Will the nation’s truckers be replaced by robots?
“It takes a special breed to be a truck drivin’ man – and a steady hand to pull the load behind.” – Merle Haggard.
In my day job as a warehouse worker, I get to chat with quite a few short-haul and long-haul truckers, so I was genuinely disturbed by the March 3 Wall Street Journal story “On The Road To Self-Driving Trucks.”
Freight-hauling firms are struggling to find drivers (in 2015, American Trucking Associations estimated that for-hire trucking companies had nearly 50,000 fewer drivers than they had positions for), and safety regulations governing working hours are squeezing profits, so engineers and CEOs have been brainstorming ways to design, perfect and popularize “autonomous vehicles.”
It’s no surprise that shipping magnates are interested in artificial intelligence; they’ve long been masters of artificial EMOTION. (“It really breaks my heart that I can’t pay the drivers more and give them less grueling schedules. I adore those guys for bringing me my Rolexes and caviar... caviar...caviar... Yikes! The crocodile tears have shorted out the circuit!”)
The move toward “owner-operators” has been much ballyhooed, but it puts an unsustainable debt on many starry-eyed drivers. You have to pay off the loan on the tractor-trailer rig, purchase a time share in picturesque Lower Slobbovia, buy the extended warranty on the ashtray...
Sure, nothing is certain except change. Progress and efficiency occupy a pedestal. In a world where most people claim to value “minding your own business,” some individuals decide that their business IS putting other people OUT of business.
We’re lectured that mankind is immeasurably better off without stokers shoveling coal for steam locomotives or rows of switchboard operators manually connecting calls; but surely there’s still room for those rugged individualists popularized by TV’s “B.J. and the Bear” (“Rollin’ down to Dallas/My wheels provide my palace...”), the silver screen’s “Smokey and the Bandit” (“East bound and down/Loaded up and truckin’...”) or the radio’s “Convoy” (“Come on and join our convoy/Ain’t nothin’ gonna get in our way...”).
True, advocates of robotic drivers can point to elimination of human error; but such gains may be illusory. (“Hi. I was programmed by a human who was either nursing a Monday hangover or rushing to start the weekend by midday on Friday.”)
The economic windfall for trucking conglomerates might be short-lived. One pundit has pointed out that since the robots replacing humans in factories and elsewhere aren’t paying income tax, Social Security, property tax or sales tax, the government will eventually have to reconfigure things to keep the economy from collapsing. (They will probably also do something for all the out-of-work truck stop waitresses toting “Will call you honey and darlin’ for food” signs.)
Taking the human element out of driving would desecrate the trucking songs of Red Sovine, such as the heart-warming “Teddy Bear.” (A disabled little boy loses his trucker father in an accident, shares his story on the CB radio and is befriended by a whole convoy of truckers.) In the future the pleas of Teddy Bear might be met with “Suck it up, little lump of flesh. Nobody shed any tears when my cousin the microwave got tossed in the Dumpster prematurely.”
It is my sincerest hope that some equitable balance can be struck between automation and flesh-and-blood drivers.
Quoting Red Sovine, “I’ll sign off now, before I start to cry. May God ride with you, 10-4 and goodbye.”
Danny Tyree welcomes email responses at firstname.lastname@example.org and visits to his Facebook fan page “Tyree’s Tyrades.”