Could Automation Put An End To American Trucking?
America’s 2 million truckers have long been mythologised in popular culture
Jeff Baxter’s sunflower-yellow Kenworth truck shines as bright and almost as big as the sun. Four men clean the glistening cab in the hangar-like truck wash at Iowa 80, the world’s largest truck stop.
Baxter has made a pitstop at Iowa 80 before picking up a 116ft-long wind turbine blade that he’s driving down to Texas, 900 miles away.
Baxter, 48, is one of the 1.8 million Americans, mainly men, who drive heavy trucks for a living, the single most common job in many US states. Driving is one of the biggest occupations in the world. Another 1.7 million people drive taxis, buses and delivery vehicles in the US alone. But for how long? Having “disrupted” industries including manufacturing, music, journalism and retail, Silicon Valley has its eyes on trucking.
Google, Uber, Tesla and the major truck manufacturers are looking to a future in which people like Baxter will be replaced – or at the very least downgraded to co-pilots – by automated vehicles that will save billions but will cost millions of jobs. It will be one of the biggest changes to the jobs market since the invention of the automated loom – challenging the livelihoods of millions across the world.
“I’m scared to death of that,” says Baxter, an impish man with bad teeth that he hides behind his hand as he laughs. “I can’t operate a pocket calculator!”
But Baxter is in the minority. Iowa 80 is a great place to check the pulse of the trucking community. Interstate 80 – the second longest in the country – runs from downtown San Francisco to the edge of New York City. The truck stop, about 40 miles east of Iowa City, serves 5,000 customers each day, offering everything they could need from shops and restaurants to a cinema, chiropractor, dentist, barber and a chapel.
Every week, a major tech company seems to announce some new development in automated trucking. Next month, the Tesla founder, Elon Musk, will unveil an electric-powered semi that is likely to be semi-autonomous. But most of the truckers I spoke to were not concerned by the rise of the robots. “I don’t think a robot could do my job,” says Ray Rodriguez, 38, who has driven up a batch of cars from Tennessee. “Twenty years from now, maybe.”
Nor do the managers of the Iowa 80 see their jobs changing any time soon. “The infrastructure just isn’t there,” says Heather DeBaillie, marketing manager of Iowa 80. Nor does she think that people are ready for autonomous trucks. “Think about the airplane. They could automate an airplane now. So why don’t they have airplanes without pilots?” She also argues that the politics of laying off so many people will not pass muster in Washington.
The family-run Iowa 80 has been serving truckers for 53 years, and is so confident about its future that it is expanding to secure its claim to being the world’s biggest truck stop, adding more restaurants and shopping space to the “Disneyland of truckers”.
But not everyone is so confident that truck stops will survive the age of the algorithm. Finn Murphy, author of The Long Haul, the story of his life as a long-distance truck driver, says the days of the truck driver as we know him are coming to an end. Trucking is a $700bn industry, in which a third of costs go to compensating drivers, and, he says, if the tech firms can grab a slice of that, they will.
“The only human beings left in the modern supply chain are truck drivers. If you go to a modern warehouse now, say Amazon or Walmart, the trucks are unloaded by machines, the trucks are loaded by machines, they are put into the warehouse by machines. Then there is a guy, probably making $10 an hour, with a load of screens watching these machines. Then what you have is a truckers’ lounge with 20 or 30 guys standing around getting paid. And that drives the supply chain people nuts,” he says.
The goal, he believes, is to get rid of the drivers and “have ultimate efficiency”.
“I think this is imminent. Five years or so. This is a space race – the race to get the first driverless vehicle that is viable,” says Murphy. “My fellow drivers don’t appear to be particularly concerned about this. They think it’s way off into the future. All the people I have talked to on this book tour, nobody thinks this is imminent except for me. Me and Elon Musk, I guess.”
The future is coming. Arguably it is already here. Several states have already laid the groundwork for a future with fewer truckers. California, Florida, Michigan and Utah have passed laws allowing trucks to drive autonomously in “platoons”, where two or more big rigs drive together and synchronize their movements.
The stage has been set for a battle between the forces of labor and the tech titans. In July, the powerful Teamsters union successfully pushed Congress to slow legislation for states looking to broaden the use of autonomous vehicles. After arm-twisting by the union, the US House of Representatives energy and commerce committee exempted vehicles over 10,000lb from new rules meant to speed the development of autonomous cars. Many truckers came into the industry after being displaced by automation in other industries, and the transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, has said she is “very concerned” about the impact of self-driving cars on US jobs.
But Ryan Petersen sees the Teamsters’ move as a speed bump at best. Petersen, the founder of Flexport, a tech-savvy freight logistics company, says fully operational self-driving trucks will start replacing jobs within the next year, and will probably become commonplace within 10.
“Labor accounts for 75% of the cost of transporting shipments by truck, so adopters can begin to realize those savings. Beyond that, while truckers are prohibited from driving more than 11 hours per day without taking an eight-hour break, a driverless truck can drive for the entire day. This effectively doubles the output of the trucking network at a quarter of the cost. That’s an eight-times increase in productivity, without taking into account other benefits gained by automation,” he says.
Larger trucks making highway trips, like those occupying the 900-truck parking spots at Iowa 90, are the lowest-hanging fruit and will be automated first, Petersen says.
Last year, Otto, a self-driving truck company owned by Uber, successfully delivered 45,000 cans of Budweiser in a truck that drove the 130-odd miles from Fort Collins, Colorado, to Colorado Springs. A semi-automated platoon of trucks crossed Europe last year in an experiment coordinated by DAF, Daimler, Iveco, MAN, Scania and Volvo.
But the automation that seems to most concern drivers at Iowa 80 concerns their log books. Truck firms are shifting drivers over to computerized logs – and they hate it. The new system adds another layer of oversight to an industry that is already heavily regulated, and will limit where and when drivers can stop. A driver looking to add an extra 30 minutes to his ride in order to make it to the truck stop rather than rest up in a layby might find that option gone, under a system that is centrally controlled rather than filled in by him in the log books that occupy a long shelf in Iowa 80’s giant trucker store.
The trucker holds a special place in American mythology: sometimes a symbol of freedom and the open road, sometimes a threat. Truckers entered popular culture from all directions, from the existential horror of Spielberg’s Duel, to Convoy, the bizarre trucker protest song that became a global hit and introduced the world to CB radio slang – “Let them truckers roll, 10-4!”
In the 1970s, Hollywood’s he-men wanted to be truckers: Kris Kristofferson in Convoy, inspired by the song; Burt Reynolds CB-slanging his way through Smokey and the Bandit I and II. Thelma and Louise took their revenge on a cat-calling trucker in 1991. Hollywood, presciently, had a cyborg drive a big rig in Terminator 2, and went full robot with Optimus Prime in the Transformers franchise. At the turn of the 21st century, the ever nostalgic hipsters’ love of trucker hats and T-shirts revived America’s fetishization of the long-distance driver.
But it’s a nostalgia out of sync with a reality of declining wages, thanks in part to declining union powers, restricted freedoms, and a job under mortal threat from technology, says Murphy. Truckers made an average of $38,618 a year in 1980. If wages had just kept pace with inflation, that would be over $114,722 today – but last year the average wage was $41,340.
“The myth is that the long-haul truck driver is the cultural evolution of the free-range cowboy from the 19th century,” says Murphy. “In fact, trucking is one of the most regulated industries in the United States. Every move the trucker makes is tracked by a computer. We have logs we need to keep every time we stop, pull over, take a leak. The truck’s speed, braking, acceleration is all recorded. This is not a cowboy on the open range. This is more like 1984 than 1894.”
Douglas Barry has been driving trucks since 1990. A wiry firecracker of a man, Barry says those pushing for automation are failing to see the bigger picture. The general public is just not ready to see 80,000lb of 18-wheeler flying down the highway with no one at the wheel.
“That big old rig could blow sky-high, slam into a school. It needs a human being. There isn’t a machine that can equal a human being,” he says. “Artificial intelligence can be hacked … Who is ready for that? I wouldn’t want my family going down the road next to a truck that’s computer-operated.”
He says the involvement of the tech companies has stopped people from looking for more holistic solutions to transportation problems. The answer is better roads, more delivery points for trains, streamlining the supply system – not just looking for ways of cutting manpower.
“A lot of these people at Google and so forth are very intelligent. But in a lot of ways they are out of touch with reality,” Barry says.
Yet computers don’t get tired, don’t drink or take drugs, and don’t get distracted or get road rage. Murphy, the author, says the argument that people are better than machines will not hold for long – especially as more and more people get used to autonomous cars.
“The assumption is that we are living in some kind of driver utopia now and machines are going to destroy that,” he says. “The fact is that we have 41,000 highway deaths in America every year. If we piled those bodies up, that would be a public health crisis. But we are so used to the 41,000 deaths that we don’t even think about it.”
Virtually all those deaths are from driver error, he says. “What if we took that number down to 200? Here’s how it looks to me. Thirty years from now my grandchildren are going to say to me: ‘You people had pedals on machines that you slowed down and sped up with? You had a wheel to turn it? And everybody had their own? And you were killing 41,000 people a year? You people were savages!’
“They are going to look at driver-operated vehicles the way people now look at a pregnant woman smoking,” he says. “It’ll be the absolute epitome of barbarism.”
It will also be a change in the workplace of historic proportions. “I watch a lot of Star Trek,” says Baxter, as he prepares to get back on the road. “The inventions of an innovative mind can accomplish a lot of things. I just don’t want to see automated trucks coming down the road in my lifetime.”
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