How has tech impacted the attractiveness of trucking? We speak to ‘Data Driven’ author Karen Levy

How has tech impacted the attractiveness of trucking? We speak to ‘Data Driven’ author Karen Levy

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Gregor Gowans

Gregor Gowans

Journalist Trans.INFO


How has tech impacted the attractiveness of trucking? We speak to ‘Data Driven’ author Karen Levy

A relatively prevalent opinion among experienced lorry drivers nowadays is that the trucking profession in its current state doesn’t stack up to the “golden era” of the past. One of the reasons for this stems from the use of modern technology to track things like economical driving, routes, and driving records.

Is this simply nostalgic thinking? Or perhaps the widespread use of this tech has made the job less attractive, thereby partly facilitating the driver shortages that have been widely reported in major economies across the world?

To find the answers to these questions and more, we spoke to Karen Levy, Associate Professor for the Department of Information Science at Cornell University, and author of the Princeton University Press-published book ‘Data Driven’.

Karen’s book examines how digital surveillance is changing working life for US truck drivers, and raises crucial questions about the role of data collection in broader systems of social control.

In the process of writing the book, Karen visited industry trade shows, law offices and truck-stop bars across the US. While doing so, she discovered how some US-based lorry drivers are resisting intrusive tech that is also reconfiguring industry relationships.

Given Karen’s knowledge of how tech has influenced the trucking profession in the US, we reached out to the sociologist to further explore this serious topic.

Read on to find out:

  • how US legislation has created a path for cameras to be placed in cabs
  • how surveillance systems have caused some truckers to leave the industry
  • how technology can be used to improve a lorry driver’s day-to-day working experience

Thanks for taking the time to speak to us Karen. In what ways are tachographs mandated by law in the US being used for “additional surveillance” on the part of trucking companies?

In the United States, federal regulations require long-haul truckers to use “electronic logging devices” or ELDs, which are similar in some ways to tachographs, to keep track of their hours of service. This rule took effect in 2017. In my book, I examine how the ELD and related technologies have changed what the work of trucking looks like.

One of the notable effects has been that the ELD mandate acts as a scaffold for additional surveillance by trucking companies. Hours-of-service monitoring is often bundled into a fleet management system that enables much broader surveillance of workers — things like fuel efficiency monitoring, lane changes, hard brake incidents, speed, notifications when a driver goes out-of-route, and many other things.

They also increasingly include driver-facing camera systems that monitor a driver for signs of inattention or fatigue. One of the things I argue in the book is that there’s a deep compatibility between regulatory monitoring and the workplace monitoring that trucking companies now operate on their workers. Since companies already had to buy ELDs, they decide to also use the managerial functions of the systems for their own purposes.

So even though the federal ELD mandate doesn’t require (say) driver-facing cameras or fuel efficiency monitoring, it paves the way for those technologies to be much more commonly used in the industry.

To what extent have additional tracking devices not required by law (e.g. not tachographs) influenced the working conditions of truck drivers, and, as a result, their physical and mental health? I’m thinking here about the tech that’s being used to monitor economic driving and strict route planning compliance, as well as cameras monitoring their actions in the cabin.

One of the most notable changes has been the shift in autonomy experienced by professional drivers. It used to be the case that a trucker was treated like a ship captain: the trucker had full autonomy to make operational decisions, because he was the only person who had relevant knowledge about the conditions in and around the truck, as well as his own biophysical condition and fatigue level.

Monitoring technologies like the ones you mention often reduce the driver’s autonomy and place it instead in the driver’s manager or dispatcher. There is also a lot of empirical evidence demonstrating that workers under constant surveillance have higher stress and anxiety levels.

Ironically, one impact of these technologies, which are typically deployed in the name of safety, is that they can impact driver retention for the most experienced drivers. A lot of drivers who really know what they’re doing don’t want to deal with these kinds of surveillance systems, and look to exit the industry.

Have new technologies demeaned the profession of truck driver in that so many decisions – even live route planning based on real-time disruptions – can be made using AI programs?

I think there are ways that AI tools can help truckers. Things like live route planning or notifications about traffic or weather delays can be very useful for planning — we certainly use those tools all the time in our passenger cars.

I think the key is the degree to which these tools are used to support the autonomy of a trucker (say, by giving them visibility into road conditions that they wouldn’t have had previously) versus to reduce that autonomy by removing their capacity to make decisions. That ends up often coming down to the practices that individual companies decide to use.

Is there any possibility that some technology could be used to the benefit of truckers?

I definitely think there are prospects for using this technology in a pro-trucker way – say, by letting them know about road conditions or parking availability, or as you mentioned to structure operations in a way that lets truckers get home more often.

The issue, though, is that the ELD and other monitoring tools are most often being deployed to solve a symptom of a problem, rather than that problem’s root cause. In this case, the symptom is fatigue. Hours-of-service compliance and fatigue-monitoring cameras and other tools are all being relied on because truckers are overtired.

But why are they overtired? In the United States, there are huge structural problems in the trucking industry. Truckers are paid by the mile, so they’re incentivized to drive as much as possible. They aren’t paid at all for time that they’re stuck in traffic, or waiting to be loaded or unloaded at a terminal, or doing inspections, or anything like that. Detention time in the industry is a huge problem.

There isn’t enough truck parking for drivers to find a safe place to sleep for the night. Truckers are exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act, which provides workers with overtime pay and other protections. These are all economic and infrastructural problems, and you can’t solve them with technology.

Which of the findings from your work should any responsible trucking company take into account so as to ensure the wellbeing of their staff and reduce staff turnover?

I think the most critical thing for companies to take into account comes down to the dignity of the job. Truckers are poorly paid; they put their bodies at risk every day; they suffer from all kinds of health problems as a result of their work; they’re away from their families; they work incredibly hard.

They’re essential workers in every sense of the word, even though we often don’t compensate them enough in recognition of this. What has been a driving force that has gotten people to work and stay in the industry has been the freedom and autonomy the job has afforded.

If a company is going to use technology in the cab, they need to talk to drivers about whether it can be implemented in a way that preserves this decision-making capability and dignity. Too often we treat drivers like a cog in the machine, and that isn’t good for anyone.


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