Robot Truckers Are Here — They Just Happen to Be Human
Electronic tracking devices and other surveillance tech monitor just about everything human drivers do, automating what was once an independent job
Truckers drink coffee and complain about Mondays just like everybody else. Work can be a slog. But unlike what you’re probably used to in your office, many truck drivers now deal with rigorous and near-constant electronic surveillance — a camera pointed at them to closely monitor productivity, for example.
“You feel like you’re being watched all the time,” says John Grosvenor, founder of Truckers United for Freedom, a group that advocates for truckers’ rights. “Some people act out in inappropriate behaviors at times — they stick their finger in their nose or do something crass—as a form of rebellion. All in all, they hate it.”
Devices now track every aspect of a trucker’s job, including their current location, where they’re going, how fast they’re driving, and when they take a break and how long it lasts. Mostly for insurance purposes in the event of an accident, trucks often come equipped with cameras trained on both the driver and the road. They also have a variety of radar, lidar, and ultrasound sensors, as well as accelerometers and gyroscopes. The data feeds into an onboard computer, similar to self-driving vehicles. One firm has even developed a steering wheel with built-in heart monitors to monitor fatigue.
In the trucking business, timing is everything. Since companies need truckers to deliver specific things at specific times, truckers don’t have regular routes like other drivers, but instead might be hauling paper towels to New York one day and motoring a haul of bolts down to Pittsburgh the next. Any delay can foul up assembly lines and supply chains.
“That’s really the foundation of the day-to-day, routine monitoring of truck drivers since the mid-1990s,” says Steve Viscelli, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania and author of The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream. “[Trucking] has slowly evolved to look very much like the algorithmic management that everyone thinks is new about platforms like Uber.” These truck-monitoring technologies are paired with load-planning systems that try to optimize how a fleet of trucks gets allocated, he says, similar to how the distribution of a fleet of Uber cars is optimized in a particular city given the real-time data on customers and traffic.
In the past, truckers could edit their logs or the electronic system that preceded ELDs — say, if they forgot to mark that they went off-duty — but that’s not really possible with the new devices. Today, with ELDs feeding data to computers, trucking firms can more precisely manage a trucker’s activities 24 hours a day, while more strictly enforcing federal working requirements called “hours of service.” Truckers are allowed to drive up to 11 hours in a 14-hour window, and then they have 10 hours off.
But if a trucker isn’t back on the road within 10.5 hours, a dispatcher might start prodding them: “Why aren’t you rolling?”
The ELDs in trucks today are already vulnerable to hacking.
Of course, a lot of this technology exists for a good reason: Trucking can be dangerous, and much of the technology is focused on avoiding fatigue and keeping the roads safe.
But a study published earlier this year, based on millions of driver inspections and federally recorded crashes in 2017 and 2018, shows that while the ELD mandate did increase truckers’ compliance with the hours-of-service regulations, it didn’t reduce the number of accidents at all—and may have even increased them. Surveys of truckers indicate that the ELDs put pressure on them to not take their full breaks and drive when they need more rest.
“Each trucker’s job is to figure out how to work around a complex web of regulations, insurance requirements, and technological oversight, where they’re always paying attention to where they’re going to be able to park and how they’re going to get the freight and reset the clock,” says Anne Balay, author of the recent book Semi Queer: Inside the World of Gay, Trans, and Black Truck Drivers. “It’s an endless game of trying to get their job done.”
And though it may be many years before fully autonomous self-driving cars and trucks become common on the road — despite recent tests — there’s a sense among truckers of a looming labor crisis of epic proportions. “Surveillance technology that’s intrusive is first directed at populations who can’t resist it,” Balay says, and they’re the people who will be laid off first.
In the future, companies with self-driving trucks will surely have to worry about cybersecurity risks as well, but the ELDs in trucks today are already vulnerable to hacking, Grosvenor points out. Someone could force a truck carrying critical cargo off the road by making it seem like the allowable driving time is up, or they could even use the ELD to access the truck’s electronic subsystems, which could be more dangerous, such as by purposefully creating congestion in vehicle networks.
Despite the criticism from many truckers, the tracking technologies on trucks are here to stay. While some of the devices help truckers navigate, communicate, and avoid collisions, there’s not much they can do if they don’t like the surveillance. While the majority of truckers were unionized 40 years ago, those in unions account for less than 10% of U.S. truckers today. That reflects a trend in many industries, as unions have lost much of their clout, while bigger, merged companies demand that their freight be moved farther and faster.
“Unfortunately, drivers don’t have legal rights to privacy, but they ought to have some,” says Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute, a group that advocates for workers’ rights. Even though truckers don’t have much of a legal case or much union power, high turnover or poor morale can’t help trucking firms.
“What do you find out with a camera that you can’t find with something much less intrusive?” Maltby adds.