Adventures in Automation #1

The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal paints a rosier picture for the fate of trucking in the US than has been fashionable as of late. The ‘umble author of this site tried over-the-road (OTR) trucking very briefly as a bridge job at one point, and the lifestyle tradeoffs were simply not worth the promise of an eventually decent paycheck which I had no intentions of hanging around for. However, because of the experience, I have a soft spot in my heart for those who make this career choice. Not only for what they endure, but because of the necessity of their trade. Without trucking our entire economy would grind to a halt. With the billions of miles logged by the industry, it makes sense that self-driving technology prophets would aim their sights hither with the aim of eliminating the human component. However, the problem is that truckers do more than simply drive:

From the Atlantic: Could Self-Driving Trucks Be Good for Truckers?

“The drivers are getting in and out of the truck. They are moving axles. They are checking brakes, checking air hoses. They are talking to people. Building a self-driving truck is not just about finding a way to have the truck drive in a straight line on a highway,” he says. “There is so much to be done there before you get anywhere near being able to do the things that truck drivers are doing in an industrial facility or even on surface streets.”

Commenter Dan Hanson at Marginal Revolution agrees:

One of the big failings of high-level analyses of future trends is that in general they either ignore or seriously underestimate the complexity of the job at a detailed level. Lots of jobs look simple or rote from a think tank or government office, but turn out to be quite complex when you dive into the details.

For example, truck drivers don’t just drive trucks. They also secure loads, including determining what to load first and last and how to tie it all down securely. They act as agents for the trunking company. They verify that what they are picking up is what is on the manifest. They are the early warning system for vehicle maintenance. They deal with the government and others at weighing stations. When sleeping in the cab, they act as security for the load. If the vehicle breaks down, they set up road flares and contact authorities. If the vehicle doesn’t handle correctly, the driver has to stop and analyze what’s wrong – blown tire, shifting load, whatever.

In addition, many truckers are sole proprietors who own their own trucks. This means they also do all the bookwork, preventative maintenance, taxes, etc. These people have local knowledge that is not easily transferable. They know the quirks of the routes, they have relationships with customers, they learn how best to navigate through certain areas, they understand how to optimize by splitting loads or arranging for return loads at their destination, etc. They also learn which customers pay promptly, which ones provide their loads in a way that’s easy to get on the truck, which ones generally have their paperwork in order, etc. Loading docks are not all equal. Some are very ad-hoc and require serious judgement to be able to manoever large trucks around them. Never underestimate the importance of local knowledge.

In short, truckers are unlikely to become the latest buggy whip makers.