Aim of the road: will automation put an end to the American trucker?

Americas 2 million truckers have long been mythologised in popular culture. But self-driving trucks are set to lay waste to one of the countrys most beloved jobs and the fallout could be huge

Jeff Baxter’s sunflower-yellow Kenworth truck glistens as bright and almost as big as the sunlight. Four men clean the glint 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 116 ft-long gust turbine blade that he’s driving down to Texas, 900 miles away.

Baxter, 48, is one of the 1.8 million Americans, principally humen, who drive heavy trucks for a living, the single most common job in many US countries. 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 producers 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 human with bad teeth that he conceals 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 heartbeat of the trucking community. Interstate 80- the second longest in the country- runnings 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.

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“I’m scared to death of[ automation ]. I can’t operate a pocket calculator”Jeff Baxter


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, perhaps .”

Nor do the managers of the Iowa 80 assure their jobs changing any time soon.” The infrastructure only isn’t there ,” says Heather DeBaillie, marketing administrator of Iowa 80. Nor does she think that people are ready for autonomous trucks.” Suppose 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 eateries 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 histories of their own lives as a long-distance truck driver, says the working day of the truck driver as we know him are coming to an end. Trucking is a $700 bn 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.

Left to right: Iowa 80, known as the’ Disneyland of truck stops ‘; Jeff Baxter, 49, with his truck after having it washed; Douglas Berry, 55, with his truck and trailer. Composite: John Richard for the Guardian

” The only human beings left in the modern render chain are truck driver. 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 inducing $10 an hour, with a loading 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 furnish 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 person or persons 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 nations have already laid the groundwork for a future with fewer truckers. California, Florida, Michigan and Utah have passed laws permitting 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 nations 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 10,000 lb from new rules meant to velocity the development of autonomous cars. Many truckers came into the industry after being be replaced by automation in other industries, and the transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, has said she is “very concerned” about the impact of self-driving autoes on US jobs.

The Budweiser cans driven by self-driving truck.

But Ryan Petersen watches the Teamsters’ move as a velocity bump at best. Petersen, the founder of Flexport, a tech-savvy freight logistics company, says fully operational self-driving trucks will start replacing undertakings 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 breach, a driverless truck can drive for the entire day. This effectively doubles the output of the trucking network at a one-quarter of the cost. That’s an eight-times increased number of productivity, without taking into consideration other benefits gained by automation ,” he says.

Larger trucks making highway trips, like those occupying the 900 -truck parking places 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 fear drivers at Iowa 80 concerns their log books. Truck firms are shifting drivers over to computerized logs- and they dislike it. The new system adds another layer of oversight to an industry that is already heavily governed, and will restriction 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 alternative gone, under a system that is centrally controlled rather than filled in by him in the log volumes that occupy a long shelf in Iowa 80′ s giant trucker store.

The trucker holds a special place in American myth: sometimes a emblem 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 anthem that became a global reach and introduced the world to CB radio slang-” Let them truckers roll, 10 -4 !”

Left to right: Ray Rodriguez sets wheel-bolt cover-ups on his truck; promotional material for Smokey and the Bandit; the Iowa 80 Trucking Museum. Composite: John Richard/ The Guardian/ Universal Pictures

In the 1970 s, Hollywood’s he-men wanted to be truckers: Kris Kristofferson in Convoy, inspired by the song; Burt Reynolds CB-slanging his style through Smokey and the Bandit I and II. Thelma and Louise took their retaliation on a cat-calling trucker in 1991. Hollywood, presciently, had a cyborg drive a big rig in Terminator 2, and ran full robot with Optimus Prime in the Transformers franchise. At the turn of the 21 st century, the ever nostalgic hipsters’ love of trucker hats and T-shirts resurrected 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 chore 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 culture evolution of the free-range cowboy from the 19 th 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, pulling 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 human, Barry says those pushing for automation are failing to see the bigger image. The general public is simply not ready to see 80,000 lb 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 .”

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“They are going to look at driver operated vehicles the route people now look at a pregnant woman smoking”Finn Murphy


He says the involvement of the tech companies has stopped people from go 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 plenty 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 debate that people are better than machines will not hold for long- especially as more and more people get are applied to autonomous cars.

” The premise 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 freeway 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 demises that we don’t even think about it .”

Virtually all those demises are from driver error, he says.” What if we took that number down to 200? Here’s how it seems 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 style people now look at a pregnant woman smoking ,” he says.” It’ll be the absolute epitome of barbarism .”

It will also be a altered in the workplace of historical proportions.” I watch a lot of Star Trek ,” says Baxter, as he prepares to get back on the road.” The inventions of an innovative intellect can accomplish a lot of things. I simply don’t want to see automated trucks coming down the road in my lifetime .”

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CES 2016: six things to look forward to this year( including the smart bra)

The worlds largest consumer technology event is opening its doors in Las Vegas. Heres what to expect

When the Consumer Electronics Show first opened in 1967, it featured simply 14 vendors and was dominated by televisions. Sony launched their first VCR there three years later, and, in the 1980 s, Nintendo debuted its first games entertainment system on the prove floor.

This year, 3,200 vendors will take over Las Vegas for a week for the technology industrys pre-eminent trade demonstrate, offering the clearest window into a future in which everything, from your cleaning machine to your bra, has a computer chip. And there really is a vendor pitching a smart bra.

Through the massive foyers, entrepreneurs show off experimental contraptions of the future; firms have daisies with their latest mega-offerings, and small day vendors hawk trendy gifts. Last year, that would be selfie sticks; this year, hoverboards.



New autopilot features are demonstrated in a Tesla Model S. Photograph: Beck Diefenbach/ Reuters

Cars have remained largely unchanged for the last hundred years, but in the last few months, the race to build a self-driving auto and to perfect electric vehicle technology has truly begun. The competition that started in Silicon Valley with Google and Tesla has now galvanized Detroit behemoths like Ford, General Motor and Chrysler. Expect new technology to be unveiled around cars all week from both upstart companies and familiar names.

Virtual reality


A gamer plays a game with the virtual reality head-mounted display Playstation VR during Paris games week in October. Photograph: Chesnot/ Getty Images

The tech around VR, which even die-hard fans had largely given up on, has taken off since Facebook bought Oculus last year. This year, with proclamations from HTC, Sony and Oculus, the tech is find another leaping toward being something consumers can afford and actually use. As for those working employs: its for more than only porn, but porn might be first. Then gaming.

Health tech

Sitting at computers all day is killing us, we know that. And we hope that gadgets that prod us into activity can reverse that. So far, health trackers havent taken off, with retention rates for most step-counting wristbands falling dramatically after a few months. But as the tech around smartwatches and health-aware clothing get lighter, smarter and more fun, that might change. The key will be making health tracking fun( just as Slack has gamified work communication to great success ). Maybe the makers of the XBoxKinect can attain workouts fun with their new MyCloudTag app or Fossils Misfit health tracker can construct them sexy.



Many CES attendees are just there for the party. Photograph: Alamy

CES may be full of gadget nerds, but its still in Las Vegas and the parties are a huge part of why tech executives from middle managers to CEOs fly in from across the world. Many conference attendees dont even actually register for the conference, instead merely presenting up for the socials at nightclubs and private suites across the city. Well bringing dispatches from the late-night scene.


The government and tech companies are already tracking almost all online behavior. This year, theres new tech that induces it easier for parents and spouses to do the same. For a little more than $100, Canadian-firm Trackimo LLC will sell you a small GPS device that you can use to track the things and the people we love the most, anywhere in the world. We might suggest letting the people you love most know what youre up to first.



The DJI Inspire 1 quadcopter at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center before the start of CES. Photo: Robyn Beck/ AFP/ Getty Images

It wasnt so long ago that dronings were the exclusive province of American snoops. Now theyre a Christmas present, a would-be Amazon delivery driver and your personal videographer. There were four drone companies at last years CES. This year there are 33. Hexo +, Fleye and Mota everyone is pitching their own versions for those who want to watch more of themselves. The latest furor seems to involve small flying contraptions that automatically follow an owner and movie them. Suppose of it as a puppy with a GoPro.

Home automation

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Photograph: Eric Risberg/ AP

Facebooks Mark Zuckerberg on Sunday said his New Years resolution was to build a smart butler for his home that would recognize guests, got my eye on his child and cue up Green Day, one of his favorite bands. Alternatively, the hacker whiz could just go shopping on the showroom floor this week. Bulgaria-based Allterco is marketing a home controller called She, a not-so-subtle reference to the software from the 2013 movie Her. Fibar Group, a Polish firm marketing more or less the same product, declares that everything is connected with its home automation system that connects to thermostats and smoke detectors. And Samsung is reportedly unveiling a refrigerator with a giant screen.

Representing the Guardian the coming week is likely to be us, Nellie and Danny, two new recruits of the Guardian San Francisco bureau exploring all the nooks and crannies of 2016s biggest customer tech. Danny has volunteered to wear a smart bra for a day ( E d note: Danny says no, he did not ). See you on the other side.

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