Future Tense

Will Robotic Trucks Be “Sweatshops on Wheels”?

The future of self-driving trucks is being shaped by today’s policy debates on safety, minimum wage, and truckers’—not trucks’—autonomy.

Two backed-up lines of trucks on a highway
Trucks along the M20 motorway near Ashford, England, Sept. 24 Leon Neal/Getty Images

This article was excerpted and adapted from a piece that originally ran in Issues in Science and Technology.

When Americans talk about automation, they tend to ask first how many jobs are at risk—or more broadly, how many jobs will there be, who will do them, and where will they be located. These are the wrong questions. They suggest a policy discussion that starts at the end, focused on mitigating negative impacts. This approach perpetuates a flawed view of how technology develops—one that plagues contemporary debates about the future of work—because it presents technological progress as a process of scientists and engineers applying knowledge and technique to the material world to find a single best way to perform some task.
In short, this view of automation sees the consequences of technology for workers (job loss, lower wages, need for retraining, and the like) as largely inevitable. Nothing could be further from the truth: How a technology develops and the jobs that are destroyed or created are very much up to the public to decide.

Today, the question dominating the discussion of self-driving trucks is: How many truckers will lose their jobs? But in reality, it is public policies that will determine what kind of self-driving trucks take to the roads. The right question to ask is, what policies will maximize the benefits of self-driving trucks to workers, communities, and the environment while mitigating costs for them? Already, the key policy questions that will decide what kind of trucks will rule the road are being debated in legislatures and the courts—they just have not been explicitly linked to automation. It’s time they were. These questions are not simply about how technology can increase productivity and reduce shipping costs and time; they are about the lives and compensation of human truckers, road infrastructure, and trucking’s environmental impacts.

In order to imagine the possible futures of self-driving trucks, we first have to consider the history of how truckers’ work has been defined. Prior to deregulation in the 1980s, trucking companies, known as carriers, needed licenses, known as authorities, from the Interstate Commerce Commission to haul particular goods to and from particular locations. Carriers used terminal systems to combine freight based on common origins and destinations. After deregulation, carriers could move anything anywhere. Intense competition, which previous regulations had limited in the name of safety, service quality, and equity, rapidly transformed long-haul trucking and retail supply chains as rates plummeted. Walmart epitomizes this shift, as it created hub-and-spoke style networks of standardized stores clustered around warehouses or distribution centers rather than trucking terminals.

This new system enabled many businesses to completely avoid working with the Teamsters Union, which had heavily influenced truckers’ pay and working conditions, as well as the introduction of new technology across the trucking industry. After deregulation, drivers’ pay steadily declined, while their working hours, time on the road, and time spent waiting and sleeping in trucks increased. Ultimately, as the economist Michael Belzer described it, long-haul trucks became “sweatshops on wheels.”

The decline of truckers’ fortunes over the past 40 years is certainly about the decline of unions and labor power as a result of deregulation. But technology has allowed employers to speed up work and recruit, train, and manage a cheap and increasingly less-skilled workforce. Communications and monitoring technologies built around satellite-linked computers—commonly referred to as Qualcomm, after the company that built the first widely used system—were essential to the intensification and deskilling of trucking.

Although deregulation meant, in theory, that any trucking company could move anything anywhere, in practice, operating profitably was much more complicated. The trick was maximizing the use of trucks, but truckload freight is always “unbalanced” in some way, as the nearest load ready is almost never available exactly when and where the truck is. The strategy carriers increasingly adopted was to assign the closest load available to a truck quickly with less concern about where it was going. When the truck arrived at its destination, the driver would then be assigned a new load somewhere, and so on, until the driver needed to be routed back to where he or she started for “hometime.” For this strategy to be profitable, drivers had to be paid by the mile—and not paid for time spent waiting or time sleeping in their trucks overnight. Truckers were soon spending weeks, sometimes months, on the road without returning home. In other words, in order to compete, carriers shifted the inefficiencies onto drivers in the form of unpaid time and worse working conditions.

This shift was enabled and increased by technology, significantly reducing truckers’ pay and quality of life. Qualcomm systems that tracked vehicle speeds and locations, in combination with sophisticated load-planning software, increasingly allowed managers to monitor and control drivers’ work. Two-way texting allowed managers to direct drivers as they worked. Trucks equipped with automatic transmissions, which became popular among fleets over the past decade or so, have opened up the job to many workers without extensive experience. The result was that large tech-savvy firms could provide cheaper service with drivers who had just six months of experience than they could with veterans. Those firms now dominate the largest segments of the industry and are the most likely to adopt self-driving technology.

Deregulation and technology set off a series cascading changes in truckers’ work and compensation so that current rules are hotly contested and provide little certainty for the future. This story of how good jobs turned into bad ones should be a warning as the nation considers the potential of self-driving technology.

Over the past three years I’ve discussed the development of self-driving trucks with tech developers, trucking company owners, truck drivers, venture capitalists, computer scientists, engineers, labor advocates and union officials, and academic experts, among others.

One scenario involved trucks on autopilot, in which human drivers remain in self-driving trucks. The feasibility of the autopilot model rests on how the drivers are paid, and what sort of “work” regulators see them as doing. A straightforward interpretation of safety rules would suggest that all the time a driver spends in a self-driving truck should be logged as on-duty, which would entitle the driver to pay. But even if a driver is fully removed of all responsibility for operating the truck on the highway, should their time in the sleeper berth while the truck operates itself be considered “sleeping”? Can drivers get adequate rest while the truck is driving itself?

Although there are team drivers today who operate with one person driving while the other is off-duty, these teams are often family members or couples—it takes no small amount of trust to sleep in the back of a big rig as your driving partner logs long hours behind the wheel, especially at night.

No one yet knows whether it will be easier or harder to get adequate sleep with a machine driving, and answering this question will take years of research in real-world conditions. In addition, because much of the freight currently being hauled does not travel a full 10 hours, drivers might not get a full break as the rules currently require, potentially producing a nightmare scenario in which drivers are working random hours for weeks or months at a time. If government cannot quickly figure out how to manage the issues of trucker compensation, the nation could easily end up with a model of autonomous trucking where humans are simply poorly paid attendants to robots, working in cramped and lonely conditions, with little sleep, and few prospects.

The nation is at a transformative moment in moving goods. Not only do electric vehicles and automation offer the possibility of drastically reducing emissions and pollution from moving freight, diverse technologies are enabling a dramatically different twenty-first century freight system. E-commerce has triggered a shift in purchasing away from big box stores toward home delivery—and COVID-19 is speeding up this change. In such a pivotal moment, the nation needs to focus on how the benefits and costs of the trucking system are split up. Who will pay? When it comes to robot trucks, will we choose a low road or a high road?

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.