texas at Dallas— and several industry giants in the area, Berry said, Alliance is perfectly situated to be a tech hub.

“There’s really no place in the country other than Alliance where you’ve got a master plan controlled environment of 27,000 acres with an airport, controlled airspace, 162 miles of roadway and a very robust power-fiber utility infrastructure,” Berry said.

To ensure the area also has a skilled workforce, Berry said, Hillwood works with colleges like Tarrant County College to provide accessible educational opportunities in logistics. 

“We need to create training programs for people to learn how to do the new jobs with new technology,” Berry said. “It’s a holistic approach in training and workforce development.”

Michael Esquivel, the logistics program director for Tarrant County College Logistics, said the program has an advisory committee with industry leaders to make sure the curriculum is up to date with new technology. The program has seen many students find employment in the Alliance area, he said. 

Esquivel estimates 85% of the program’s students are non-traditional, working adults. Many students sought further education to maintain their position or get promoted as their jobs technologically advance, he said.

The program also works with companies to train high schoolers and let them earn credits toward an associate’s degree.  

“The reason we started the logistics program was to close the skills gap in the workforce that reaches down to the (school districts) as well,” Esquivel said. “Trying to create that career pathway and provide education to the workforce.”

Even if freight workers are not looking for further education, local union leaders say autonomy is not a threat to their jobs. 

Ben Martinez, the Texas Postal Workers Union’s Fort Worth Area president, said the industry already lacks enough workers. It is experiencing attrition as employees retire, resign or die and are not replaced. 

Bell’s Demo APT 70 flies over houses on its test run in February. Bell, an owned subsidiary of Textron Inc., has its headquarters in Fort Worth. Courtesy: Hillwood

Most trucking companies are “mom-and-pop” companies that cannot afford to automate, Esparza said. The shortage of truckers is only getting worse, and autonomous trucking could provide some small relief, he said. In his 15 years leading the Texas Trucking Association, he said, the shortage has persisted.

“The demand for freight continues to skyrocket and the shortage ebbs and flows, but it never goes away,” Esparza said. “To drivers who feel threatened, there’s opportunity for growth within our industry even for managerial level. There are folks that just want to labor, too, and we need them now more than ever.”

Martinez and Esparza said they have not seen many in their industries seeking further education to keep up with technological advancement. Esquivel said his students seeking further education are not all related to industries automating, but rather a general trend of people looking to advance in changing tech careers. 

E-commerce will continue to grow and autonomy can make it more efficient, Esquivel said, meaning there will continue to be demand for workers. 

“The big question is: Will automation eliminate jobs or create jobs?” Esquivel said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean eliminating jobs. It’s just people being repurposed or repositioned to manage that technology.”

Brooke Colombo is a reporting fellow for the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by grants from the Amon G. Carter and Sid W. Richardson foundations. Contact her at brooke.colombo@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter.

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Brooke Colombo

I'm a general assignment reporter for the Fort Worth Report. I'm a recent graduate from the University of North Texas with a Bachelor of Arts in digital and print journalism.

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