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How AI is disrupting the trucking sector
Jan 3, 2023

How AI is disrupting the trucking sector

Karen Levy, author of the book "Data Driven: Truckers, Technology, and the New Workplace Surveillance," says AI tech is becoming common in trucking, to the dismay of truckers

Trucking can be dangerous job – long, often tedious hours behind the wheel, the unpredictability of the weather and of course, other drivers.

And yet, trucking is an essential part of supply chain. 72% of the nation’s freight gets from point A to point B in a truck, according to the American Trucking Associations.

Most of those holiday gifts you might be enjoying right now got to you on a truck. So truck drivers are an essential part of our economy.

The companies that hire and manage those drivers have started bringing a lot more technology into big rigs, including artificial intelligence and sometimes automation.

Marketplace’s Kimberly Adams spoke with Karen Levy, author of “Data Driven: Truckers, Technology, and the New Workplace Surveillance” about how these tools are being used in the industry.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Karen Levy: Autonomous vehicle technology, while it’s certainly advanced quite a bit over the past few years, is nowhere close to the point where it’s actually able to replace human workers. Instead, what we’re seeing is that AI is being felt in trucking, by actually sort of not kicking truckers out of the cab, but sort of invading the cab along with the trucker, like a camera that’s trained on a driver’s face that uses AI to monitor his eyelids, the flutter of his eyelids, or how often his head is nodding, fatigue is a big problem in the trucking industry. And by using AI and camera systems, or biometrics or wearables to kind of monitor a trucker’s state, the thinking is that that’s a better way to, you know, potentially manage drivers. Of course, what we actually see is that a lot of those technologies end up driving out the very safest workers, and really makes the job, you know, much less tenable.

Kimberly Adams: Yeah, I was just wondering what the truckers think about all this?

Levy: Yeah, they’re not big fans. I mean, if you talk to truckers, a lot of truckers get into trucking, because they don’t want someone looking over their shoulder all the time. You know, they liked the autonomy, the human autonomy, that they were able to have, the freedom of being able to make decisions for themselves and to base those decisions on the knowledge that they have about themselves or about the road, the conditions that they’re facing. And a lot of new technologies that truckers are facing really, you know, are kind of an affront to that self knowledge or that road knowledge that truckers have built up over years or even decades.

Adams: Are current trucking companies already using this technology?

Levy: Yeah, a lot of these new technologies are really emerging very quickly in the trucking industry. The centrepiece of some of these technologies being what’s called the electronic logging device. So this is a device that’s been mandatory in the trucking industry for all trucking companies, since 2017. Now, the ELD, it’s a federally mandated device, and it doesn’t necessarily require all of these really invasive biometric technologies. But what has happened is that big companies now sort of, you know, can use that as a backbone for a bunch of other, you know, tracking and monitoring of drivers for their own kind of workplace management purposes. And so that has meant, you know, just a really stunning proliferation of monitoring all kinds of stuff about what truckers are doing, how much fuel they’re using, how hard they’re breaking, that are really proliferating very quickly in the industry because companies sort of had to buy this technological backbone anyway. So the extra added cost of kind of doing some of these analytics on their drivers, it’s easier for them to kind of justify doing those things.

Adams: So are there short term fixes that should be on the table to address some of these concerns that drivers actually have?

Levy: Yeah, so drivers, you know, for decades have noted that one of the biggest problems in the trucking industry is just under compensation. In 1980, truckers made about $110,000 a year in today’s dollars, and right now they make about $47,000 annually. And what I think should happen and what truckers argue should happen is kind of changing those root causes of overwork, right? Paying people for the labor that they’re actually doing, which would involve maybe changing the pay structure of trucking so that they’re not paid by the mile, but are paid actually for the number of hours that they work [and] other organisational issues in the industry to reduce the kind of fatigue that the technology is just being used to manage. The problems in trucking really are economic problems, they’re not technological problems. And so trying to address them via surveillance technology, I think, will always be an inherently limited solution, right? And even a counterproductive solution, because it doesn’t address kind of the root causes of fatigue or overwork, or, you know, some of the safety issues in the industry. And it also drives out some of the safest workers.

Adams: What is the rollout of all this technology in the trucking industry, mean for consumers?

Levy: I mean, one of the things that has been used to sort of justify some of these technologies is that, you know, consumers want safe highways. Like I certainly want safe highways, I think you want a safe highway, nobody wants to be, you know, next to a trucker who’s been on the road for too long. Unfortunately, what we know is that the electronic logging device, and some of the other technologies that are used in trucking, don’t have measurable impacts on safety. They actually don’t make the road safer. If anything, the evidence we have suggests the opposite, suggests that they actually make the roads less safe. Crash rates have gone up since these things became mandatory. The other thing that people sometimes talk about is, you know, would costs go up, like, for shipping? Or, you know, would we have to wait longer for our Amazon Prime deliveries or something? And the answer might be yes. I mean, it depends on a lot of questions about how those changes would be implemented. You know, I think it just involves kind of a hard conversation about how much we’re willing to pay to actually have safe roads and to have essential workers work with dignity and paid the wages that they deserve for that labor.

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