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Long-defiant truckers are forced into conformity

Truck carrying lumber in the snow
Photo: Eric Chretien/Gamma-Rapho/Getty

For a century and longer, the individualist quality in U.S. workers has been falling away as Americans have moved to the city and labor become more about big companies and playing well in the sandbox. Now, some of the last loner purists are being forced to conform, too.

The transformation of some of the few surviving archetypal individualists — doctors, farmers, and now truck drivers — is powered in part by three of the most potent forces today: automation, monopoly capitalism and the new surveillance economy.

The big picture: Earlier this year, we profiled the disappearance of the independent U.S. farmer as Big Ag companies have come to control virtually the whole sequence of raising hogs, cattle and chickens.

  • Now, truckers — many of whom once proudly called themselves "asphalt cowboys" — are falling victim to a similar culture of strong management.
  • Technology monitors long-haul drivers for how fast they are moving, how much fuel they are using, how long they have been on the job, and more. Increasingly, cameras in the cab are watching them, too, checking for signs of drowsiness and their safety habits.
  • This change comes to one of the most common professions in the country — there are 3 million U.S. truck drivers, many drawn to the work by its traditional culture of independence.

"This is what they are known for — an outlaw culture mentality," said Karen Levy, a professor at Cornell. "Many of them are deliberately in this profession to make their own decisions. There is a lot of resistance to being told what to do. That is what is slipping away."

Technology's push into trucking has not come suddenly: For decades, trucking has been open to trying out new automating technologies ahead of other industries, said Steve Viscelli, a professor at UPenn. This has included satellite tracking of trucks, GPS mapping, and internet communications.

But looked at another way, this lack of technological inhibition has stripped the skills from many trucking jobs, driving down wages along with shipping costs, two enabling factors in today's fast product delivery:

  • This has utterly changed the job duties of dispatchers, whose core skill, based on experience and intuition, formerly was making complex judgement calls about how to get a shipment from one place to another on time.
  • Now, they are called "driver managers" because they mostly relay what algorithms tell them, said Michael Belzer, a professor at Wayne State University. "Technology is making the manager and dispatcher kind of unnecessary."
  • The same has happened to drivers: "You don't even need to read a map anymore to be a truck driver," said Viscelli. "This used to be among the most skilled jobs. Now drivers are asking how to operate the equipment. 'How do I turn this on?'"

The instinct for the next best thing has pushed trucking into some of the most controversial new technology out there — 24-hour monitoring.

  • As we have reported, Big Tech's drive for data has led to the monitoring of people throughout their day, and the creation of a new economy — surveillance capitalism.
  • Levy, the Cornell professor, said this trend now includes the trucking industry, the subject of her forthcoming book, "Data Driven: Truckers and the New Workplace Surveillance."
  • Data collection in trucking began as a law enforcement exercise — making sure that drivers were not working too long. "But now it takes on a second life, with use to insurance companies and marketers," she said.

The bottom line: A consequence of the working conditions has been one of the highest worker turnover rates of any profession on the planet. In some segments of long-haul trucking, 94% of the drivers quit or are fired each year, said Stephen Burks, a professor at the University of Minnesota.

  • The technology push has sped up shipping and made trucking safer. But it arguably has "not been good for workers," says Viscelli.

Go deeper: Digital surveillance in the hypermasculine workplace